After moving to Western North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Mountains, Emma and I became fixated with mushrooms. Our life here was the first opportunity we’d had since becoming permaculturalists to really delve into edible fungi. We quickly quickly gained some experience with foraging wild mushrooms, gaining the confidence and know-how to harvest about a dozen different easy-to-identify edibles here. When we decided to stay and set up a permaculture homestead in the area, cultivating mushrooms in the forest understory was part of our high priority food production.
Last year, before we’d even begun to develop the property we bought, we inoculated our first mushroom logs, shiitake, and within six months, they were putting out fresh mushrooms and have done so intermittently since, even into an unusually mild winter. This year we are adding blue oyster mushrooms logs to our understory crop. We’ve already started the motions of getting some fresh wood from a local tree trimmer so that we can get our logs inoculated before trees break dormancy.
While adding the oyster logs is exciting, our most recent flight of fancy, the one I’m currently talking about, is adding yet one more mushroom to the mix this year: wine caps, formally known as Stropharia rugosoannulata. This mushroom actually has a number of other names, including garden giant, garden king, king stropharia, and burgundy. Like our oyster mushroom logs, early spring is the best time to get some wine cap mushrooms initiated, but the technique for doing so is completely different.
Getting Reacquainted with the Wine Cap
I first heard of wine cap mushrooms three years ago, shortly after we arrived here. I was reading a book, The Resilient Farm and Homestead by Ben Falk (highly recommend it), in which the author talked about growing them in the mulched pathways of his permaculture site. He cited how they’d show up in abundance and continued to spread as long as he added fresh wood chips to the pathways each year. I was sold. They’ve been in the recesses of my mind ever since.
Then, for whatever mysterious “Big Brother” reasons, when I clicked on YouTube this week, a video (seen below) for making mushroom beds popped up and fanned the embers of this project. We are in the midst of building a cabin right now, but as the weather has permitted, we have started taking the occasional garden day to change pace. We are sculpting the makings of our kitchen and staple gardens, and it seems—I was reminded—wine caps have a role to play.
What has me most excited is that we don’t have to go through the process of inoculating logs for this one. While the effort to acquire and drill and plug and seal mushroom logs is well worth the effort, not even in doubt, the fact that we can grow wine caps on beds rather than logs is wonderful. What’s more is that they can be cultivated right in the garden because they are tolerant of sun and require little more than leafy greens for shade.
How to Make a Mushroom Bed
Emma and I are great fans of lasagna garden beds, and we’ve already put some in place on the property. Amazingly, wine cap mushrooms (and several other species: nameko, oysters, etc.) use something very similar as a growing medium. An instant mushroom bed can be constructed with nothing more than typical carbon-rich mulch material, such as straw, sawdust, and wood chips.
While wine caps can be grown on any of these mediums individually, having a mixture of them, along with some leaves, creates a more diverse environment for the mycelia to enjoy. Smaller particulars give the wine caps quick production and establishment, while bigger wood chips prolong the life of the mushroom bed once the wine caps are established. The varied textures also helps to keep the bed aerated and out of anaerobic decomposition.
Building the bed is very much like a lasagna garden bed, only rather than adding a nitrogen material between each carbon layer, it’s a dusting of grain or sawdust mushroom spawn. What Ben Falk added to this technique is that if we add layers of mulch each year, the mushrooms continue to have organic material to break down and, thus, continue to produce. Furthermore, if we build these beds as our pathways, we are using space that’s generally not productive to add to our harvest.
General Info about Wine Caps
Wine cap mushrooms, though shaped like a classic mushroom with a bell cap and defined stem, have a distinctly burgundy coloured cap that fades to light brown in maturity and white-grayish gills that darken closer to black in maturity. They can be six inches across and six inches tall. They are considered choice edibles by many and have the size, shape, and suggestion of a portabello mushroom, though the flavour and texture has been compared to asparagus. While not regarded as medicinal, like most natural foods, they do have medicinal qualities, such as anti-oxidants and other cancer-fighting elements.
What’s really exciting about wine caps in a permaculture garden is that they’re aggressive and readily spread in moist places with lots of straw and, especially, wood chips. That’s more or less every garden bed we have built in the last six years. Once established, these are a perennial source of food that requires no additional work—assuming adding mulch is a regular chore anyway—to have in abundance. What’s more is that they aren’t competing with plants but rather helping to breakdown the organic matter to better feed them.
Plus, unlike some mushrooms, they are considered easy to grow—no sterilising necessary—and fruit during two seasons of the year, spring and fall. Wine caps are renowned for producing in such quantity that they are difficult to keep up with. This means there is the potential for a marketable crop when they are in season. They can also be dehydrated to preserve them, so they can be a good wintertime addition to soups and stews, too.