Creating a Mushroom Demonstration Garden

by Terri Marie Beauséjour
Copyright 2000, all rights reserved.

This article first appeared in Mushroom: the Journal of Wild Mushrooming. Subscriptions are $25 for four quarterly issues from Mushroom the Journal, 1511 E. 54th St. Chicago, IL 60615.

The joy of growing mushrooms is multiplied a hundredfold when shared with others. It is especially fun to witness the excitement of those who unexpectedly encounter exotic mushrooms at a cultivation display or in a mushroom demonstration garden. The precious exclamations of surprise soon give way to a barrage of questions and queries: "Oh my, are those mushrooms?" and "They are so beautiful!" and "May I touch them?" and "Where did they come from?" and "Did you grow them?" and "I really want to do this!" and "How do I get started?" and "Can I buy some?" and "What about Chanterelles, can I grow Chanterelles?" and "Do you give classes?" and often "Wow, I had no idea you could grow mushrooms like this!"

One of the primary missions of the Mycological Society of San Francisco is to provide community education on all aspects of mycology. Our cultivation committee helps fulfill this mission by creating displays for various events and through other projects designed to demonstrate the possibilities in mushroom growing.

Some of our more recent forays into community involvement started with a display at our Annual San Francisco Mushroom Fair in December of 1998. Along with a rainbow of Pleurotus varieties bursting forth from the sawdust blocks still encased in their autoclavable polypropylene bags (ornamented a bit by ties of color-raffia to improve the aesthetic appeal of the wrappings), we presented essential equipment and supplies, samples of spawn medium, fruiting substrate and agar cultures, books on cultivation and growing, pictures of successful endeavors, and a "Mushrooms in the Garden" display. We also conducted several spontaneous demonstrations of log plugging techniques.

The display was a'buzz constantly from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday. We collected a healthy mailing list of aspiring cultivators and many signups for upcoming workshops. For many folks, this was the discovery of a whole new world.

The success of this display prompted us to participate in the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show the following March. In keeping with the garden theme, we created a mini-garden habitat, complete with potted trees, vegetables, herbs and flowers, a mini-lawn made from a strip of sod, woodchips and straw mulch, and even a compost "pile." A variety of interesting mushrooms were nestled in their respective microcosms: Agaricus in the lawn, Chanterelles and Candy Caps in the Oaks, Oysters in the straw and in mulch between the vegetable rows, Hericium in the wood, Coprinus in the compost, etc.

Thousands of gardening enthusiasts attended the show and had the opportunity to be astounded by the discovery of mushrooms in the garden. The show was so successful that it inspired the idea for a permanent, year-round mushroom demonstration garden in the botanical gardens at the Josephine Randall Museum in San Francisco. This is where we conduct our society's monthly meetings. The Randall's master gardener, Ken Litchfield, has enthusiastically embraced the concept, and has been instrumental in its manifestation.

The first step was to locate the garden in an area with limited exposure to direct sunlight. Ken determined that the east-facing wall of the courtyard would provide a good backdrop. The area already had some established trees and vines for shade, and is sheltered on three sides by exterior walls. The courtyard area provides grass along the front, and a nearby faucet provides ready access to required moisture.

The second step was to provide a functional yet attractive infrastructure. Inappropriate plants were removed. Rocks of various shapes and sizes were added for structural interest, arranged to simulate a creek bed along which ferns and other plantings (including a sassafras tree, Japanese anemone, honeysuckle and lilies) were installed for a woodland effect. The runoff from the faucet was allowed to flow through the garden along the creek bed to periodically boost the humidity.

Next we installed some planting barrels and boxes for isolating various types of wood decomposing species. This can be important in a small garden, as mixing species without barriers could create unwanted competition between the desired mycelia and limit potential diversity.

To get started, we filled the barrels and boxes with hardwood-based animal litter which had been discarded from certain of the live animal exhibits at the museum. (This will fortunately be an ongoing source of free substrate material.) We then mixed in with the wood litter several different varieties of Pleurotus spawn (obtained as "kits" from Western Biologicals of British Columbia). This was watered well, and covered with straw mulch which then was mixed in with the top layer of substrate. Within just a few weeks, we began to see periodic fruitings of different oyster mushrooms, including P. ostreatus, P. cornucopia (golden oyster), P. cystidiosus (abalone oyster) and P. flabellatusa (strawberry oyster).

Over time we have installed several more representations of commonly cultivated genera. One large installation was made in conjunction with a "Mushrooms in the Garden" workshop, for which we had recently gathered sign-ups at the S.F. Flower and Garden Show. The workshop was taught by Charmoon Richardson from Wild About Mushrooms and Tom Alexander of Mycological Landscaping, and was held at the Randall Museum.

