Failure is part of the process when learning any new skill. Mushroom cultivation is no different. Here at the Fungi Academy, we have learned many lessons from failures over decades of mushroom growing experience so that you don’t have to!
Outlined below are what we’ve come to recognize as the most common mistakes experienced by beginner mushroom cultivators. Growing mushrooms becomes a much easier process once you avoid these errors.
- Not understanding sterile workflow
- Being impatient
- Don’t cut corners
- Create favorable mushroom growing conditions
- Succeed first, experiment later
- Additional mushroom cultivation advice
Not understanding sterile workflow
Contamination is the most common form of failure when cultivating mushrooms. Incorrect sterilization is the lead cause of contamination. All life on Earth competes to survive, so provide your mycelium with the best environment in which to thrive. When cultivating mushrooms it’s important to limit the number of microorganisms competing for the same resources.
Contamination from our breath, clothing, and skin can all mean the end of what was otherwise a perfect mushroom cultivation procedure. Sterilization comes in many forms, so here are some important things to remember:
Use clean protective clothing, a face mask and gloves. You don’t need to have a lab coat, any clothes that are freshly washed are good. Your clothing can carry all kinds of spores and other invisible contaminants.
Use aseptic solutions
For an alcohol spray, as close to 70% of alcohol to water is the preferred ratio. Hydrogen peroxide (H₂O₂) is also an ally and kills any unwanted competition.
Treat all equipment, work surfaces, containers, and gloves with alcohol before any work commences.
Continue to apply alcohol spray throughout any procedure to mitigate the risk of contamination. Important: Sterilization with alcohol only happens once it has fully dried by evaporation, so be patient.
Sterilize the substrate
We bow to the almighty pressure cooker for our substrate sterilization. It’s a core element for our mushroom cultivation process. Depending on what substrate you’re using, cooking it at 15psi. for 15-70 minutes will free it of any microorganisms looking for a feast!
Pro-tip: if you can’t get a pressure cooker that reaches 15psi, you can cook your substrate at 10psi and multiply your cooking time by 1.75. Always operate with caution!
Use proper mushroom cultivation equipment
When performing culture transfers, having the proper equipment helps. While HEPA filters and flow hoods are the most effective, they are also the most expensive.
A still air box (SAB) is an affordable alternative. For a beginner, a SAB is really all you need. So don’t worry too much about getting a flow hood immediately.
IF you are really serious about growing mushrooms from spore to ready mushrooms, then you need a pressure cooker. So many people have asked us how to do without it. Do yourself a big favor and get a good pressure cooker. This is one of the biggest and most important investments for a home mushroom lab. You can get them cheaper if you look for used options.
Sterilize your tools
When dealing with liquid cultures or agar transfers, flame sterilization is the best method. Heat the end of your syringe or scalpel with a flame until it is red hot after it touches any surface.
Remember to let it cool before resuming so that you do not kill your fungal friends!
Pasteurize your supplements
Again, this is something that will vary depending on the supplement you use. Coldwater pasteurization with limestone (or soap), hot water pasteurization, and steam pasteurization are all common techniques to kill off rival fungus and bacteria. This prevents any unwanted competition during the fruiting stage.
Because sterilization occurs at every step of the process, it is essential to be diligent at all times. The last thing you want is to waste your time, energy, and resources because of contamination on the final stage!
While speed and efficiency are important at certain times of mushroom cultivation, it’s essential that you have a controlled, methodical approach.
First-time cultivators are always eager to get to the finished product, but growing mushrooms is a meticulous and thorough process that should not be rushed. Patience is a virtue in life as when cultivating mushrooms!
- Always allow your substrate to completely cool before inoculation with mycelium
- If storing mycelium in the fridge, allow it to warm to room temperature before transfers
- Ensure your mycelium has fully colonized your substrate before starting the fruiting stage
- Limit exposure to air by gathering all necessary materials and thinking through every action before execution.
Don’t cut corners
There is often a temptation to cut corners in the mushroom cultivation process in order to save money, time, and materials. However, this practice can actually have the opposite effect.
