Fresh fungi for the table

AFTER the last few months, lots of us are pretty tired of scrubbing mould from walls, shoes and jackets.

We have been battling fungal infections in the garden.

So the last thing one would think of cultivating is yet more fungi!

But now is a great time to grow some good fungi - mushrooms.

They are so easy to grow, and love what most food plants hate - cool, damp, dark conditions.

Mushrooms are a great crop for winter.

The easiest way to grow them is to get a mushroom kit, which contains everything you need to produce several kilograms of fabulous, fresh, fungi.

The most commonly available kits contain either white button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) or Swiss browns.

White button mushrooms occur naturally in grasslands, fields and meadows across Europe and North America.

It is now one of the most widely cultivated mushrooms in the world.

Swiss brown mushrooms are closely related to the white mushrooms, and are similar in shape with a tan to dark brown colour.

The flavour is deeper and earthier than white mushrooms, and their firm flesh means Swiss browns hold their shape well when cooked.

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So, what is a mushroom kit, and how does it work?

The kits usually come in a box containing a small bag of casing material and a larger bag of mushroom compost which has been impregnated with mycelium, the mushroom 'seed', if you like.

All you need to do is open the box, spread the casing material, and keep it moist in a cool position out of direct sunlight.

Mushroom kits are great if you are an impatient gardener. You will be picking your first mushrooms in 2-3 weeks, and will harvest 3-4kg over 6-8 weeks.

Mushrooms do not need sun to grow; in fact, direct sun can dry out, overheat and even kill the mycelium.

So position your mushroom kit where there is absolutely no sunlight.

Ambient light is OK, but not essential. In a brightly lit location, the mushrooms may be darker in colour, but they will still taste the same.

An indoor position is ideal, because your kit will be less likely to be raided by mushroom-eating wildlife such as slugs and snails.

Keep the kit out of drafts and away from heaters, which may dry things out and limit growth. I usually keep the kit in the garage or the laundry.

Some people keep them under the bed or in a cupboard.

You will need to mist the compost with a spray bottle each day to keep it moist, so make sure it's easily accessible.

Not much will happen for the first 7-14 days.

But then, you will notice tiny white pinheads starting to appear on the casing surface.

They will grow incredibly quickly, just about doubling in size every day.

You can pick the mushrooms while they are young, as button mushrooms, or let them grow a little more, but be aware that the yield may be better if you pick them young.

Once mushrooms start to form, avoid wetting them while you are moistening the compost.

When it comes time to harvest, don't cut the mushrooms off, as the remaining stem will rot in the compost.

Instead, hold the stem and gently twist it, breaking the bottom of the stem.

Try not to disturb the adjacent mushrooms or remove too much compost, as this will reduce cropping.

A new flush will start to appear a week or so after the previous one has been harvested.

Each box will produce at least three flushes of mushrooms, with two large flushes first and then one or more smaller ones.

Eventually, the kit will be exhausted, at which time you can add that beautiful mushroom compost to the garden and get another kit going.

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