One of the techniques we’ve learned from studying permaculture is to try to find ways to make our farm resources serve two purposes. Here is one example. Fruit trees need lots of mulching or they do not produce much fruit. Our fruit orchard contains 30 or so different kinds of fruit trees that we mulch with a very thick apron of hardwood chips. Hardwood chips make great mulch because they break down slowly, providing good moisture retention and slow nutrient release to the fruit trees, and they are sustainably harvested from tree-pruning activities in our woods and the surrounding area.
Wood chips can also serve double duty by providing habitat for certain kinds of culinary mushrooms. Last spring we planted winecap mushrooms (sourced from Field & Forest) in a dozen or so of the woodchip aprons. I typically think mushrooms want to grow in the woods, but I guess these mulch aprons provided a similar habitat: moist and shaded. Mushrooms are fickle and you really don’t know when you plant them if you will get any harvest at all. So we were really thrilled to see winecaps emerging in mid-August. They seem to fruit whenever the weather changes (a sudden rain storm or especially cold night will bring up mushrooms). Now we will see if the presence of the mushrooms helps the fruit trees themselves get stronger.
Our wood-cultured mushrooms grow at their own pace outdoors, and we do not do anything strange or un-natural to encourage them to fruit faster. Since we provide them with a mineral-rich growing medium, they have a terrific, intense flavor. Some store-brand dried shiitake (so I hear) are grown indoors on paper, so they do not have any way to develop their flavor. I suppose they look like a mushroom but taste like paper.
Winecaps have their pros and cons. They emerge all of a sudden and grow quickly, so it’s easy to miss them. They can be past the stage where you’d want to eat them before you even notice they’re there. For this reason, I’m glad ours are planted in the orchard, which is right by the house and we walk through it every day. Other mushrooms, like shiitake, grow a little more slowly, so we can grow them back in the woods and only check on the logs a couple of times a week. Compared to shiitake, one downside of winecaps is that they do not keep well once you pick them. They need to be cooked the same day or the day after picking at the latest. Shiitake, on the other hand, will keep in the refrigerator a few days longer. Also, fewer people are familiar with winecaps, unlike shiitakes, which practically sell themselves. But the taste of the winecaps is really exquisite. Having never eaten them before this harvest, we are so pleased with the taste. And the smell of the house when mushrooms are dehydrating is like heaven.