Food for Thought

Mighty Mushrooms

Local man teaches the tricks of the trade to cultivate a magnificent mushroom crop.

We can all grow mushrooms,” says Kevin Mitchell.  “And not just any mushrooms—we can grow some of the most nutritious and delicious mushrooms there are.”

Sixteen pairs of eyes and ears are listening closely, and most of the 16 people those eyes and ears belong to are also scratching notes on a pad, intent on capturing the key points of Mitchell’s steady flow of information and instructions.  Like Mitchell, they are enthusiastic about growing mushrooms, and they are looking to him to teach them how during this three-hour workshop on cultivating the Garden King Mushroom.

The Garden King, as its name suggests, is big, and grows well in gardens, explains Mitchell, who channels his mushroom passion into his Denman Island-based business, Key to Rise.  During the workshop, he presents a brief overview of mushroom science and growing techniques followed by a hands-on demonstration of how to grow the Garden King.  Within 90 minutes, the workshop has produced a 15-square foot mushroom bed made of fresh alder chips layered like a sandwich with Garden King spawn, spread out under a grapevine in farmer Maxine Rogers’ orchard.

Rogers will need to spray the bed with water every other day, and in 10 to12 weeks, if all goes well, she’ll have a bountiful crop of tasty mushrooms.  A two week dormant period (or seemingly dormant, because much is going on beneath the surface) will follow, and then there will be another flush, and so on every fortnight till the weather gets cold.  At that point, Rogers can cover it with more chips, leave it to overwinter, and expect more mushrooms next spring.

Mitchell invites everyone to grab a handful of the spawn, smell it, and get a good look at the mycelium—the delicate, almost invisible network of cobweb-like fibres that run through it.  Mycelium permeates all soil and, because it ‘eats’ by breaking down organic matter (and even stones) is instrumental in creating soil.  When we walk through a forest, we see the trees, but equally significant is the vast system of mycelium that runs below us, which the trees depend on.

The mushroom is the mycelium’s fruiting body.  “The mushroom is like the apple, but the mycelium is the tree,” says Mitchell.  “You can cultivate it by setting up the right conditions, just like any other tree.”

Mitchell knows how to do that.  He shares tips and tricks such as how to “tickle” the mushroom bed with a pitchfork to stimulate mycelial growth, how and when to persuade a reluctant mushroom bed to fruit with just one good watering, and how to use your initial bed as a starter for a second.  He answers questions about finding the best site for a mushroom bed, how big the mushrooms should be for harvesting, and how to cook them.

“What if we have too many ready at once?” someone asks.  Mitchell flashes a big smile from under his well-worn straw hat.  Clearly, he likes that idea.

“Oh, that definitely might happen,” he says enthusiastically, and goes on to describe the ins and outs of freezing and the pros and cons of drying the Garden Giant.  There seem to be few questions he can’t answer, sometimes citing recommendations from experts, but mainly telling stories from his own experience as a grower and picker (and eater) of mushrooms for some 20-odd years.

Mitchell’s interest in mushrooms has undergone a number of incarnations over these two decades.  He’s picked Pine, Chanterelle, Morel and other wild mushrooms in the mountains and forests of Vancouver Island; grown Shiitake, Oyster, Reishi, Matsutake, Shaggy Mane and more than a dozen more types of cultivated mushrooms; he’s founded an innovative mushroom-growing co-op, operated a high-tech growing lab, dabbled in “nutraceuticals” (medicinal mushrooms), and sworn off mushrooms almost entirely until forming Key to Rise last summer.

“I’ve been up and down a lot of learning curves,” he says.  “Over the years I’ve taught at least 60 workshops and I think this is the most useful thing for me to do.  The kits are a fun way to get started but if people really want to grow mushrooms, a bit of education will go a long way.  People can buy a Shiitake log [inoculated with Shiitake spawn] but if they don’t understand what to do with it, they take it home and kill it.  Then they feel pretty silly about spending that amount of money on a log.”

Through Key to Rise, Mitchell offers workshops on growing different types of mushrooms—one workshop on the “raw wood chip” varieties such as the Garden King, and another on log-drilling, which is the technique for Shiitake, Oyster, and Reishi mushrooms—and on picking mushrooms in the wild.  He also sells ready-made mushroom grow-kits that people can take home to harvest a good-sized crop of Oyster mushrooms in just a few weeks, but his main focus is education.

“In this age when we’re realizing we need to develop more sustainable and self-sufficient ways of feeding ourselves, people need to know about mushrooms,” he says.

Mushrooms tend to be a bit of mystery, he says.  “They aren’t a fruit, they aren’t a vegetable.  They appear sporadically, or not at all, and then all at once.  They look different than anything else.  That is part of what got me interested in mushrooms in the first place.  But once I learned more, I realized they are like other plants—once you understand their growth parameters you can cultivate them.

“I love teaching because I watch people soak in the information and I can see them go ‘ah-ha’ as they come to understand how mushrooms grow,” he says.

