Spore Disbursal

Halfway through the second day of a recent weekend workshop, our instructor, Tony, paused and narrowed his eyes in a moment of thought. We’d met him for the first time only the day before, but I could tell he was weighing whether or not to chase down a galloping tangent before it raced away. “You know—” he said, and we smiled permission.

The workshop was about mushroom cultivation, and there is something about mushrooms that invites jumbles of philosophy and digression in such a way that one wonders if much of anything is really a digression at all. Because it all makes mushroom sense. Even – or especially – whatever thought of Tony’s was emerging next in amongst the syringes, and the miniature piles of sawdust, and the nitrile gloves and dog-eared books and the gusseted autoclavable polypropylene filter patch bags that surrounded us.

L: Tony on the prowl for mushrooms in the orchard at Tiny Tree Herb Farm. R: A likely Helvella vespertina, the Western elfin saddle, growing near some firs at the farm.

Tony Acworth is an instructor in the School of Western Herbal Medicine at Pacific Rim College, and the owner of Woodward Phytotherapy, a herbal medicine clinic in Brentwood Bay, just down the road from our farms. On this day, he had a bit of the mad scientist look about him. And maybe we did, too: we were crouching, poised, shoulder-to-shoulder in a row, about to introduce blue oyster mushroom grain spawn into our respective substrates that waited there in front of us in the polypropylene bags.

Sterility is key, which is why we were all a bit tense. Done successfully, the grain spawn will inoculate the hardwood sawdust and bran in the bags, and a few weeks later they’ll be teeming with edible, organic blue oyster mushrooms. But if pathogens or other vectors are introduced – even in these few seconds that we have the bags open to pitch in our jars of grain – all bets are off, and we’re likely to wind up with a bag full of the colourful but distinctly unappetizing kind of fungal growth.

A red alder log drilled for dowels next to some myceliated shiitake plugs ready for insertion. After the plugs are hammered in with a mallet, the drill sites and the top and bottom of the log are sealed with beeswax to keep moisture in and to deter competing fungi from entering.

Ideally, one would have a flow hood for this part of the process; but absent that, we were making do with liberal amounts of rubbing alcohol applied to all the work surfaces and, at least in my case, trying somewhat feebly to hold my breath and imagine a halo of perfect sterility around me. Tony gave a couple of last, good-luck spritzes of rubbing alcohol into the air, as though we were in a perfumerie rather than a rural farmhouse, and then nodded solemnly to give us the go-ahead, the nod reemphasizing silently his earlier instruction that we should be quick, controlled, and precise in our movements.

And then it was done. I breathed again. Mushrooms are a funny thing: alternately feared and revered, and also strangely absent from many contemporary ecological models, they are nevertheless a critical keystone species that increases biotic diversity in ways we are only beginning to grasp. In his workshop several weeks ago, Robert Rogers explored their medicinal application, and now in true permaculture fashion we were reacquainting ourselves by getting our (sterilized) hands dirty out at the farm.

Checking out a specimen that Tony has identified as a likely Ganoderma applanatum (artist’s conk) – although Robert Rogers isn’t sold on the ID.

Earlier that morning, we had inoculated some red alder logs with myceliated shiitake plugs. The mycologist Peter McCoy has called shiitake “one of the most potent, fleshy, fungal megafood-medicines”, and it’s a description I like because it covers all the bases: the mushroom is high in Vitamin D and the full range of essential amino acids, as well as lentinan, a beta-glucan that shows promise as an anti-cancer agent. But it’s also an ideal culinary mushroom, and its logs a good addition for the garden.

Using a 5/16” drill bit, we drilled holes to a 2 inch depth, roughly 4 inches apart in a diamond pattern. Then, with a mallet and a bag of shiitake plugs, we inoculated the log with the mushroom spawn before sealing up the holes and the ends of the log with beeswax. After it incubates for a year or so, we’ll be able to induce a “flush” of mushrooms by soaking the log in cold water – the temperature preferred by shiitakes as it mimics the cool weather of fall – for about 24 hours. After the first round of mushrooms is harvested, the logs should rest for a month or two before being soaked again to induce another flush.

(L-R): Sealing the autoclavable polypropylene grow bag after mixing in grain spawn to inoculate the sawdust substrate; organic rye grain inoculated with Pleurotus columbinus (Blue oyster mushroom) mycelium; heat-resistant sealant used for the syringe filter on a liquid culture canning jar.

With the sawdust grow bags and the alder logs inoculated, we turned our attention outdoors. A wander around the farm yielded some fantastical-looking (but inedible) elfin saddles, growing together under a stand of conifers like a scene from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Tony had a bag of Stropharia rugosoannulata (king stropharia) spawn with him, and so we staked out a good location for a mushroom bed a distance away from the conifers.

The king stropharia is a fantastic permaculture garden companion: prolific and striking, it’s easy to grow and is considered a choice edible. It’s beneficial for pollinators and can help guard against colony collapse – in the early ‘80s, Paul Stamets noted bees flocking to wood chip piles to sip on the strophs’ mycelial sweat, which contains antibiotic and immunological properties. But it helps out below ground, too. Like the shiitakes, its mycelium breaks down organic matter and nourishes the soil. It can perform mycofiltration, cleaning biological contaminants like E.coli from storm runoff and filtering greywater. And it’s friendly to most plants, an especially good companion for squash and blueberries.  

Red alder logs being drilled for and filled with shiitake-inoculated plugs.

We framed up the bed using some four foot lengths of wood, and lined the bottom with cardboard before alternating woodchips and stroph sawdust spawn in “lasagne” layers, finally finishing with a topping of straw and a good watering. Ideally we would have inoculated the bed about a month before freezing temperatures, but as we were a bit late – there’s frost in the forecast this week – we gave the bed an extra blanket with some more cardboard and a couple of fallen tree limbs.

With some regular watering, we can expect to see young mushrooms (“primordia”) emerging in anywhere from four to twelve months. Those that aren’t harvested will mature and produce spores for reproduction. I pictured them, floating around by the tens-of-thousands. Which brings me back to Tony and his mid-sentence thought. “You know—” he said, pausing for a beat, “—I was reading ‘Healthy Gut, Healthy You,’ and forest bathing is good for your microbiome, unless you only go sometimes.” It had been a good afternoon, and I thought of his words now: maybe a few spores up the nose aren’t so bad after all.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.