Eric Hanson wrote:Dorothy,
Sorry I missed this earlier. Mushrooms are not only a great crop to grow, they are a great companion crop for other vegetables. I have done some experimentation and my personal favorite combination is to grow Wine Cap mushrooms in a bed of tomatoes. I will try to explain here.
First off, the Wine Caps. Since you have never grown mushrooms before, Wine Caps are a great way to start. Wine Caps are kinda like training wheels for mushroom growers. They grow aggressively and they thrive on neglect. Importantly, they actually prefer to have some sunlight--dappled shade is the term that gets used. This is exactly the sunlight you will find underneath bushy tomato plants. You do want to make sure that the Wine Caps have plenty of moisture--their growing medium should be damp--but then you want your tomatoes to have water also. I would say that if you are getting one watered, you are probably watering the other by default. Further, as the Wine Cap fungus breaks down the wood chips or straw (you can use either), they leave behind a wonderfully rich compost filled with microorganisms. My tomatoes have never looked so healthy since I started growing them alongside Wine Caps.
So about the Tomatoes. Tomatoes make a great companion for Wine Caps for a variety of reasons. Tomatoes love heat and grow vigorously in the summer, exactly when the Wine Caps need shade. Tomatoes send out a dense network of fine roots and the main fungal body of the Wine Cap will intricately wrap itself around the tomato roots. They actually feed each other! If you are watering your tomatoes, you are probably watering your Wine Caps as well. Also, the tall, arching nature of the tomato plants allows for some natural air circulation (without being windy) around the areas growing Wine Caps. I have tried other plants to use as companions with Wine Caps but I keep coming back to tomatoes which seem to work best.
I realize that in your area wood chips might be hard to come by and the wood chips you can get would probably be conifers that are not conducive to Wine Cap growth. Fear not as you can absolutely use straw as a growing medium! It is good that you have an ample supply of straw. Straw has some advantages and some disadvantages as compared to wood chips. But first we will work with the advantages. Straw will tend to colonize faster and produce mushrooms faster. However, when growing in straw, Wine Caps tend to live fast and die young. The basic life cycle of a fungus is that the main body (what we typically call the fungus, or sometimes the mildew) will get established in a medium (straw or woodchips), grow and become established. During this phase the fungi undergo sexual reproduction and aggressively colonize the growing medium. The fungus is happy to do this until it exhausts it supply of food (Straw, Wood Chips) at which point it sort of panics, pushes up a mushroom and releases spores (the asexual part) that blow in the wind to land somewhere else to begin the cycle again.
What this all means for growing mushrooms is that the faster the substrate produces actual mushrooms, the faster it will need replacement. Essentially a mushroom grows when the fungi is in danger of starving. Wood chips are a bit more dense than straw and in my experience take a full year to actually push up a mushroom (mileage may vary) but the fruiting lasts longer as there is more actual food available. Straw, on the other hand, starts out quickly, often taking half the time to produce a mushroom and sometimes even less--but those are under ideal circumstances. When they do produce a flush, get them quickly as they tend to burst out of the straw but the fruiting won't last long. Also, pick the Wine Caps early when they are still small, meaning 1-2 inches in diameter. This is when they taste best and at this point they really do taste quite good. However, let them grow and they will easily get to the size of dinner plates! They can get HUGE quickly. I mean no exaggeration when I say this but there are times when I would leave for an errand, check on the mushrooms and see some prime-to-pick mushrooms in the garden. I would return in 1-2 hours and they would be HUGE. Once they get so huge, I would not bother eating them. They are not poisonous, but the leather in your shoes would probably taste better! Wine Caps really need to be picked while still small and a delay of even an hour can ruin them. You might even want to pick them several times per day.
Personally, for me the actual mushroom is a tasty side effect. My main purpose of growing Wine Caps is to produce mushroom compost and I think this is one of the most fertile growing mediums available on earth. I have an abundance of wood chips and in one season I can turn those chips from wood into something that looks like coffee grounds but with the fertility of aged manure. You can get something similar with straw, but straw just won't be as substantial as wood chips. You will still get some great growing media, especially if you are using entire bales of straw. In fact I would grow it for this reason alone, even if you can't get a single mushroom.
Dorothy, I realize this has been a long post. I do have two long running posts about growing mushrooms and if you like I could link those in. I wish you the best of luck and encourage you on your mushroom journey. I am an advocate for Wine Caps, but you can make up your own mind--you may have other plans and I will try to help you as I can with those.
I hope this is helpful and best of luck to you,