Grow Your Own Mushrooms

Over the past 15 years, specialty mushrooms have become the rage, with more kinds popping up in grocery stores and natural food markets. The ubiquitous white button "salad bar" mushroom is still tops in popularity, but interest in other kinds, such as portabello and shiitake, has increased. Not only do these specialty mushrooms have full-bodied and unique flavors, but some, such as shiitake, are being touted for their health benefits. The only downside is the price. Some fresh mushrooms can cost $10 or more per pound at the market, making them no more than an occasional dinnertime indulgence. But that has changed with the advent of indoor mushroom growing kits that make growing your own gourmet mushrooms a snap. For a sampling of mushroom kits to try, go here.

Choose Your Fungus

The most widely available and easiest-to-grow mushroom kits include white button, portabello, and shiitake. The simplest kits consist of a bag of sawdust or grain straw already inoculated with spawn (fungal bodies). Kits come with full instructions, and for most of them all you need to do is open the bag, keep it at room temperature in a bright place but out of direct sunlight, and mist daily to keep humidity high. Some kits even provide plastic tents for humidity control.

Most kits start fruiting within 7 to 10 days. You can expect to harvest a total of 1 to 2 pounds of mushrooms from two or three flushes of growth over one to three months. You can store most kinds of harvested mushrooms in paper bags in the refrigerator for five to seven days. When fruiting is finished, wait until spring and bury the kit in bark mulch or your compost pile, and fruiting may continue as weather permits.

Button and Portabello Mushrooms

These mushrooms are different strains of the same species. The 1- to 2-inch-wide white buttons are the most popular and widely available mushrooms worldwide. The most impressive of this group are portabellos, which produce 3 to 6 pounds of 6-inch-diameter or larger brown caps with a tender, meat-like texture and woodsy flavor. Portabello mushrooms keep somewhat longer than other mushrooms: 7 to 10 days.

Shiitake Mushrooms

Thick, meaty-textured shiitakes are considered "king of the mushrooms." These 3- to 4-inch-diameter brown mushrooms with white flecks are highly esteemed fresh and dried for cooking and for their medicinal properties. Researchers have found that they reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, stimulate the immune system, and have antitumor properties. They also are being used in AIDS research. Kits fruit easily indoors over a wide temperature range (55° to 75° F), producing fruits at two-week intervals over two to three months, for a total of 2 to 3 pounds.

Question of the Week

Q. What is the best way to grow Brussels sprouts to get larger sprouts?

A. Brussels sprouts are a long-season crop whose sprouts start sizing up in late summer and continue into fall. The sprouts mature from the bottom to the top of the stalk. One technique to help your sprouts size up better is to prune off the leafy top of the plant in late summer so the plant directs its energy to sizing up the sprouts rather than to growing taller. Also, removing the lower leaves will help make harvesting easier and allow more sun to reach the sprouts, which enhances the flavor.

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