How to Grow Backyard Mushrooms in the Urban Garden

Drilling holes in the mushroom log.

Drilling holes in the mushroom log.

I fell into this whole backyard mushroom farm thing by accident. Maybe more of a "planned" accident. I had been wanting to grow mushrooms for a while. Chef Iggy said he would like to have a regular supply of shiitakes, because he likes the flavor and they are expensive in the store. I knew I could get those little mushroom kits with the pressed block of sawdust inoculated with mushroom spores. But they're also expensive.

Shiitake mushroom plugs.

Shiitake mushroom plugs.

Then I saw an ad for mushroom plugs in my favorite seed catalog. Apparently you can drill holes into tree logs, insert the plugs and voila! Instant mushroom farm. Isn't that a budget-friendly and green way to grow mushrooms? I decided to go for it, and I ordered the plugs in October.

I ordered 100 shiitake plugs for about $11.00. Then I started looking for the rest of the supplies.

Grow backyard mushrooms by crowdsourcing

Just as when we built our cold frame, I hoped to turn to crowdsourcing to find our backyard mushroom supplies. We didn't need much, just some beeswax and logs. I found the beeswax pretty quickly - donated by a neighbor who had a bag sitting in his kitchen. With that done, I planned to put out a call on social media and get some logs in no time. But, once I started researching them, I realized that there are a lot of rules about these mushroom logs.

To grow mushrooms, or shiitake mushrooms anyway, we needed fresh oak logs. Logs that had been chopped down between October and February, when the sap is running. Logs that are about four feet long and 8-12" in diameter. Logs that had been felled within the last day or two. The bark must still be on. Not to be picky or anything.

Several log-blessed friends answered my plea on Facebook, offering me a wide range of free logs. But one set of logs was hollow - not good because other fungus can enter the log and crowd out the shiitake. Another friend had logs that were too short. Another set of logs were too old, having been cut down over a month before. Some logs weren't oak. Others were too skinny.

I put the mushroom plugs into the refrigerator and kind of gave up. Whatever. I had only spent $11.00. I decided to wait until January and then maybe call a firewood company. After the holidays.

Thanks for noisy neighbors

Finding a recently-felled oak tree.

Finding a recently-felled oak tree.

The week after Christmas, I was working in my office and trying to ignore the whine of chain saws outside. For the past few days our neighbors had been having a giant tree trimmed. Bzzzzz bzzzzz bzzzzz - the noise was like leaf blowers on steroids. I was just about to pack up my laptop and head to the peace of the nearby library when Chef Iggy came up to my office and peeked out the window.

"Looks like they are taking the entire "It looks like they are taking the whole tree down, not just the dead limbs," he said.

Wait, what? TREE? FRESH TREE?! Why had I not thought about this when I first heard the chainsaws?

I ran outside to ambush the arborist team, to beg some of those fresh, four-foot-long logs. It turned out the arborists did not speak English.

Fortunately, I speak Spanish.

What kind of tree was it? Oak! The logs had bark still on. They were fresh. All were healthy and not hollow or rotted. Could I have a few logs for a garden project? Of course.

The arborists gave me a bit of side eye, and chuckled when I explained I wanted to grow mushrooms. My Spanish is a little rusty so maybe I said I actually wanted to grow Champions instead of grow mushrooms. I'm not exactly sure. But the crew very helpfully carried several perfect logs across the alleyway to our back yard.

Backyard mushroom garden setup

Inserting the plugs into the mushroom log.

Inserting the plugs into the mushroom log.

Chef Iggy measured the shiitake plugs and chose the right sized drill bit. He put tape on it at the perfect depth so that the mushroom plugs would be slightly below the surface of the bark. Following the instructions we found online, he drilled a diamond pattern on the log - a repeat pattern one inch wide and four inches long. Basically you drill a line of holes four inches apart, and then space another, alternating, line one inch next to it. He left four inches undrilled at the end of each log to help protect the plugs from any other fungus that might grow there.

While he drilled the log and seated the plugs, I was in the kitchen. I melted the beeswax pellets in an empty (clean) tin can sitting in a shallow saucepan of water. Once it was melted I carried it outside and used a disposable brush to seal up each plug with a splash of hot wax. Then we rolled the log over to the shady side of the storage shed and propped it up on a few spare logs for air circulation.

These mushrooms are supposed to take nine months to a year to fruit. Some directions suggest that you keep the logs moist with non-chlorinated water. Other directions suggest "thumping" them, or picking up the log and dropping it to the ground, hard. Voodoo aside, I do have the log in a shaded area, and plan to keep it dampened with our rain barrel water. It's a long wait to see if we can actually grow mushrooms in our urban garden. But for an $11.00 investment and very little work, I figure it's an experiment worth trying. We will keep you posted!

WinterPhaedra Hise