Garden Variety: Try growing mushrooms at home this winter
Home mushroom growing kits can be a fun way to get fresh mushrooms, teach children about fungi and satisfy the desire to garden in the cold winter months.
Mushroom kits are fairly easy to find right now as a novelty gift item, or they are widely available online. When deciding what types of mushrooms to grow, consider availability of the kits, how easily the mushroom type is cultured, how you plan to cook with them and the investment required.
Besides kits, many species of mushrooms can be cultured on logs or on another growing environment such as sterilized sawdust or straw. For beginners though, kits are the easiest way to go and usually produce enough mushrooms to justify their costs. They come with simple instructions and typically only require adding water and providing the right light and temperature.
Oyster mushrooms are the most widely available and popular mushrooms for in-home production. They are reliable producers in home environments and are tender, mild-flavored mushrooms suitable in many cuisines. They are difficult to find in stores because of their short shelf-life. Part of the beauty of growing them at home is being able to prepare the mushrooms immediately or within a few days of harvest. Expect mushrooms within a few weeks of setting up your kit. Most kits will produce 2 flushes of mushrooms.
Oyster mushrooms are named for the shape of their cap which resemble an oyster. Stems are thick but tender, with a texture similar to the caps so the entire thing can be prepared and eaten. They come in a range of naturally-occurring colors including white, yellow, pearl, pink, gray and black. There are mildly different flavors and textures associated with the colors.
White button, cremini and portabella mushrooms are the same fungi species and can also be found in kits. They may be labeled as any of the three. White button mushrooms are simply immature portabellas, like green onions or “new” potatoes. Creminis (also called baby bellas) are the stage between the immature white button mushroom and the mature, drier, heartier portabella.
Kits for portabellas and its immature stages are a little pricier than oyster mushroom kits and are a little more finicky about production. Since these mushrooms are readily available in supermarkets throughout the year, this kit might be more about the experience of growing your own.
Enoki mushrooms are only a little harder to grow than oyster mushrooms and are also moderately priced. Enokis have long, thin, tender stems with tiny caps on top. They are also eaten whole and are popular in Asian cooking, soups and stir-fries.
Lion’s mane mushrooms are about the same as enokis in reliability of production but are less favored in cooking. Kits are moderately priced. The mushrooms are a bit of a novelty, though, and are rarely seen in stores so they can be a unique growing experience. They are white in color and grow with clusters of soft “teeth” that make them look like mushroomy pom-poms. Clusters can get up to the size of a baseball. When cooking is done correctly, they are reported to have a flavor resembling shrimp or lobster.
Shiitakes and morels are two additional types of mushrooms for which kits are often sold. These can also be a fun experiment in growing mushrooms, although they will not produce until later in the year.
For shiitakes, look for inoculated logs. You can get these locally at the Holiday Farmers’ Market today, or they are also available online. Follow instructions closely to keep moisture in the log. It may take six months or more to produce mushrooms.
For morels, kits will help in the creation of an outdoor space where morels will grow when weather conditions are right. This is an elusive species that only produces for a few weeks in the spring in some regions. They do grow in the Lawrence area and are more plentiful some years than others, depending on specific weather conditions. The difficult part of creating a personal morel garden is that production is still highly dependent on the weather and environment. However, foraging for them is equally difficult and the mushrooms are quite pricey given their rarity. Kits can be a fun way to have a personal crop of morels, and many kit producers guarantee that at least a few will grow.
— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.