How to Grow Tasty Shiitake Mushrooms
STORY BY LAURA SORKIN
PHOTOS BY CAROL SULLIVAN
Growing shiitake mushrooms requires hardwood and blind faith.
I taught myself how to grow them back in 2001 using a guidebook called Growing Shiitake Mushrooms in a Continental Climate by Mary Ellen Kozak and Joe Krawczyk. It is a well-written book, but the process of preparing shiitake logs is odd for someone accustomed to dirt and seeds, and every step of the way I questioned how the method could possibly work.
I followed it to the letter, however, and the mysterious ways of fungi took their course in spite of my doubts. And though they were unaware the whole time, I had a tumultuous relationship with Joe and Mary Ellen too. Up in rural Vermont, in a pre-YouTube era, I had nothing to go on but their text and diagrams. A year of my life was spent drilling, hauling and waiting—and success was anything but assured.
The shiitakes mostly started as an afterthought. When my husband and I first moved to our farm in 2000, we had a lot of trees to clear from an old abandoned field. With Eric on his chainsaw and me with a huge chipper we went to work on the two acres and after several months had mountains of timber, firewood and chips. We were all set for heat and mulch for years but I wanted to find something a little more creative to do with the limbs of the trees that were my daily job to chip.
After doing a little research I discovered that the Japanese have cultivated shiitake mushrooms on hardwood logs for centuries. The 4-inch to 8-inchdiameter limbs were the ideal size I would need for the project. I was new to organic farming in general so taking on this unusual endeavor seemed no more or less intimidating than any of the other crops I was trying on my own for the first time. It was then that I found Joe and Mary Ellen’s guide and read it for the first time. None of it made any sense.
The fact that a seed planted will grow and create food or flower is miraculous enough, but most of us are at least familiar with the process. Fungi are in an entirely different kingdom from Plantae and their lifecycle, to me, is quite perplexing. Unlike planting a seed that you can see and hold in your hand, shiitakes are grown from microscopic spores that present themselves as a colony of spongy, white fuzz.
Instead of comforting and familiar soil, you “plant” into wood—a substrate that seems as unlikely as a rock to grow anything edible. And then, to ultimately test your trust and patience, you have to wait a year to see if you did it correctly. There is no fertilizer to apply, no weeding necessary, nothing you can actively do but hope that under the bark the fungi is doing what you set it there to do.
When spring came, it was time to inoculate the logs and I ordered the spawn and equipment I needed. After clearing so much land, I had over 200 logs cut to 40- inch lengths and ready to go. The process involves drilling holes in the logs and filling them with sawdust (or wooden dowels) that already has the mycelium alive and growing in it. In theory, the mycelium will inoculate the log, working its way through the sapwood.
Outfitted like a hockey goalie to protect from flying wood bits, I spent days with a heavy drill, making holes and using a special plunger to fill the wood with the sawdust. This couldn’t possibly amount to more than a pile of hole-filled firewood, I thought. Many unkind things were muttered to Mary Ellen and Joe under my breath.
The most important part of the process is to keep the mycelium alive by maintaining a high moisture level, so once the holes were filled I sealed them with wax to keep them from drying out. Joe and Mary Ellen warned that they could not get too dry so periodically, even after laying the logs in a shady spot, I would set a sprinkler on them. As if I didn’t feel insecure enough as a new farmer, on hot, dry days I could only hope that the neighbors would not stop by to see the flatlander in the woods watering her stack of logs. I was feeling more and more like I was on a fool’s errand.
Once the logs were laid out, aside from checking moisture there was nothing to do but wait. There was no evidence that anything was going on until finally, in late summer, white dots of fungi began to appear at the cut ends indicating that the mycelium had indeed inoculated the log. With whispered apologies to Mary Ellen and Joe for doubting them, I settled into winter satisfied that at least I was successful with stage one.
But in late winter I wrestled with whether I should prepare for more. The logs should be cut before bud break, when the nutrients are concentrated in the sapwood. Should I cut more logs for next year before I even see if this endeavor works? Walking the line between hope and caution, I cut half as many as I did the year before and mumbled platitudes about patience and faith to myself as I stacked them up in the snow.
The moment of truth came early the next summer. Joe and Mary Ellen wrote that to get the fungi to produce a mushroom (otherwise known as fruiting) you soak the log in cold water overnight. This sounded rather hocus pocus to me, but at this point I had followed all of the other directions to the letter with success so I selected 20 logs and hauled them down to our stream for the night. The next day I retrieved them, stood them up in a shady spot and covered them with a blanket as was recommended.
Day one: Nothing happened.
Day two: Nothing happened.
Day three: I was wondering where I could find Mary Ellen and Joe’s home number.
Day four: Something was there.
Over the next several days, big, succulent, glorious shiitake mushrooms grew from the logs. I was astounded and overjoyed. They started as little domes emerging from the holes until the stems elongated and then, by day six, the caps popped outward. Not only were they numerous and robust but the flavor had so much more depth than any mushroom I had ever tried. In my first harvest I had over 10 pounds of shiitakes, most of which quickly sold at market and the rest were devoured by Eric and myself with utmost satisfaction.
Over the next several years I drilled at least 100 logs each spring, aiming to eventually fruit about 25 logs a week throughout market season. (Once inoculated, a shiitake log can fruit for over six years if well tended.) For a while I would bring a log covered with shiitakes to market for display. I had to stop, however, because customers were so fascinated by it, I ended up spending all my time answering questions about growing mushrooms instead of selling the rest of the produce.
I am still mystified by the workings of fungi and every year I learn a little bit more. I will always be appreciative to Joe and Mary Ellen, however, for their guidance through this new taxonomic realm… even if they never know it.
HOW TO GROW YOUR OWN
Growing shiitakes involves more details than I can list in this brief synopsis. The following is meant to give an overview of the process. I highly recommend Growing Shiitake Mushrooms in a Continental Climate, which is available on Amazon and Google. You can also check out their website for supplies and spawn at FieldForest.net. Another good website is NorthernWoodlands.org/articles/article/ growing_shiitake_mushrooms which has a guide and links to suppliers.
TO INOCULATE SHIITAKE LOGS
- Cut hardwood logs (oak, maple, ironwood, beech and birch are best) about 40 inches long, 4 to 6 inches in diameter, in late winter before bud-break.
- Order spawn, wax and associated equipment from a reputable company. Use dowels if only doing 20 or fewer logs. If going larger in scale, try sawdust.
- In spring after danger of hard frost, drill holes about 6 inches apart in a diamond pattern on the log.
- Fill holes with dowels using hammer or sawdust using special inoculation tool.
- Cover holes with melted cheese wax.
- Tag each log with information about year inoculated and variety used.
- Set the log in a shady spot for a year, a little off the ground, keeping it moist in times of drought.
- When weather warms the following year, soak the log in cold, clean water overnight.
- Stand the log up in a shady spot and, if possible, cover with a blanket to keep off water and critters.
- Look for mushrooms to develop in five to eight days