In the classroom, we began with a lecture on sterile culture techniques, followed by a hands-on workshop where we multiplied several cultures of local wild strains of Pleurotus ostreatus from Mendocino, Bolinas and Salt Point. Next was a lecture on spawn preparation, followed by a hands-on workshop covering agar-to-spawn transfer techniques. Finally, in the courtyard adjacent to the mushroom garden, spawn-to-substrate techniques were demonstrated, including strawbag preparation, log plugging and direct planting in the garden.

In conjunction with the workshop, Charmoon and Tom generously donated several other cultures, including Shaggy Manes from a tissue culture of material from the 1998 San Francisco Mushroom Fair, and Turkey Tails collected from Salt Point and planted both in maple chips and plugged into hardwood logs. Workshop participants enthusiastically helped to plug, plant and place the cultures in the garden, enjoying the beautiful sunny day and surroundings of the many other specialty gardens: kitchen garden, butterfly garden, medicinal herb garden and hummingbird garden, to name a few.

Photo by Ken Litchfield

We have continued adding cultures to the mushroom garden periodically: Stropharia rugoso-annulata (King Stropharia) in compost adjacent to the lawn, Agaricus subrufescens (Almond Agaricus) and Agaricus bisporus (Portobello) planted in the lawn itself (by removing a section of lawn, mixing habitat spawn in with the soil, casing with some peat moss and replacing the grass carpet), Hericium erinaceum (Lion's Mane)in wood chip mulch, and Coprinus comatus (Shaggy Mane) in a woodchip compost mixture.

We have also been the grateful beneficiaries of a generous donation of Shiitake logs from one of our members, David Jackovich. David is the proprietor of a Shiitake farm in Wisconsin. He actually hand carried five cultured black oak logs on the plane flight returning to his home in Berkeley from an early summer trip to his farm. He selected a variety of strains to provide fruitings throughout the year, including a "wide range" strain with a spawn run of less than six months and a warm weather strain, both originating from Mushroom People of Summertown, Tenn., and two cold weather strains, RACW44 and Snowcap, originating from Field Products of Peshtigo, Wis. The logs are stamped with colored tags so we can keep track of which strains are fruiting at what times of the year.

According to Ken, the Oyster and Shiitake mushrooms have been fruiting off and on throughout the summer. (Our society conducts no general meetings between May and September, so we have monitored the garden through the eyes and digital photos of Ken.) But wonder of wonders -- for our first meeting of this local mushroom season in September, we were greeted by a gorgeous fruiting of the King Stropharia, one fruitbody quite large and impressive, more than 10 inches across its burgundy cap, and four other aspiring fruits ranging down to button size. Of course, a small quiz was given at the meeting -- who found the fruiting, and who could identify it. Methinks that some of our members will look more closely at the mushroom garden prior to the next meeting!

There are so many captivating cultivation projects to share with your friends and community. You don't have to belong to a mycological organization, or to be an experienced cultivator. All that's required is a creative and interesting idea, and the motivation to get it rolling. If you discover a garden show, mushroom fair, landscaping event or farmers market in your area, a compelling display can easily be created on a small scale with a basic understanding of a handful of mushrooms and their habitats of choice.

Even if you don't grow your own mushrooms, local cultivators are often pleased to contribute some fruiting fungi for display. If you do some cultivation yourself, consider sharing a glimpse of your fascinating world with the uninitiated. A local botanical garden may delight in creating a permanent "live" mushroom display. If you are a teacher, consider sharing an easy, fun cultivation project with your students, such as growing oyster mushrooms on toilet paper or paper towel rolls.

If you do belong to a mycological organization, bring some fruiting cultures to your meetings and events. If you are unsure of the timing of your own cultures for a specific event, plan to fruit something interesting from a kit. There are many sources, and they can usually provide a no-fuss kit whose timing is likely to work out well if you can give them a few weeks of lead time.

A myriad of possibilities exist, from a very small scale display with a few fruiting cultures and an intriguing handout, to something more elaborate such as a garden `vignette' or permanent display featuring multiple cultures and habitats. Personally, I am very enthusiastic about the doors that can be opened through communication with the "public" about growing mushrooms. As people are charmed by the discovery of possibilities, so are they enlightened through a greater awareness and understanding of the world of fungi.


Terri Terri Marie Beauséjour (Bo' say zhur) is a past-president of the Mycological Society of San Francisco and was chair of the society's Cultivation Committee. When not on the road to mycological adventure and discovery she works as a senior software engineer for a leading computer-aided design firm. She can be reached by email (russula@home.com) or by regular mail c/o Mycological Society of San Francisco, PO Box 882163, San Francisco CA 94188-2163.