WSJ: Growing your own mushrooms at home

caryl.chessman at caryl.chessman at
Thu Nov 7 04:46:18 EST 2002

Catalog Critic

Can You Really Grow Your Own Mushrooms?


9 Nov. 2001

The latest recipe for home epicures: Take a block of sawdust and oat bran.
Soak well. Put it in a plastic sack and wait until fungus forms. Snip and

No, really.

Grow-your-own mushroom kits are popping up like you-know-whats -- in
everything from gardening and specialty catalogs to Web sites devoted solely
to the art of mycology. To hear these outfits tell it, would-be
fungus-farmers can do this all in the comfort of their living rooms,
harvesting crops of exotic portabellos and oyster mushrooms within weeks.
And a lot of people are sold: One major supplier, Field and Forest Products,
says its sales are up 50% in the past two years.

But we were a bit skeptical. After all, can you really grow mushrooms
without mucking up the house? Would we have to keep our lights dim? And most
importantly, could we not only eat them safely, but serve a delicious
shiitake-and-asparagus stir-fry to our friends?

Portabellos at your fingertips: To grow exotic varieties at home, mushroom
fans start with a kit like one of these, from Territorial Seed Co. and
Raintree Nursery. 

Though it was news to us, mushroom kits were actually developed about a
decade ago to appeal to people who wanted exotic varieties but were worried
about where they were grown. These days, safety is less of an issue, but
growing legions of mushroom-lovers want the thrill of raising their own.
Thinking this sounded like an offbeat gift for the gardeners and gourmets on
our holiday list, we went to five catalogs and ordered shiitakes -- the most
common kit available -- from each, as well as more exotic varieties like
oyster mushrooms and "pom pom blancs."

Our kits arrived as dry, bread-loaf-sized bricks of sawdust or straw, mixed
with mushroom "spawn," or culture. Some instructions bordered on the
ritualistic or bizarre: We had to prick some of the balls with foot-long
pointed sticks, while another kit required us to buy seven rolls of toilet
paper for "planters." But in general, we had to soak each block overnight in
water, cover it with a plastic bag and mist it with distilled water daily.
As we waited to see if anything would actually grow, we stocked up on
mushroom recipes; after all, these kits promise to yield fungi several times
over, for six months or longer.

Our most disappointing experience: the shiitake and blue-oyster kits ($23
each) from Choice Edibles. While the starter blocks looked pretty much like
all the others, the instructions said we should put them in a
climate-controlled growing "cave" -- specifically, a 20-gallon aquarium
outfitted with an air pump and other gizmos. The company, when called, said
we could also try growing our kits in plastic bags, though the results might
not be as good. They weren't: After nearly two months, we still don't have
any mushrooms.

The shiitake kit from Seeds of Change was another slow starter; after
several weeks, it bore a dozen small but tender mushrooms, enough to slice
over salad for two. We're still waiting for more.

The other kits, however, bore fruit quickly. Just 11 days after receiving
the pearl-oyster kit from Territorial Seed Co., we had a pound-and-a-half of
delicately flavored, light brown beauties -- enough to serve over pasta for
a family of four. The company's shiitake kit, however, yielded only a few
ounces after three weeks and developed patches of green mold. (Though we
watered this one as often as the rest, we were told by expert Linda Goin,
who runs the Web site, that we might have oversprayed. "Unless
you really know what you're doing, about 50% of people fail," she notes.)

Raintree Nursery's shiitakes, however, seemed supercharged. Within a week,
we harvested three oaky-flavored giants, the biggest five inches across
(they were delicious raw, drizzled with olive oil). More memorable, however,
was the same company's "Tee Pee Roll Oyster Kit." Yes, as in "toilet paper":
This kit required us to saturate seven full rolls of tissue in hot water and
pour mushroom spawn into each tube. As this science project progressed, the
wet toilet paper melted into heaps and became covered with masses of white
webs. But after about five weeks, the webs turned into oyster mushrooms, and
we harvested a dozen big ones that made a scrumptious soup.

Better yet were the kits from Gourmet Mushroom Products. Less than two weeks
after they arrived, we were able to slice 18 shiitakes from one of the
blocks; they were firm, with a woodsy scent and four-star flavor. The other
kit was for a mushroom we'd never heard of -- pom pom blanc, or bearded
mushroom. As instructed, we drizzled these puffy five-inch growths with
butter and baked them in the oven, and found them light and delicate, unlike
any mushroom we'd ever tasted.

