Organic Gardening with Sue Robishaw
Winecaps, Wood Bluets, Morels and Chaga
Four decades of Growing
in Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Now and then I'd thought of growing my own mushrooms but always passed it by as too fussy. But comments from a few friends who grew them encouraged me to give it a try. An issue with a favorite apple tree brought it to the forefront so in 2021 I prepared two beds, bought spawn, and dived into the mushroom growing world.
July 24, 2021 -- Mushrooms! Winecaps Arrive
I read and researched and last fall I prepared two beds, then this spring bought spawn from nearby (Wisconsin) Field and Forest.
The first bed is around one of our old Beacon apple trees. This was the main reason for the project. Last summer I found out the nice wild mushrooms growing around the tree that I had admired were a type one doesn't want in one's orchard -- Armillaria mellea - Honey Fungus, root rot fungus. The mycellium feeds on dead wood, then on into live wood, eventually killing the tree. Oh my...
I did some research and came up with a plan. (You can click on 'Orchard' - 'Apple' - 'Beacon' for more info if you are interested). One part of the plan was to get a "friendly" but aggressive mycellium going around the tree to, in essence, "crowd out" the Honey mushroom mycellium. To do that I chose the reportedly easy to grow Winecap mushroom.
Others reported that Winecap was also a generous producer of fruit but having not grown mushrooms before and really wanting it to "take over" that area I put plenty of spawn in the bed the end of May. I didn't expect to see mushrooms until fall but the instruction sheet did say to keep an eye out for the fruit when there's a temperature drop and rain, which is common here in the summer. It was unusually dry earlier so I watered a lot. But we finally got 2 inches last week (and another inch last night with more coming!) (I guess we're done with the drought). But it was a surprise to suddenly see some small and medium mushrooms yesterday. A couple were older but that was good because I wanted to do a spore print just to make sure they were indeed Winecaps since we have wild mushrooms around. Thankfully Winecaps are fairly easy to ID and what was growing looked very true to the pictures. And the spores were indeed dark purplish-black as they should be. So we had our first home-grown Winecap mushrooms in dinner last night. Most reports I read suggested they are best at button stage not later and that's what I harvested - all three of them. The flavor was there though mostly they were lost in the dish. I hoped we'd get a few more.
Well, as I mentioned, we had rain last night/morning. When I walked by the tree today I was amazed to see the results. There were mushrooms all over the bed! Folks had mentioned that once they get going one can get tired of picking them but I hadn't taken that seriously. I think I see what they mean now if this keeps up. Clothespin in the photos for size reference. These all came up just overnight.
And there were more. So I decided to dry some. I think I'll be doing a lot of that since they go beyond button eating stage fast.
So plenty of mushrooms for homestead meals!
Wood Bluets -- The second bed was made on the north side of an east-west row of raspberries at the south side of the garden. Wood Blewits in photos look attractive (I hadn't seen one in real life) -- a bluish-lilac-peachy color when younger, less color when older, meaty and pleasant flavored. I'm not much of a mushroom connoisseur but I thought it would be nice to have a mushroom that fruits in the colder fall to follow the summer fruiting WineCap. Plus I liked the name -- Blewit. In the fall I added more mulch than usual, using a mix of leaves, old and new hay, grass clippings, small bark/wood trash from wood splitting. It seemed like a lot but come spring when I put in the Wood Bluet spawn it didn't seem like so much. I added stuff now and then through the summer. I also did a lot of watering with the very dry season. They are reported to be good at both the button and open stages, and are preferred by many over the Winecaps. I kept an eye out for mushrooms all summer but didn't see any. There didn't seem to be mycellium in the mulch either. They did say it fruits in the fall but it can take till next year to have mushrooms grow. I wondered if it had been too dry. But then...
September 28 -- Since rain had been a bit sparse the last few weeks I decided I better water the mushroom patches. So I watered the mixed material of the mulch bed by the raspberries, enjoying a really beautiful warm feels-like-August day.Then to my surprise I realized I'd just dumped water on a mushroom! It was past prime, flat starting to turn up at the edges, rather non-descript beige color, but a "new" mushroom none-the-less. Could it be? Then farther on down the bed was another of about the same age. I picked the better looking of the two and brought it in to compare to photos and descriptions. Though way past eating stage it certainly sounded correct. I wouldn't eat one yet anyway until I did a spore print to confirm. These mushrooms have a light colored spore so I cut off the stem and set the cap gills down on a black card figuring to leave it overnight.
But an hour later I came by and there it was, an attractive white/light colored spore print. Apparently the mushroom was at peak time to drop its spores. I find spore prints (all two of them that I've done) to be fascinating. It would be fun to compare the many wild mushrooms though I think I'd rather leave the fruit where it is to be admired.
From then on I kept a look-out for fresh new Blewits to admire and to eat but didn't find any. Then later when I was pruning the old canes out of the raspberry patch I came across two small Bluets amongst the canes. I left them with the hope they would mature and drop more spores. There is hope afterall for the patch.
