A wee childhood dream came true last week: I’m growing oyster mushrooms in my closet.
I was somewhat of a strange child, disturbed by Barbie dolls with their pointy tits and, instead, obsessed with pug-nosed trolls with electric blue hair. On camping excursions with my family, I’d scurry off into the thick of trees and scrub and brush and build humble troll homes on the tops of rotted out tree stumps that were carpeted in hairy moss and long to live amongst the magical world of mushrooms and toadstools.
In truth, nothing much has changed. Only today I can decide for myself what belongs in the closet. Shoes, clothes, books? Heck no. Mushrooms, naturally. Clearly, I remain more loyal to trolls than Barbie dolls.
“Aren’t you worried about the mold?” asked my mother, obviously less than impressed with my new home garden project.
“Oh no. Our place is all tile and concrete. There’s no problem,” I told her.
Admittedly, it has contributed to the increased humidity in our apartment — but I only reassure myself that it’s good for my dry gardener’s hands.
Our oyster mushrooms arrived nearly three weeks ago. Alphonse, a friend who grows mushrooms for sale in the Kabale market, hooked us up with mushroom seed (mycelium packaged in cotton and sorghum waste) from Rwanda. We paid 17,000 shillings for the five “seeds” which is the equivalent of around $7 dollars CAN.
The set up was easy. Atayo built a simple raised bed. He lined the wooden stand with a plastic potato sack and filled with organic soil from the garden. And then we planted the white stump-like seeds in the soil. Watered. And covered with a plastic bag.
Growing oyster mushrooms, I’ve decided, is sort of like keeping some kind of extraterrestrial pet. After waiting and watering the seeds for two weeks, one morning I lifted up the plastic covering like a veil and cooed in awe at the strange protrusion of small alien fingers, unfurling themselves from the packed stump. Looking down, I felt as though I were in outer space gazing at the surface of a menacing, uninhabitable planet.
After germination, the mushrooms were ready to be harvested within three days. I plucked off a few handfuls into a plastic bag. Five seeds had produced nearly two kilos of mushrooms which I knew could sell for 16,000 shillings in the local market. After our first harvest, we’d nearly made back our initial capital input and, according to Alphonse, the seeds would continue to grow for another three months. Not bad at all, folks.
Though we’re not growing large-scale and mostly for our own consumption (and amusement/entertainment), mushroom production is an excellent food security solution in southwestern Uganda, particularly for women and youth who often lack access to land for planting.
Paul Stamets, a world-renowned mycologist, author and mushroom activist, would agree — and then some. His most recent book is called Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, which documents a plethora of ways that growing mushrooms (wild and domestic) can contribute to human and environmental health.
Check out the following information from Discover Magazine:
Stamets is researching a wide variety of ways in which fungi could help solve human problems. Here is a partial list:
Environmental cleanup: Mushrooms could be used to break down petrochemicals or absorb radiation from contaminated soil and water.
Wastewater filtration: Mushroom mycelia could cleanse runoff from storm drains, farms or logging roads. They could be used to filter out the nitrates, endocrine disrupters and pharmaceutical residues that disrupt ecosystems and damage human health.
Pesticides: Fungal bug-killers could be used to target troublesome species while remaining nontoxic to others.
Medicines: Mushrooms could provide new antibiotic, antiviral and immune-boosting compounds and even chemotherapies.
Forestry: Planting symbiotic mushroom species could speed reforestation in clear-cut woodlands.
Agriculture: Adding mycorrhizal fungi to soil could improve crop yields without the need for toxic chemical fertilizers.
Famine relief: Mushrooms could be grown rapidly in refugee camps and disaster zones, using just wood chips or saltwater-soaked straw.
Biofuels: Growing mushrooms for biodiesel could require far less soil and other resources than commonly cultivated fuel crops.
Space travel: Because of their usefulness in soil creation, and the tolerance of many species for radiation, mushrooms could be grown by interstellar voyagers and used to terraform other worlds.
(I particularly dig this last point. This is comforting news, indeed.)
Anyways, our first mushroom harvest found itself in a delicious tomato sauce. We’re already musing about the next week’s recipe: roasted mushies, mozzarella and basil pizza which we’ve mastered on our two-burner gas stove. Mmm is for mushrooms.
Growing oysters in the closet has been the best use of any storage space, ever.
PS – If you enjoyed these musings on mushrooms, check out my story ‘Searching for the Shaggy-Maned Ones’.