As the colder months settle in we all have a tendency to go into hibernation mode, trying to spend as little time as possible out of doors and preferring to be cozy and warm whenever we can.
Often this means that our gardening suffers somewhat and the garden is usually happy to follow suit with most plants and flowers dying back until the spring.
But what of those of us who want to have our cake and eat it too? What if we don’t want our green fingers to get too rusty but also don’t want to brave the unforgiving British winter?
The answer may lie in mushrooms.
While shorter, colder days are a death sentence for most of our garden fare, they make for ideal conditions for mushrooms to grow – which spend most of their lives underground anyway.
The fact that they grow in such high volume, and have a tendency to expand to fill whatever space they are provided, also makes them perfect for growing indoors.
All the mushrooms we’ll be talking about today are also edible and some are even medicinal and would ordinarily set you back a pretty penny if you were to buy them in the shops.
Mushroom Growing: The Basics
When it comes to mushroom growing, the substrate is everything.
Since fungi don’t photosynthesize, all of their nutrients come from below rather than above and we must make sure that the ‘soil’ or substrate that we grow them in can match their appetites.
Next, depending on the type of substrate a mushroom calls for, you may need to sterilize the growing medium to ensure there is no contamination of your mushrooms. However, this is easier than it sounds if you have a microwave, simply place your substrate in a bowl or other container and pour over enough water to make the medium damp.
Heat on high for about two minutes or until the water has boiled off and you will have wiped out any microorganisms that might have threatened your winter garden.
Shake and bake
Now you’ll want to find a large, shallow-rimmed baking sheet and spread your sterilized substrate across its surface. Use a sterile utensil to pepper the substrate with mushroom spawn (most sellers distribute mushroom spawn in a sterile syringe so this is fairly simple for you) and find a warm spot in the house.
Pop your grow tray in that warm, dark space and find a good book because you’ve quite a wait ahead.
A temperature of around 21°C (70°F) is ideal to coax the fungi into colonizing your substrate and if you don’t have a spot in the house that fits the bill, you can buy a heat pad for them to sit on whilst incubating.
After around 3-5 weeks in the warm area you’ve created for them, the mushroom spores will colonise the substrate and you can move them to their final growing spot.
Before you do this however, make sure to check for any brown or green spots on the fungus and cut any of these parts away as they may contain harmful bacteria.
Deposit your tray in a cool, dark location and cover the substrate with a thin layer of potting soil. Spray this with water until thoroughly damp and be sure to top up the moisture level every few days.
After another 3 weeks, you should start to see mushroom caps blooming on the soil’s surface and now it is time to reap the fungi of your labour!
Though it might be tempting to pluck these caps from their stems as you would with a piece of fruit, it is actually better for the longevity of your mushrooms to cut them carefully using a knife or scissors.
This is because tugging on the cap, particularly if it is not completely ripe, can damage the development of the fungi underneath and slow down or even halt your next crop.
Now, let’s get on to a few different varieties of mushrooms, their health benefits, and a couple of recipe ideas for how to make the best use of them.
Five Mushrooms and their uses
White Button Mushrooms
A supermarket staple for many of us, their name comes from their small, globular, and pale appearance. Since these are not hugely flavourful we like to pair them with avocado on toast or use them to bulk out a hearty stew or pie.
Perhaps the only variety to rival the White Button’s popularity, these mushrooms are larger, darker, and possess a rich and nutty flavour. Since they have a more rustic aesthetic and distinctive taste, we like to make these mushrooms the star of dishes like Risotto or a strong supporting character alongside a Beef Wellington.
Formerly a subsistence crop popularized by Germany out of necessity during the second world war, the Oyster Mushroom now features heavily in some of the most exclusive dining rooms in the world. Alongside it’s unusual appearance, the Oyster mushroom also sports a scent akin to aniseed and is highly nutritious – even by the standards of mushrooms.
Since they already look quite beautiful, we’d recommend frying these in garlic and serving as a simple side dish in its own right.
Although most edible mushrooms are nutrient-dense, we are now crossing into truly medicinal territory. Chaga mushrooms provide a myriad of health benefits including reducing oxidative stress, lowering blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and current research suggests they could be a powerful ally in the fight against diseases like cancer and arthritis.
Unfortunately Chaga only grows on living Birch trees and so unless you’ve got a hectare of forest to tend to this winter, it might not be feasible for your own gardening pursuits. However, you can source powdered or whole Chaga mushroom online and they make for a relaxing and flavourful cup of tea.
Far and away the strangest looking mushroom on our list but also the truest to its name, Lion’s Mane is pale and composed of hundreds of fine strands of fungi.
Similar to Chaga, Lion’s Mane can reduce oxidative stress and thereby slow the aging process but the benefits don’t stop there. Lion’s Mane has been shown to help prevent Dementia and Alzheimer’s in animals as well as a reducing the risk of heart disease in humans.
Given its powerful benefits, Lion’s Mane is often dried and its powder then goes into capsules as a daily supplement. Fortunately, unlike Chaga, these beauties can be grown at home using a wood-based substrate.
Although the greener part of the year has drawn to a close, we can still put our greenfingers to work and cultivate a closer relationship with nature and the bounty that it can provide. We hope you’ve been inspired to grow your own mushrooms this winter and that you can enjoy their benefits until the cold ground thaws and we can all be back among the flowers again.