20, 2020 - Chaga Tea
But in my reading of the ways of edible mushroom growing I came across a piece on harvesting and processing Chaga for tea. That interested me so I went over to our birch tree to see if I could get a piece of this hard black mushroom. Thankfully it's within easy reach. Sure enough, a good handful sized piece broke off without much trouble. Then I searched online for some instructions on how to prepare it. My next big discovery was that Chaga is definitively "in". There were posts all over, most best ignored as is the way of the internet. But there were a few well informed, personal experience sites so I read those and decided on my own method.
Thankfully, it is not a difficult process. Using a kitchen grater I soon had a little pile of what looked similar to rough coffee grounds. It took a bit of muscle but was quite doable. I put a tablespoon or so in water in a pan and put it on the woodstove to simmer, not knowing if I'd even like it. I'm an herb tea woman, not much fond of coffee, and it sounded like it was more coffee than herb tea. But I kept an open mind. The brew turned a very dark color and I not only liked it, Steve did, too. It's a bit of a mild bitter flavor but not overly so. A little honey takes the edge off the bitter if you want. The next few times I kept track of how much grated Chaga, how much water, and how long a simmer so I could have some consistency in the future. It's not an exact science considering the many variables of particle size, age of the chunk, how much water, how hot, how long it simmers, etc. So it varied. But it was fine every time, just a little more or less strong. The last time I made it I used a heaping tablespoon of ground Chaga in 4 cups of water, simmered for about an hour then left in the pan for maybe several hours. Pour the very dark liquid off the grounds (which settle nicely at the bottom) into a jar, and store in refrigerator (which in our case is still the cool root cellar). Use as you wish. I like it straight thinned with water, in a small cup made by a local potter, sipped throughout the day or evening. Steve likes it in his everyday drink which is diluted orange, or other, juice. As he uses a clear glass mug for this the color is a bit odd but the flavor is good. He's tried it is his coffee and that was OK, too, but as his coffee has other amendments he prefers the Chaga in his juice drink.
That first Chaga piece I harvested I hung in a cloth bag in the pantry between gratings. But I was concerned about it getting mold as the pantry was warming up now (mid 40's) and as hard as the Chaga seems it is a live mushroom. Plus it was getting harder to grate as is dried. So I grated up the rest of it, spread out and dried it in a glass cake pan (which hasn't seen a cake in decades) by the woodstove, and stored it in a jar. As I'd read one should only harvest when the Chaga is dormant (late fall through late winter) I decided to break off another piece right now, grate and dry it. It's much easier to grate when fresh. Our Chaga on the tree isn't real large and I don't want to inhibit it from continuing to grow so I didn't take too much - a small hand-full size piece. But I now have 3 cups of the fresh dried grated Chaga mushroom to keep us in brew (hopefully) till next harvest season. It's a nice addition to the homestead world.
May 26, 2019 -- Finding Gold on the Homestead
A few days ago I was up at the mailbox (which is a half mile from our house) and saw our neighbor slowly walking across her lawn, intently looking down. Figuring she must have dropped something I walked over to offer help. She showed me what she had in the paper bag in her hand. Morels! And some nice ones at that, right in their lawn. Now we've only found morels on our property a few times and that was many decades ago, barely remembered. But then we've never searched for them either. Inspired by our neighbor's find I walked back home, slowly, looking carefully down and around as I went, getting distracted by any number of interesting things. But I persevered and wandered around here and there on the homestead where it seemed morels might be. Didn't find any, but it was a nice wander.
A few days later I was in the garden on hands and knees weeding a path particularly well endowed with such things, intent in the job and whatever was in my mind, getting towards the end. Sitting back on my heels and looking ahead I saw, to my great surprise, just a few feet away, a beautiful specimen of a morel, beautifully positioned in front of the big green leaves of the rhubarb as if for a photo shoot. Well, really! I stared at it for some moments, went closer and kneeled down - was it really? Yep, that was one nice morel. I had to laugh, then went to get Steve.
After all these years, right there in the garden. Well, they do say (and we do agree) that what is in your mind becomes in your life, and morels had certainly been in my mind. When Steve came out he glanced down near his feet and there close by on the south side of the rhubarb was another morel, smaller but certainly edible size. Later I discovered a still smaller one on the other side of the patch, nestled in the grass. Why by the rhubarb? Maybe for no particular reason but it might be because I often mulch the rhubarb with leaves in the fall. I shall certainly continue that practice.
So we had morels in our dinner. They sort of got lost in the shuffle since there weren't many of them, and since I'm not real fond of the texture of mushrooms I'd cut them up. But they added their bit of flavor and nutrition, and the fun of discovering them on this magical place where we live.
Copyright © Susan Robishaw
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Have you read "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener" ? A fun short read.
or "Homesteading Adventures" Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.
and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun" A journey you can use in your own garden.