HAVE you seen the Mushroom Man? No? Well, have you looked in the Secret Garden? It’s a real place, you know, a half-hidden community garden at the corner of Linden Street and Broadway, in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
The Mushroom Man is real, too. His name is Kendall Morrison — he’s 47 years old and semiretired from the publishing business — and on any given weekend, you’re likely to find him in a shady grove of silver maples, cultivating eight varieties of mushrooms.
You might not be able to tell right away what Mr. Morrison is doing. He may be wielding a hand drill, for instance, boring holes into a salvaged oak log. Or he may be pounding inchlong dowels into the wood with a mallet, each little peg impregnated with shiitake mushroom spawn.
“We started right around November,” Mr. Morrison said, referring to his 15 volunteers, “and we haven’t stopped. As long as we can work back there, we worked. Even when there was snow on the ground.”
There are perhaps 200 billets now, stacked like Lincoln Logs. While the wood sits impassively, as logs will do, long strands of mushroom — or mycelium — are infiltrating the grain and starting to decompose it. Later this spring and in the fall, the logs should flush with “fruit” where the spawn went in.
The reward? About a pound of edible mushrooms per log.
Mr. Morrison hopes to distribute this harvest to his many helpers. His nonprofit group, EcoStation: NY, will also be selling the mushrooms — at a very reasonable price, he said — to neighbors who drop by the Bushwick Farmers’ Market held at the garden from late May through Thanksgiving.
Yet more mushrooms are growing in burlap sacks stuffed with wood chips. There are 250 of these bags stacked in piles three feet tall that snake around the garden’s pathways.
“It looks like World War I,” Mr. Morrison said. “Like you’re in the trenches. In a way, this is the mushroom revolution here.”
If small-scale mushrooming is indeed a movement, Mr. Morrison seems to have a growing number of comrades nationwide. “Plug spawn sales are increasing dramatically,” said Paul Stamets, a prominent mycologist and founder of Fungi Perfecti, the Washington-state company from which Mr. Morrison orders many of his spawn and supplies.
“The mushroom kit sales are increasing at maybe 25 percent per year, for the last three years,” he said. “The plug spawn sales are easily double that over a three- or four-year period.”
Mr. Stamets, 54, attributes this new popularity to the “magical” flush of the mushroom. “They’re seemingly invisible, and yet they erupt into view within a day or two,” he said. “There are mushrooms that will break through concrete, and there are mushrooms that form fairy rings. People are curious about that.”
Cooking shows and food magazines now call for something more than the standard plastic-wrapped button mushroom, according to Mary Ellen Kozak, 50, who is an owner of the mushroom-supply company Field and Forest Products in Peshtigo, Wis. A recent Martha Stewart Living recipe recommended beech mushrooms, Ms. Kozak noted. “I don’t know that I would have seen that five years ago, even,” she said.
Feeding those foodie appetites — and the farmers’ markets that sell to them — has created new demand for mushroom spawn and gear, said Joe Krawczyk, 53, Ms. Kozak’s husband and business partner. “We’ve shown a real steady uphill growth of 5 percent a year for the last 10 years,” he said. “But we’ve seen a real jump of sales — 20 percent — in 2009. And we’re 20 percent over last year, already,” year to date.
Shiitake mushrooms have been grown successfully in Japan for at least a millennium, Mr. Stamets said. But if old photos are to be believed, the “soak and strike” method required a certain comfort level with chilly water, colossal hammers and crippling labor. The tamer and more reliable backyard business began in the United States around the same time as his company — that is, 1980 — with the concept of nurturing all kinds of spawn in grain and then shipping them by mail.
Mushrooms like the shiitake, wine cap, oyster and lion’s mane have taken to home domestication. All are widely available in spawn form and are reasonably easy to grow. But other gourmet varieties, like chanterelles and truffles, continue to defy most human meddling.
The mushroom’s temperament in a word: capricious.
Most backyard growers tend to inoculate — that is, seed — wood chips, logs or straw. But Cory Finneron, a 27-year-old census temp, in Asheville, N.C., has developed mycelium on recycled coffee grounds and pine kitty litter. And Ron Spinosa, a 67-year-old mental health worker, in St. Paul, Minn., has raised oyster mushrooms on rolls of toilet paper. (He recommends that the paper be unbleached.)
The most convenient way of raising mushrooms, though, is with kits that come with the spawn already inoculated into toaster-size blocks of sawdust, wood chips and grains. Cut open the top of the breathable plastic bag, spray it periodically with a mister and wait for the fruit to arrive.
Beyond shipping some 20,000 of these kits a year, Mr. Stamets is a big thinker and innovator in the mushroom world — the Steve Jobs of fungus, perhaps. Mr. Stamets’s research has led him to believe that mushrooms can play a potent role in decomposing pollutants — filtering contaminants from waterways and restoring microbial diversity to barren soils.