Overcompensate with sterilization (at least in the beginning)
There’s no such thing as an over-sterile environment or substrate. This means using your 70% alcohol solution liberally and a little bit over pressure-cooking your substrate.
Cutting corners here will most certainly lead to contamination and render the entire process a failure.
Know where to save money
Like most things in life, higher initial investment in mushroom cultivation will save you more in the long run.
Equipment that reduces the chance of contamination, like a proper pressure cooker, might be more expensive but will prevent you from wasting your time, energy, and money on batches that yield no mushrooms.
Mushroom cultivation first, optimization comes last
Too often we have seen people try to maximize their outputs with minimal inputs. This means trying to stretch their mycelium, substrate, and supplement to its full potential in order to get the highest yield. Don’t be this person!
As a beginner, always use more than you think you need until you’ve mastered your technique. Work backward towards optimization once you’ve fully grasped your technique.
Attempting perfection from the onset will only lead to more mistakes.
Create favorable mushroom growing conditions
There is no blanket strategy for growing mushrooms. Every mushroom species is unique and thrives under different conditions.
To grow mushrooms effectively, you must adjust the environment to meet the needs of each individual species. The wrong environment will quickly lead to contaminated cultures. It is very important to always check the requirements for each different strain of mushrooms that you grow.
Mushrooms grow in a variety of habitats around the world, so each one requires separate attention. The most critical aspects are:
- Air and ground temperatures
- Light conditions
- Sufficient fresh air exchange (FAE)
Not having sufficient fresh air exchange is one of the most common reasons why mushrooms or mycelium does not grow well. Mushrooms that don’t have enough FAE tend to grow small and elongated. Don’t suffocate your mushroom friends, get them some fresh air.
If the mycelium has colonized all the top part of your containers or jars, but a part of it in the bottom is uncolonized means there is not enough oxygen in the bottom. This is because carbon dioxide is heavier than oxygen and it has gathered at the bottom of the jar. We like to turn our mycelium jars upside down when this happens.
Succeed first, experiment later
Experimenting with mushroom cultivation techniques is one of the most enjoyable and vital aspects of being a seasoned mycophile. But do not get ahead of yourself! Stick with proven methods until you’re confident and understand the entire process of growing mushrooms from spores.
Only once you’ve mastered the technique and have an abundant source of materials should you begin to think about intervening. You need to have a firm grasp of the process before you can properly identify and isolate experimental controls.
When you feel comfortable and have the means, experiment with different:
- Supplements – Do your mushrooms prefer coffee grounds or coconut core?
- Substrates – Does your mycelium thrive on straw, wood chips, manure, or something else?
- Environmental conditions – Does altering the humidity produce better results?
- Sterilization procedures – Can you save time and resources by doing less?
Experimenting with mushroom cultivation is how we all learn and grow in this field together, but it’s wait until you have an intimate understanding of your limiting factors.
Additional mushroom cultivation advice
There are some mistakes that can only be avoided with the experience that you gain by cultivating your own mushrooms. Here are some more tips that will dramatically increase your success rate:
- Learn how to identify early signs of contamination. It will save you time and money. As soon as the contamination is spotted the contaminated item should be completely removed from the growing area.
- Ensure your substrate is not too wet or too dry. It should be damp but not wet, and a gentle squeeze is enough to release a few drops of excess water.
- Label your jars and samples with species, date, and batch number to avoid confusion.
- When in doubt, stick to the technique that brought you success
- When working with spores, ventilate the work-space once finished and samples are secure.
- Thermogenesis can happen when the mycelium is decomposing organic matter. The temperature in your substrate can become higher than the air temperature in the room, potentially baking and killing your fungal friends.
Never be afraid to make mistakes, it’s one of the most effective ways to learn any new skill. However, avoiding unnecessary mistakes is always a prudent practice and will save you money, time, and frustration in mushroom cultivation.
Remember to sterilize your environment, practice patience, be liberal with your resources, adapt your environment, and experiment only after success. This way you will bypass the most common mistakes made by beginner cultivators and have a head start on becoming a bonafide mycophile!
Do you know of any other common mushroom cultivation mistakes that should be added to this list? Please let us know in the comments below.
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