By Bob Smith / Kitsap News Group
PORT ORCHARD — Bob Gilby, who operates Rokalu Farms on Glenwood Road Southwest with his wife, Donna Branch-Gilby, has spent the past several months studying up on all things having to do with mushrooms.
He’s been soaking up every bit of information about mycology, the study of fungi, and is an avid reader of the popular western Washington website fungiperfecti.com, which details how hobbyists can cultivate and enjoy their own crop of mushrooms.
The former industrial engineer took the knowledge he’s picked up and developed a process to produce gourmet mushrooms on logs. With the help of Donna and a small group of interested friends and neighbors, Gilby started the process in late March.
First, he and a friend felled tree limbs on his 26-acre property near the Pierce County line, which will serve as hosts for the fungi.
But, according to the budding mycologist, not just any tree limb will do. He selected alder, plum, maple and conifer sections on his property that were from 4 to 8 inches in diameter, then cut them into 2- to 4-foot sections.
A critical part of the process, he cautioned, is that the cut wood never must touch the ground. He stacked the section in a shaded spot and left them to sit for two to three weeks to let the natural antifungal properties of the wood dissipate.
“It’s best to harvest the wood when it’s beginning to bud,” Gilby said. “That’s when there’s the most moisture in the wood, which is in the spring.”
His small contingent of helpers then got to work using a drill and a hammer. They drilled 5/16-inch holes between 3 and 4 inches apart into the wood sections in a hex pattern, large enough to accept quarter-inch dowels — spawn plugs — permeated with little pieces of mycelium containing fungi spores.
With a steady tapping of the hammer, the dowels were driven into the drilled-out holes to start the colonization process. Gilby and his crew had plenty of the treated dowels to work with; he purchased batches of 1,000 dowels each containing the three varieties of mushroom to be grown on his property: Phoenix Oyster, Blue Oyster and Lion’s Mane.
After the dowels were tapped into place, his crew then used a paintbrush to seal the plugs with food-grade cheese wax. That was necessary to keep out hardy wild fungi that otherwise would take over the plug.
“The wild fungi are aggressive — that’s how they got to be wild,” Gilby said. “These gourmet mushrooms are shy. They’re not so aggressive, so if you have both kinds of fungi in this log, the wild guys win.”
That’s why rotted wood or sections that have been sitting on the ground are poor candidates to become a home for gourmet mushrooms. Just like any finicky prospective homeowner, not just any place will do. Gilby said the Phoenix Oyster mushrooms will grow best inside conifer logs and the Blue Oyster thrive in hardwoods. Lion’s Mane, a bizarre-looking mushroom that nonetheless is a gourmand’s favorite, loves to set up house in deciduous wood — maple and plum, for example.
Gilby said his Rokalu Farms property is a perfect setting to grow mushrooms. Within it is a tall, thick growth of oversized Christmas trees that offer a prime resting place for the wood sections. The pieces of cut wood were laid pyramid-style, but off the ground, within the dense foliage of the property’s forested area. It’s dark within the canopy, stays moist and can be easily kept that way in the summer by turning on a fountain sprinkler to keep the burlap-covered wood from getting dry.
Since this is Gilby’s initial mushroom production effort, he suspects the first harvest won’t take place until about a year from now.
“There are a number of fruitings in which you can harvest,” he said. “I’ll check them after about six months. If it looks like we have some ready, we’ll harvest. Otherwise, we’ll wait and watch.”
One method mushroom growers use to encourage growth in the summer is to take a log off the pile and put it into a tub of ice water for a couple of days “to convince it that it’s November.”
When the time comes to harvest his bounty of mushrooms, Gilby said he’ll look forward to seeing the different shapes and smells each variety offers. The Phoenix Oyster, he said, comes out like a fleshy lily. The Blue Oyster appears like a cluster of little rounded shells. And the Lion’s Mane — the odd duck of the group — will debut as a little mushroom button “with a bunch of hairs coming out,” Gilby said.
But it’s the end result in the kitchen that counts. Whether the ‘shrooms are dehydrated, pickled, canned or frozen, these delicacies are well worth the delicate treatment they get along the way.
Donna Gilby said she’s looking forward to spending time in the kitchen with the Lion’s Mane.
In spite of its weirdness, she said its flavor reportedly can’t be topped. “Connoisseurs say that with a little butter, this gourmet mushroom tastes like lobster.”
But before then, patience and those cold November rains we’re accustomed to will need to take precedence, as nature has mandated for millennia.
This story originally appeared in the Kitsap Daily News, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.