Getting your kids involved with growing mushrooms can be a great way to expose them to life outside the plant and animal kingdoms. Plants and animals are tangible, while understanding bacteria can be a bit tricky. Mushrooms are a good middle ground where kids can watch them grow with their own eyes, but still understand that they’re something entirely different than the plants and animals they’re used to.
Getting Started with Mushrooms
If you’ve never grown mushrooms before, I’d highly recommend starting with an out of the box mushroom kit. It’ll familiarize you and your kids with the basic process and kits have a very high success rate. They’re also small and easily fit on a tabletop so you can watch your mushrooms grow day by day. Mushroom kits are generally about $20, so they’re an inexpensive way to see if your kids are interested in continuing on and getting more adventurous with mushrooms.
If you’d like to incorporate mushroom growing into your homeschool plan, Tradd Cotter outlines full age based mushroom growing lesson plans in his Organic Mushroom Farming book. Not only does the book have a great educational focus, it also takes you through step by step instructions on how to grow dozens of different mushroom species. If you’re a family looking for a small side mushroom growing income this book has everything you need to get you well on your way.
Stages of Mushroom Growth
Mushrooms begin as either spores, which are similar in concept to seeds, or mycelium cultures which is in some ways similar to starting a plant from a cutting. The spores or mycelium inoculate a substrate, such as logs, wood chips, compost, grain or just about any recognized growing medium that can be used to feed the mushrooms. Unlike plants, mushrooms derive their energy from decomposing a moist substrate, though they often use light to signal fruiting, they don’t directly feed on light as plants do.
Once the substrate has been inoculated with spores or mycelium culture, the mycelium will “run” and completely colonize the substrate. Kids can watch as the tiny threads of mycelium slowly take over the substrate, often in only a few days time depending on the substrate and type of mushroom.
After the mycelium has completely colonized, fruiting can begin and you’ll see primordia, or “baby mushrooms” beginning to form. There’s something particularly satisfying about hearing a toddler yell, “Primordia! Primordia right there mama!” They’ll slowly develop into full sized mushrooms, over the course of a day in fast growing species or over several days for other slower growing types.
Throughout the process it’s important to keep the mushrooms in optimal conditions, which often includes indirect sunlight and daily misting to maintain high humidity. The exact conditions required will vary based on your mushroom species, which is why it’s a great idea to begin with a mushroom kit and follow the instructions carefully on your first try.
Easy to Grow Mushroom Varieties
If you’ve tried a small home based kit and your kids loved it, try moving on to growing different mushroom varieties at home. There are many different ways to grow mushrooms, indoors and out. Outdoors adds a bit more risk, as the spores from just about any wild mushroom may have also colonized. If you choose to grow outdoors, choose easy to identify varieties and be sure to talk to your kids about mushroom safety.
Oyster on Coffee Grounds – A small bucket of fresh waste coffee grounds is easy to get from a local coffee shop. Ask them to save everything from that day for you and you’ll likely have more than enough to get started. If you want to use your own coffee grounds from home, keep them in an air tight container in the freezer until you’re ready to inoculate them. Mix in a bit of oyster mushroom spawn and you can have mushrooms in 3-5 weeks.
Wine Caps on Wood Chips – If you have outdoor space available, then growing wine cap mushrooms on wood chips is by far the simplest, most prolific and kid friendly mushroom you can find. Simply spread out the wood chips, ideally at least 3 inches thick to keep them from drying out, and rake in wine cap mushroom spawn. Without any extra tending, we’ve been able to literally harvest them by the wheelbarrow full.
Shiitake on Logs – If you have access to even a few hardwood logs, such as oak or maple, log cultivation can be particularly exciting as kids get to see mushrooms emerge from the wood. Ideally, start with logs about 8” in diameter and 3 ft long. Shiitake mushroom spawn comes inoculated into convenient dowel plugs that are easy to use. Simply drill a hole, tap in the plug with a mallet and cover with wax to prevent it from drying out. Our 14 month old loved getting to help with with the mallet. If you don’t have access to fresh cut hardwood, try a shiitake mushroom log kit.
There is a lot of fear on the part of parents around mushrooms, especially when it comes to young children that are in the habit of putting just about everything into their mouths. Though there’s a lot of fear around deadly mushroom species, those are actually quite rare. Though only about 1% of mushrooms are actually deadly toxic, it only takes one to make you wish you’d been more vigilant. You’ll need to evaluate based on your own child’s maturity level and ability to listen and follow instructions.
Thus far, growing mushrooms with a 2 year old, one simple rule has saved us a lot of frustration. Tell your children that all mushrooms must be cooked before eating them. While that’s not strictly true, you can work through exceptions to that rule when your kids are older. If you stick to that one and drill it into your kids, they’ll know that regardless of what they’ve picked, they have to bring it inside to cook before just popping it into their mouth. A time or two I’ve forgotten this rule myself out foraging, and I’ve gotten a stern scolding from my 2 year old, “MAMA! You have to cook them first mama! Spit it out mama!”
Cooking Mushrooms with Kids
While the mystery and excitement of watching a somewhat alien organism grow is usually enough to excite most kids, appealing to their stomach doesn’t hurt either. Finding ways to cook mushrooms that feature them prominently in the dish and are kid friendly at the same time can be a challenge for some parents.
Mushroom risotto is a simple dish that is made up of rice, stock and mushrooms. It takes about 30-40 minutes to make, just about all of which is actively stirring a pot to stimulate the arborio rice to release starch. That starch results in a rich and creamy rice dish that’s a great way to showcase mushroom flavor in a simple and kid friendly way. The little ones love taking turns stirring the pot.
A quick and easy homemade mushroom quiche is a kid friendly staple that’s full of protein and easy to prepare. Prepare a pie crust and top it with a half cup of shredded cheese. Add on 1-2 cups of sautéed mushrooms and onions, and then fill with an egg mixture made from 3 eggs and 1.5 cups half and half. Bake at 425 for 35-45 minute until cooked through.