New gardeners should make room for ’shrooms

I THINK mushrooms are probably the ultimate crop for the time-poor, space-challenged gardener. Everything you need to produce several kilograms of fabulous, fresh fungi comes in a smallish box, or kit. In our climate, mushroom kits are best grown in the cooler months.

A typical mushroom kit will contain a small bag of casing material, and a larger bag of mushroom compost, which has been impregnated with mycelium, from which the mushrooms will grow. All you need to do is open the box, spread the casing material on top of the compost, and keep it moist in a cool position out of direct sunlight. The most commonly available kits contain either white button mushrooms or swiss browns.

Mushrooms do not need sun to grow. In fact, direct sun can dry out, overheat and even kill the mycelium. So position your mushroom kit where there is absolutely no sunlight. Ambient light is okay, but not essential. In a brightly lit location, the mushrooms may be darker in colour, but they will still taste the same. An indoor position is ideal, because your kit will be safe from mushroom-eating wildlife such as slugs and snails. Keep the kit out of drafts and away from heaters, which may dry things out and limit growth. A humid environment is good, so the bathroom or laundry could work.

They do need fresh air, so a cupboard is probably not such a good spot. You will need to mist the compost with a spray bottle each day to keep it moist, so make sure it's easily accessible.

Nothing much will happen for the first seven-14 days. But then, you will notice tiny white pinheads starting to appear on the casing surface. They will grow incredibly quickly, just about doubling in size every day. You can pick the mushrooms while they are young, as button mushrooms, or let them grow a little more, but be aware that the yield may be better if you pick them young. Once mushrooms start to form, avoid wetting them while you are moistening the compost.

When it comes time to harvest, don't cut the mushrooms off, as the remaining stem will rot in the compost. Instead, hold the stem and gently twist it, breaking the bottom of the stem. Try not to disturb the adjacent mushrooms or remove too much compost, as this will reduce cropping.

A new flush will start to appear a week or so after the previous one has been harvested.

Each box will produce at least three flushes of mushrooms, with two large flushes first and then one or more smaller ones. Eventually, the kit will be exhausted, at which time you can add that beautiful mushroom compost to the garden.

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