Homesteaders are constantly trying to find a new product they can produce on their land and that is smart. If you never try anything new, you will eventually find yourself left behind, struggling to make a go of your dream. By adding a new product every year, if not every season, you diversify your opportunities, reduce risk, consistently surprise existing customers, and attract new ones. That being said, many homesteaders decide mushroom farming is probably too much work for too little reward. Nothing could be farther from the truth; growing red wine cap mushrooms is simple. Also called King Stropharia, they are the easiest edible mushrooms to cultivate and that makes them the best choice for beginners. Why wouldn’t you have a mushroom bed on your homestead?
Mushroom farming, regardless of how big or small your homestead is, has many benefits. First, the health benefits of mushrooms are well known. They help decrease inflammation, lower cholesterol, improve bone health and boost the immune system. This is reason enough to incorporate mushrooms into your family’s diet. They are also a terrific source of protein, making mushrooms a must-have if you or any of your family members are vegetarian or vegan. If you are operating a no-kill farm, mushrooms are a nice protein product to offer your customers.
Another reason to grow red wine cap mushrooms is that they benefit your existing garden and land. Grown under your taller plants, the mycelial network can penetrate much deeper than your vegetables can, allowing your garden plants to access more nutrients than they would be able to on their own. Not only will red wine cap mushrooms assist your vegetable garden, but the rest of your land as well. The National Institute of Health determined through scientific experiments that cultivating red wine cap mushrooms, Stropharia rugosoannulata, increases the organic material and available phosphorus, improving soil nutrient content as well as bacterial composition and diversity.
The third reason you should consider mushroom farming on your homestead is profitability. You can turn hardwood mulch and woodchips into a low-maintenance money-maker. Depending upon your location, expect red wine caps to sell for $8-$12 per pound. Because you can continually feed your mushroom bed and use the inoculated wood chips to make new mushroom beds, you only need reinvest time and energy, not money.
In addition to selling fresh red wine caps, you can also create value-added products to make even more money from your mushroom beds. Products such as marinated mushrooms, fresh mushroom pasta, and mushroom finishing salts are unusual and highly-profitable products at a farmers market.
Making a Mushroom Bed
Creating a bed to grow red wine cap mushrooms is very uncomplicated. As a homesteader, you might already be familiar with the technique called “lasagna gardening”. This is the simplest and most effective way to create a mushroom bed.
Red wine caps can be started at any time of year, but the best time to begin mushroom farming is late winter for spring harvest, or early spring to harvest in the fall.
To build your lasagna bed you first need to pick your patch. If you are not going to grow your red wine cap mushrooms under your vegetable plants, choose a semi-shady spot that has access to regular watering. You can create as large a bed as you have spores for, or create multiple beds around your property. It takes about 1 ½ cups of dried mushroom spores for 6 square feet.
Rake all grass, weeds, and debris from the area until you are to bare dirt. Fill your bare dirt patch with 2” of hardwood mulch. Add a layer of straw (or cardboard) and water generously. Thoroughly sprinkle mushroom spawn (which can be found at Amazon and elsewhere online) evenly over straw/cardboard. Add another layer of hardwood mulch, straw, and spawn. Top bed with a layer of hardwood mulch. Water the entire bed and keep constantly moist with a weekly soaking.
You will begin to see mushrooms in as little as two months, or it may take a full year. Red wine cap mushrooms look like portabellos with burgundy caps and purple-grey gills. Because you are cultivating outside, wild mushrooms may also pop up in your bed. Before harvesting, properly identify the mushrooms you have cultivated. Red wine cap mushrooms have a reddish-brown cap that becomes lighter as it matures. Their gills are greyish-purple and turn darker with maturity. There is a “King Crown” ring around the stem but no noticeable bulge where the mushroom meets the ground. These identifying clues should give you the confidence that you are picking the right mushrooms but the only way to truly identify a mushroom is with a spore print.
To make a spore print cut off the stem of the mushroom and place the cap, gill side down, on a sheet of white paper. Put a drop of water on top to help the spores drop. Cover the mushroom cap with a drinking glass and let sit for 24 hours. The spores will fall on the paper, making a spore pattern. The spore print from a red wine cap mushroom will be purplish-black.
Red wine caps can grow to an incredible size: up to four pounds and one foot or more in diameter. When they are this big they are good for marketing purposes, but not very tasty. Harvest your mushrooms as soon as you can see the gills. The caps should break off easily from the stalk. If the stem butt is covered in woodchips and mycelium, cut the butts off, roll them in wet cardboard and process quickly in a blender. Throw this mixture over the mushroom bed to keep growing mycelium.
Once your mushroom bed has been colonized for a full year, you can remove a five-gallon bucket of colonized woodchips and use it as spawn for a new bed of freshly cut hardwood chips. This is another thing that makes growing red wine caps such a good idea for homesteaders and market gardeners. As long as you keep using the inoculated woodchips you already have to make new beds, you will never run out of mushrooms.
If, after a season of mushroom farming, you find you have more than you can eat, sell, or give away, it is possible to preserve them by freezing. Choose the most perfect specimens. Mushrooms without bruises or blemishes will preserve better. Sort the mushrooms you have chosen by size. Trim off stem ends and wash mushrooms in cold water. Soak your mushrooms in a solution of one pint of water and one teaspoon of lemon juice while bringing a pot of water to a low boil. Drain the mushrooms and place them in the pot of water. Steam whole mushrooms for five minutes, buttons or quarters for three minutes. Cool quickly, drain, and package in freezer bags or containers, leaving 1/2” headspace for expansion. Seal, label, and freeze.
Mushrooms are a delicious and healthy addition to your diet. You can stir-fry them in some butter or olive oil and serve over toast for a quick lunch. Or, you can go all out and make this incredible mushroom stew. This recipe makes four large servings. It has been slightly adapted from a recipe found in the New York Times.
- 1 ½ pounds red wine cap mushrooms
- ½ pound chanterelles or oyster mushrooms
- extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
- 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped
- 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 Tablespoon tomato paste
- 3 Roma tomatoes, peeled and chopped
- 1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
- vegetable broth
- 1 Tablespoon butter
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- chopped parsley
Clean the mushrooms and trim any tough stems. Slice into uniform pieces.
In a large skillet, warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until the onion begins to brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.
Add another tablespoon of oil to the skillet and heat on high. Add red wine cap mushrooms, season lightly with salt and pepper and cook about 3 minutes. Lower heat to medium. Add thyme, rosemary, red pepper flakes, tomato paste, and tomatoes. Salt and pepper again. Sprinkle mixture with one tablespoon of flour, stirring to blend well. Stir in cooked onions.
Add one cup of vegetable broth and stir until incorporated. Gradually add one more cup of vegetable broth and cook 2 minutes, until it is the consistency of gravy. You can thin with more broth if necessary.
Just before serving, put butter and one tablespoon of olive oil in a fresh skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chanterelles or oyster mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper and cook until the mushrooms begin to brown. Add the minced garlic and parsley. Stir to blend and serve immediately.