How to Grow Shiitake Mushrooms

Featured Article, How-To, Ingredient
on June 29, 2011
Shiitake Mushrooms

If you’re trying to grow your own food, there are really only three things you need: soil, sun, and skill. Unfortunately, we have sand, shade, and exactly the kind of expertise you’d expect from people who left the Big City about 15 minutes ago. We’ve tried to solve the first problem with compost, the second with chainsaws, and the third with a combination of books and practice, but we’re still behind the curve.

There’s one crop, though, that’s perfect for us.  Shiitake mushrooms.  

Mushrooms, bless their little gilled underbellies, don’t need soil, sun, or skill. They don’t grow like other plants because they aren’t plants. And they’re not animals, either. They have their very own kingdom, which they share with molds and mildew.

If you have a damp basement or a shaded lawn, chances are good you’re already growing some mushrooms, whether you want to or not. But you can also grow them on purpose. And not just any mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms—arguably the tastiest kind going, and upwards of $10 a pound at the market.

In place of soil and sun, shiitakes need wood and shade. If you have those two things, you’re ready to go. The process is simple: You buy spore, which comes on inch-long wooden dowels; you inoculate logs by drilling holes and hammering in the dowels; you seal them with wax. That’s it.

Order your spore online from a provider like Fungi Perfecti or Field and Forest, and let it rest in a cool, dark place for at least a week before you use it, so it can recover from the trauma of its trip.

The grow log should be oak, and freshly cut. If you have a tree and a chainsaw, do your felling about three weeks before you plan to inoculate your logs with spore, to give the anti-fungal compounds in the live wood time to die off. If you don’t have a tree and a chainsaw, check with local firewood vendors; they can help you.

Once you have your logs and your spore, you need a drill with a 5/16ths bit, and some kind of wax. Drill holes all over the log, about five or six inches apart, and put one dowel in each hole (a rubber mallet is a good tool for this).  

The last step is sealing each dowel with wax, so birds and other organisms can’t get at it. My local supermarket had tea lights on sale, so I bought a bag, took them out of their holders, removed the wicks, and melted them over a low flame. Then I brushed a little wax over each hole, and I was done.  

Put the finished logs in a shady spot – about 60 percent shade seems to work well—and wait.

And that’s the bad news. You’ll have to wait at least six months, and more likely a year, before you see any shiitakes. The good news is that your logs should keep giving shiitakes for a long time. The mushrooms will continue to fruit as long as there’s wood to feed them, so the bigger the log, the longer it will last.

Just think.  Five years from now, even if you still have no soil, no sun, and no skill, you can have a home-grown mushroom risotto.