Gardeners know all about patience. Plant some greens and wait a month or two for salad. Plant some 90-day tomatoes and count on waiting 110 days for a BLT. We planted some 120-day Brussels sprouts 140 days ago and expect to eat some before spring.
But vegetable-growing provides a quick thrill compared with the patience required to grow shiitake mushrooms. When my wife, Nancy, and I sauted a batch of home-grown shiitake mushrooms this fall and slathered them liberally over a venison steak provided by a family friend, we didn't regret a single moment of the three years it took for those mushrooms to arrive.
Now it's shiitake-miso soup, stir-fried shiitakes, shiitake omelettes, shiitake pizza — even shiitake-crusted tuna steaks.
I should probably backtrack a moment and point out that it didn't take an entire three years for our shiitake garden to begin producing. The logs we inoculated in January three years ago started producing in about a year, and we've cut mushrooms each spring and autumn since then.
But this fall brought a bumper crop because we've arrived at the peak years for those particular logs, and they should continue to crank out poundage for another two years at least.
One of the great things about growing shiitakes is that all of the real work takes place in a day. After that, it's mostly just waiting and harvesting, with occasional squirts of the hose to keep your logs moist during the hottest months of summer. And it doesn't really matter where you live. Shiitakes prefer shade, so folks with shady yards are in luck. And they don't take much room, so people with patio gardens can grow them easily.
To get started, you'll need to spend about $25 for shiitake spawn and cut a few hardwood logs, which will provide enough material to grow about 6 to 8 pounds of shiitakes a year for five years. I've always used oak, both white and black, but local mushroom expert John Teem of Talent says pretty much any deciduous, nonaromatic hardwood will work, except walnut.
Shiitakes are like many perennial plants in that it takes about a year for their root systems to become established before they begin to fruit. In the case of shiitakes, the roots grow in wood.
The best time to cut logs is in the mid- to late winter, and it's important to obtain healthy, living wood that hasn't already been colonized by competing fungi. Teem recommends woodcutting in late March, when sap is starting to rise but before leaves break out.
I used logs that were 4 to 6 inches in diameter, and I cut them 40 to 48 inches long. I always like to start with a few thinner logs and a few thicker ones. Thinner logs will start to produce first because it takes less time for the spawn to populate them. Thicker logs take longer to start producing, but they'll still be going when the first logs have been tossed onto the compost pile.
Once you have your logs and spawn, the next step is to drill holes. Using a 3/8-inch bit, drill a row of holes, 3/4 inch deep and about 6 to 8 inches apart, down the length of a log. When the first row is drilled, turn the log about 3 inches and drill another row, staggering the holes so they're offset from the preceding row. Continue turning the log and drilling rows until you meet up with the first row. Each log could have between 20 and 40 holes, depending on its length and thickness.
The next step is to insert wooden plugs, or sawdust, that have been impregnated with shiitake spawn into the holes and tamp them down. I usually apply a dab of melted beeswax over each filled hole using a small brush or dauber, which keeps competing fungi, bacteria and insects from getting into the wood. I skipped that step with the logs mentioned above, and they've done well, but it's probably a smart precaution to seal them.
Once the logs are drilled, filled and sealed, stack or lean them against a wall or fence in a shady spot. The east or north sides of a shed or garage work well, and I've even see people with sunny patio gardens drape shade cloth over them. Then all you have to do is wait for the shiitakes to grow.
Shiitakes are mostly foolproof, but they do need to be kept moist during our blazing summers. Teem recommends spraying the logs twice a week during the worst hot spells. Watering is aimed partially at keeping the spores alive, but it's also intended to protect the logs' bark, which ensures shiitake longevity.
"When the logs dry out too much, the bark falls off," Teems says, "and once the bark falls off, they're done producing."
Depending on the type of wood used, size of the logs and conditions such as moisture and weather, your logs may start to produce in a year, though Teem says two years is common in our climate when using oak.
Shiitakes fruit in the spring and fall when temperatures are between 55 and 80 degrees. They go dormant in winter and during the hottest spells of Southern Oregon's summer.
In spring and fall, you can spur logs to fruit by soaking them overnight. We used an old, claw-foot tub we bought for $10 at a yard sale, but a clean garbage can works, too. In the morning, remove the logs from the water and thump them, either with a rubber mallet or by gently bouncing them end-first on the ground. They should start to fruit within a few days.
The Internet is full of places to buy shiitake spawn. I bought my last batch online from Fungi Perfecti in Olympia, Wash., (www.fungi.com). Teem recommends them and Mushroom People in Summertown, Tenn., (www.mushroompeople.com). Teem, a longtime commercial grower who leads many local mushroom hikes and classes, plans to begin offering shiitake spawn for local growers next spring. Because he's just getting started, he asks people to call at least a month in advance if they want to order from him. He can be reached at 541-621-6137.
If you drill a few logs a year or every few years, you'll be assured of an ongoing supply of shiitakes for years to come.