“It’s great to see how quickly they pick up the knowledge they need, and to know they are on their way to cultivating, picking and eating the freshest mushroom they’ve ever had.  And I love the way mushrooms work with a permaculture approach that utilizes natural seasonal settings and readily available natural materials,” he adds.  In particular, he says, the Red Alder, a common Vancouver Island tree that some people consider akin to a weed, is a cornucopia of mushroom potential.

“I have to give credit to the Red Alder.  It’s incredibly prolific here and is the perfect wood to grow so many types of mushrooms on.  This tree is a gift; we should use it.”

Mitchell has always found mushrooms fascinating, but it was about 20 years ago that he first let mushrooms change his life.

“It was mushrooms that brought me to BC,” he explains, his eyes lighting up with the memory.  “I was tree planting in Alberta and coming off a contract when I heard that you could make a lot of money harvesting Pine mushrooms in BC.  So four of us piled into a vehicle and came to Vancouver Island.  We proceeded to comb the countryside in all the wrong places looking for mushrooms.  After a while my three friends gave up and left.  The next day I found two things: I was browsing in the Salvation Army store and found this mushroom belt buckle—you know the one!”  (Yes, like everyone on Denman who knows Mitchell, I know his funky mushroom belt buckle.)

Mitchell continues: “I also found my first Pine mushroom near Bowser.  So I stayed, and I found a lot more mushrooms and ended up making a decent living.  So I came back the next summer, and after a couple of years of Pines I definitely had mushrooms on the brain.”

Mushroom spores.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

In 1997 he moved to Denman Island, homesteading a piece of land and starting a family, all the while with mushrooms on the brain.  At that time one-third of the island was slated to be logged, much to the dismay of almost all Islanders.  Mitchell joined a group that was looking for a way to buy some of the still-intact Douglas fir forest.  They put together a business plan that included sustainable forestry, limited development and non-timber forest products—including mushrooms.  The initiative was ambitious and demanding, and didn’t succeed, but it got people talking about mushrooms on Denman Island.

In the meantime, Mitchell was cultivating Shiitakes on Alder logs on his property with his partner, selling to friends and at farmers’ markets.  Perhaps because he’d stirred up local interest in mushrooms, he soon found himself a partner with three others in a new venture called the Cultivated Forest Mushroom Cooperative.  This initiative went the high-tech route, with state-of-the-art growing facilities that looked a lot more like a science lab than a forest floor, and a sophisticated business plan that included both edible mushrooms and nutraceuticals—mycelium with high medicinal value such as Cordyceps.

It was an exciting and demanding project.  “We were learning to take the mushroom through every phase from the petri dish to grow logs,” says Mitchell.  But it was also an innovative and risky venture facing a lot of unknowns.  After four years, the co-op team made the difficult decision to close the operation.

“It was just too tricky to be a wholesaler of a short-shelf-life product on a Gulf Island,” says Mitchell.  For a few years after that he limited his mycofilia (mushroom-loving) to picking wild mushrooms for himself, his friends, and family.  But it didn’t take long for him to reconnect with his passion for sharing his love of all things mushroom, resulting in Key to Rise.

There is, after all, much to admire in the world of mushrooms.  To get a sense of just how much, we can turn to the work of mushroom guru Paul Stamets, author of six books on mushrooms and self-proclaimed “mycelia messenger.”

“When the Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago and coalesced out of stardust, the first organisms on land were fungi.  Plants followed 600 million years later,” says Stamens.  When asteroids hit the earth, wiping out up to 90 per cent of species, 250 million years ago and again 65 million years ago, it was the fungi which best survived and repopulated the globe.   All life has evolved in close relationship with fungi, he says, and depends on it.

“Fungi… construct the food web.  They break down plant, animal and minerals into soil.  So these are the great soil magicians of nature,” says Stamens in the article Going Underground, in The Sun Magazine, February 2008.  “The biggest organism in the world is a 2,000-year old mycelia mat that covers 2,200 acres in eastern Oregon.”

But there is much more to fungi than that: fungi provide medicine (antibiotics such as penicillin) and have been found to have the capacity to clean up toxins such as oil spills, polluted water, plastics, dioxins and nerve gas agents.  That is why Stamets says that fungi can help save the world.

Stamets goes further: mycelium, he suggets, is the earth’s natural Internet, a neurological landscape that infuses all soils and connects with all life.

“They are aware that you are there.  As you leave your footsteps, the mycelia reach up and respond by grabbing newly available broken twigs or sticks.  The mycelia are sentient,” he claims.

Mitchell draws inspiration from all this, but remains steadfastly down to earth (pun intended) in his approach.  “I want to help people grow mushrooms,” he states, simply.

As the workshops winds up, participants are heading to their cars with Garden Giant spawn, bags of wood chips, photocopied instructions and pages of notes.  They’re exchanging phone numbers and making plans to get together for wood-chipping parties.  As I head off with a pre-made Oyster Mushroom grow-bag, the last words I hear from Mitchell are, “We can all feed ourselves.  Let’s do it!”