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    Why You Should Add Wine Cap Mushrooms to Your Garden

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    Why You Should Add Wine Cap Mushrooms to Your Garden

    If you love mushrooms but think that they are complicated or expensive to grow, then the King Stropharia mushroom is for you. The King Stropharia – often called the wine cap mushroom, garden giant, or even Godzilla mushroom – is a low-tech, accessible mushroom that is easy to grow and ideal for the home garden.

    “Many people think they have to spend a lot of money or even have a science lab to grow mushrooms,” says Stephanie Balcazar, who teaches workshops in organic home gardening and permaculture in Oregon and California. “I want to show people how they can use their surroundings to grow mushrooms…Nature is the best laboratory.”

    The wine cap has a classic mushroom shape, with a rounded cap atop a sturdy stem. However, their caps feature a unique deep burgundy color as they grow. And these mushrooms do grow — sometimes reaching eight inches in height, a foot in width, and a pound or two in weight.

    The wine cap mushroom doesn't break down when cooked at high heat, making it an excellent choice for stir-frying, grilling, and sautéing. Chefs often use them in recipes that call for cremini, white button, or Portobello mushrooms. Wine caps are a good source of fiber, and they also contain protein, vitamin D, iron, amino acids, and calcium.

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    But the benefits of growing these garden giants go far beyond the kitchen. “These mushrooms help the soil,” says Balcazar. “The King Stropharia can break down the soil – they can even grow through concrete – and substantially change soil into rich humus. They allow the earth to regenerate.”

    Wine cap mushrooms also can be used to remediate the soil, such as after an oil spill. “These mushrooms love oil and petroleum,” says Balcazar. “They will ingest the toxins and help clean the soil.” She quickly adds that mushrooms used for remediation purposes should not be eaten.

    Distinctive for their burgundy color, wine cap mushrooms often grow in forested areas or parks where wood debris and mulch lie on the ground. This video shows you how to identify them safely. However, it is the wine cap mushroom's taste for wood chips that makes it an easy variety to grow at home. In addition to wood chips, these voracious wood eaters feed on mulch, hay, and sawdust.

    “You can experiment and use what you have at home,” says Balcazar, adding that she once used hay and horse manure when planting a wine cap mushroom patch at a horse farm.

    The wine cap is a fall fruiting mushroom. Spring planting typically results in fall fruiting, and fall planting typically results in fruiting the following fall.

    At a recent mushroom planting workshop at Raptor Creek Farm in Grants Pass, Oregon, Balcazar used wine cap mushroom spawn purchased online from Field and Forest Products. One large $25 bag contained enough sterile mushroom spawn to plant three small patches. You also can purchase wood chips or sawdust online that have been inoculated with wine cap mushroom spores.

    Balcazar mentioned another option is to obtain wine cap spawn from friends and neighbors. “A little (spawn) can go a long way,” she comments.

    Planting Wine Cap Mushrooms

    Here are the steps for planting your wine cap mushroom patch.

    1. Choose the Best Spot

    Wince cap mushrooms prefer indirect sunlight. Balcazar suggested that home gardeners look for shaded areas, such as under a tree, beside a raised bed, on the shady side of your house, or even in and around ornamental plants. Look for a location that is accessible to water.

    2. Prepare the Bed and Select Your Substrate

    Dig a hole that is six to 12 inches in depth. Gather woodchips, straw, or a combination of both. If the straw or wood chips are dry, moisten them with water before planting.

    3. Create Layers

    Place a substrate layer and then sprinkle crumbled spawn on top of the substrate. Balcazar recommends working from the outside edges inward. Then, cover the spawn with another layer of substrate and repeat the process two times. The last step is to cover the entire area with soil or compost. Balcazar often adds a moistened sheet of cardboard on top.

    4. Maintain the Patch

    After an initial thorough watering, aim to keep your mushroom patch damp but not wet. About an inch of water per week is the standard rule of thumb, but the amount needed can vary, depending on sun exposure, bed depth, and wind.

    As you check for moisture levels, be sure to keep an eye out for white, thread-like material. These threads are the mycelium — the mushroom's roots — and are signs of growth.

    Wine Cap Mushrooms

    5. Harvest the Mushrooms

    Wine cap mushrooms planted in the early spring typically fruit about six months after planting. You can harvest them when young, bell-shaped button caps or wait a few days for the caps to flatten out somewhat. However, be aware that once the burgundy cap color begins to fade, and the gills darken, the mushroom's taste and integrity are deteriorating.  

    You can harvest wine cap mushrooms by cutting the stems near the base or gently twisting them from the ground. You can store them in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator for a few days.

    6. Rejuvenate the Patch

    According to Balcazar, wine cap mushroom beds may fruit for up to five years or more. “Check your bed to see how it's doing,” she suggests. “By year two, you may need to add some more wood chips. By year three of four, you may need to add some more mycelium (spawn).”

    “Healthy mycelium will last for years, and the spores will jump patches. That's what we hope will happen here,” notes Balcazar as she gestures to garden beds near the newly-planted mushroom patches at Raptor Creek Farm. “As long as they have things to eat, they will thrive. You can see that just a little bit of effort on your part will go a long way.”

    Here are some additional resources we found that offer everything from tips for getting your mushroom patch off to a great start to helping you cook your wine cap mushroom harvest.

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