Mr. Morrison discovered these ideas in Mr. Stamets’s latest book, “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.” Before it was a mushroom forest, the Secret Garden’s woodland was better known as the neighborhood dump. Remodelers heaped construction waste there in six-foot-high mounds.
After hauling the garbage out over a period of three years, starting in 2007, Mr. Morrison and his friends carted in 180 cubic yards of wood chips. He hopes that the oyster mushroom spawn he has introduced into this mulch will help to produce a new, healthy soil system. (Though mushrooms may disassemble toxins into less noxious substances, this fruit will not be for sale.)
Just as mushrooms form vast underground complexes of mycelium, the act of growing them seems to create a social network of its own. Mr. Morrison, for instance, gave a handful of lion’s mane dowels to Mark Stonehill, a 22-year-old city parks worker who volunteered a couple of weekends at the Bushwick garden.
Mr. Stonehill went on to inoculate a pair of logs in his parents’ basement in Astoria, Queens. He extended the mushroom chain by inviting his own helpmates: his girlfriend, Miriam Goler, a 22-year-old AmeriCorps volunteer and food activist, and one of her co-workers.
Ms. Goler declared this midwinter event a party — though admittedly a tame one. “We checked on my parents every once in a while to make sure the sound of the drill wasn’t bothering them,” Mr. Stonehill said. “Luckily, we finished before they went to bed.”
The idea of mushroom “inoculation parties” may sound every bit as zeitgeisty — and unlikely — as the key parties of yore. But Ms. Kozak, who founded Field and Forest Products with her husband 27 years ago, reports that it has been shipping extra-large batches of shiitake plug spawn to gatherings across the country in the past five years.
“It’s an activity meant for socialization,” Ms. Kozak said. “Sort of like shucking peas.”
Some of these inoculation parties double as teaching workshops. For five years, Ken Mudge, an associate professor of horticulture at Cornell University, has been leading an annual mushroom cultivation weekend at the university’s Arnot Teaching and Research Forest. He calls it Camp Mushroom.
Mr. Mudge believes that mushrooms are an ideal market crop for Northeast farmers, and others who own small and neglected forest lots. Fresh shiitakes fetch around $16 a pound at a farmers’ market, he said.
Those delicacies represent a bargain, he argued, compared with month-old grocery store slop. “I would describe that stuff as looking like shoe leather,” he said.
This year’s Camp Mushroom, which takes place on Friday and Saturday, filled up fast, as usual, Mr. Mudge said. But he has plans to add three more seminars to meet the growing demand.
WITH just an e-mail message or two, Jeremy and Aimee McAdams attracted 30-odd souls to the free mushroom workshop they held in their Minneapolis garage on a nippy Saturday in March. The permaculture crowd had turned out, including a lissome woman in her 30s wearing a pair of gray mouse ears, who was handing out her address for a kombucha-brewing session the next day.
Mr. McAdams led the assembled past his 10-by-4-foot “fruiting coral,” explaining in an easy patter how he stands the logs upright to form a shapelier mushroom. For her part, Ms. McAdams had baked pumpkin-and-chocolate-chip muffins.
If urban homesteaders ever get their own Food Network show, this is what it might look like.
The McAdamses have lots of time to audition for the part. Mr. McAdams, 36, lost his job in commercial architecture more than a year and a half ago. Ms. McAdams, 31, is an out-of-work librarian.
Having bought their 1890s home out of foreclosure for $30,000 (the architectural style might best be described as “Still Standing”), the couple has begun to turn it into a tiny city farmstead. There’s a home-sewing business to open, for starters, and a root cellar to finish. For now, though, the mushrooms are keeping them busy. Mr. McAdams hopes to market some 200 pounds of shiitakes under the name Cherry Tree House Mushrooms to local restaurants. This harvest will come from the 110 logs laid out in a kind of grid in the side yard. Another 125 reside at a neighbor’s house.
A few days after the workshop, over a pot of Keemun hao ha tea, Mr. McAdams announced that they still needed more space.
“I’m in negotiation with someone two or three blocks up,” he said.
Ms. McAdams added: “He buys eggs from us” — they have a chicken coop, of course —“so we’ve kind of gotten to know him.”
They’ll have to reach an arrangement soon. After 90 minutes or so, Mr. McAdams excused himself: he had an appointment to keep with a landowner on the far northern fringe of the Twin Cities, the kind of half-rural country where you slam into deer at dusk. Mr. McAdams had a line on a loaner van, and the timber was stacked to go.
If everything went right, another 100 logs would be ready to seed by Friday night.