And the best news of all: At less than $17 each, these were our least
expensive kits, easily making them not only our Best Overall, but Best
Value. We figured that, with shiitakes going for $12 a pound in stores, it
would take just one more crop for us to start undercutting our grocer. And
even if that doesn't happen, we might stick with the home-grown mushrooms
anyway. These simply had more flavor than anything from a store. Maybe it's
because they're fresh. Or maybe it's because we grew them ourselves.

Gourmet Mushroom Products
Shiitake kit, $16.95;
Pompom blanc kit, $15.95

Quality: Best Overall, Best Value. Best flavor, too. Shiitake kit gave 18
woodsy, goodsize mushrooms within two weeks; Pom pom blanc yielded nine
giant white, delicately flavored mushrooms and was the only kit producing
six weeks later. Easy-to-follow instructions.

Shipping Cost/Time: $30 for rush delivery within two business days. Because
of post-Sept. 11 shipping delays, ours arrived in six.

Return Policy: Replacement or full refund if you aren't satisfied. You pay

Phone/Web Experience: We phoned in our order to a representative who was
briskly efficient but unable to answer other questions about the kits.

Comments: The Website is a feast of fungi, with kits for oyster and morel
mushrooms plus mushroom vitamins, oils, books, posters and T-shirts.

Raintree Nursery
Shiitake table-top kit, $29.95;
Tee Pee Roll oyster kit, $29.95

Quality: In two weeks, the shiitake kit produced three enormous mushrooms --
one quarter-pounder -- with a dense, oaky flavor. Tee Pee kit was
unorthodox, but after six weeks it produced a dozen large, nuttytasting
oyster mushrooms.

Shipping Cost/Time: $6.96 for UPS ground delivery; our order arrived in six

Return Policy: Return within 30 days for refund, you pay shipping. Will
replace nonproducing kits for up to a year.

Phone/Web Experience: Helpful. We called after closing time, but a nursery
worker cheerfully took our order. Company sent the wrong instructions, but
faxed the correct ones.

Comments: Gardeners rave about the selection of fruit trees, edible plants
and herbs at this Morton, Wash., nursery. Its 95-page catalog has unusual
items like Chinese tea trees ($24.50), whose leaves make green tea.

Seeds of Change
Shiitake kit, $28.40

Quality: Took nearly four weeks to produce a dozen mushrooms, which never
grew to the size of those from the other companies. The kit came with clear,
well-illustrated instructions.

Shipping Cost/Time: Rush delivery, two business days, is $11.40. Came in
nine due to disaster-related delays.

Return Policy: Return for any reason for refund. You pay shipping.

Phone/Web Experience: A turn-off. A telephone salesperson took our order
quickly, and didn't have, or wouldn't provide, product information.

Comments: Site sells vegetables and herbs, none of it genetically modified
or chemically treated. Its "organic living" section seemed ironic, as
company is owned by candy maker Mars.

Territorial Seed Co.
Shiitake kit, $26.50;
Pearl oyster kit, $23.50

Quality: Shiitake kit produced only a few ounces of mushrooms after three
weeks. Pearl oyster kit gave a pound and a half in 11 days. Shiitake kit
came with no instructions -- we called, and company sent clear instructions
in three days.

Shipping Cost/Time: Ground mail, $14.70. Shiitake kit arrived eight days
after original order was placed; oyster kit, 10 days.

Return Policy: Return for replacement or refund. You pay shipping.

Phone/Web Experience: A thoughtful salesperson called to tell us it would
ship by ground, not air, following Sept. 11.

Comments: Site has helpful gardening tips and seasonal newsletter. Catalog
and Website are a vegetable grower's dream, offering nearly 900 varieties of
seeds and plants, including 30 different types of garlic and six types of

Choice Edibles
Shiitake and blue oyster fruiting blocks, $23 each

Quality: Company recommends buying one of its growing "caves" ($26.95), or
using a 20-gallon aquarium. A spokesman said we could also try growing the
blocks inside a plastic sack, but we couldn't get the kits to produce.

Shipping Cost/Time: $20 for delivery within two business days. Ours took
longer, due to disaster-related shipping delays.

Return Policy: No returns unless the kit arrives damaged or contaminated
with mold.

Phone/Web Experience: Another challenge: You have to join the Pay Pal
payment system for online ordering.

Comments: Site shows stage-by-stage photos of growing 'shrooms. This site
also sells a $39.95 morel mushroom kit.

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