Matt Heidrich with some of his home-grown oyster mushrooms
Matt Heidrich is a man who loves oyster mushrooms. He
enjoys them so much that he has learned the intricate art of home
cultivation. I didn’t know what to expect when I visited him in his
Highland Park home, but I certainly got a full tutorial.
Oyster mushrooms are a variety of mushroom that grows on old and
dying trees throughout the nation. They grow from the sides of trees
with their gills that slope down to meet the stem. The caps range
from cream to dark brown. They are one of the simplest mushrooms to cultivate,
and enjoyed by mushroom enthusiasts and foodies alike. I always
assumed they were called oyster mushrooms because the flavor (to me) is very
much like oysters, though some say the name derived from the shape of the
mushroom’s cap being similar to an oyster shell.
A child of Army parents, Heidrich spent his childhood in Indiana,
and it was there that he first found and harvested some of another wild
mushroom in the woods – the popular and colorful chicken-of-the-woods.
In 2015 at Los Angeles’ eclectic EcoVillage, he attended a
workshop led by Peter McCoy where he was introduced to the lifestyle of fungi.
The workshop included the details for cultivating the oyster mushroom, and
Heidrich was hooked. Over the last several years, he has refined and
perfected his technique for producing oyster mushrooms in his home.
When I first visited Heidrich, I was given a tour of his small
backyard, where he grows numerous herbs and vegetables in small upraised
beds. In one corner was a small compost pile covered with black
plastic, which he uses mostly for the old medium of which his mushrooms
grow. He pulled up a corner to show me that oyster mushrooms
abundantly grew from his little compost pile, the unexpected result from the
leftovers of his cultivation. He picked a few of the good ones for
his meal later in the day.
Next, we went indoors for the tutorial. It was quickly
evident that growing oyster mushrooms were important to Heidrich, because it
appeared that major portions of at least two rooms in his home were devoted to
the various stages of oyster mushroom cultivation.
We began by looking at some of the good textbooks that are
available on the subject. Two of the best current books on mushroom cultivation
are “Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms” by Paul Stamets, and “The
Mushroom Cultivator” by Stamets and Chilton. "Radical Mycology" by Peter McCoy and
"Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation" by Trad Cotter are
also very useful.And for those who want to buy starter kits,
Stamets' company, called FungiPerfecti, provides supplies for beginner and
There are many ways to cultivate
mushrooms. Understanding the difference between "spores"
and "spawn" is key. Spores are genetically diverse "seeds"
that rain down from the gills of the mushroom. The novice grower will not
use spores, but spawn, which is genetically identical to the parent
mushroom. Most home growers use liquid culture spawn and grain
spawn. Liquid culture is simply mushrooms grown in sugar water.
Grain spawn is mushrooms grown on grain. Heidrich cultivates his liquid
culture using simple sugars purchased from the local homebrew shop. (In
fact, homebrewing and mushroom growing go hand in hand.) For grain spawn,
he uses organic wheat berries bought in bulk on Amazon. The goals of
these methods is to give the mycelium (the mushroom body) the nutrients it
needs to form robust fruiting bodies (“fruiting bodies” are what most of us
simply call mushrooms). Liquid culture and grain spawn are readily
available on Ebay or from mushroom websites. The simplest way to begin
cultivating is to buy liquid culture online and expand it at home in modified
Mason jars. But cleanliness is key.
Heidrich created his own sterile environment with a 5 gallon clear
Rubbermaid tub, onto which he has added two hole where his hands can enter with
gloves. Into this box, after has disinfected it with alcohol, he
adds the starter medium, and several Mason jars of wheat berries which will be
inoculated with the liquid starter medium.
He carefully closes the lid of the box, and once everything
needed is inside the box, he dons his gloves and his hands enter the
box. The lid of each jar has had two holes drill into it: one hole
is stuffed with cotton for aeration, and the other is filled with high
temperature RTV engine silicone. With a hypodermic needle, he first
sucks a measured amount of the liquid out of the starter medium, by pushing the
needle through the silicone cover, and then he injects a measured amount into
each jar of the wheat berries, again, by pushing the needle through the silicon
This is all done very carefully, almost like a careful dance as
Heidrich maneuvers into the limited space. But all this is necessary, otherwise
the invisible contaminants in the air and environment which will infect the
batch of mushrooms.
When done, Heidrich places these inoculated bottles of wheat
berries onto a rack with an LED light to assist in stimulating the grown of the
requirements vary depending on the oyster variety. For example, there are
blue oysters which prefer a cooler temperature, while the pink and phoenix
oysters enjoy temperatures up into the 80s and 90s.
After a few weeks, if all went well, the bottles of wheat berries
are covered in a white cob-webby material, which is the mycelium which will
produce the mushrooms.
Heidrich took such a bottle to show me how he sets up the final
stage of cultivation, which can take place in a plastic bag or
bucket. Today he demonstrated in a plastic bag.
Into the approximately gallon-sized plastic bag, he placed a layer
of soaked cardboard. (I had noted earlier that he had a few
containers of old cardboard in his back yard, and this is what he uses to grow
“Remember, these mushrooms like to grow on wood, and isn’t that
what the cardboard came from?” smiles Heidrich. He presses a layer
of cardboard into the bag, and then adds a layer of used coffee grounds, a free
recyclable material from a local coffee house. Then he added about 5
tablespoons of the wheat berries covered in spawn. Then he added more
cardboard, coffee grounds, and more spawn. He continues this way for several
layers until the bag is full. On his last, upper-most layer, he adds
only spawn, then cardboard, then spawn. Heidrich explains that the
coffee grounds are most susceptible to infection, and by having no coffee
grounds at the top where it is exposed, there is less chance of infection.
Once this is sealed, Heidrich punches a few holes into the bag so
that each hole enters the bag at the cardboard. Once the mushrooms
get growing, they will grow out of the holes where they can be easily
harvested. This bag is again put on the shelf with the LED light,
and allowed to sit until the mushrooms start to grow.
It all seems like a very mysterious process, but Heidrich is
merely controlling in a scientific manner that which occurs naturally in the
Heidrich’s favorite method of preparation is to sautee the
mushrooms with his meals.
“How do you preserve the surplus?” I asked him, innocently enough.
“I eat them as quickly as I grow them,” he said
smiling. “There’s never a surplus!”
Wow! He loves his mushrooms. Nevertheless, if growers
have a surplus, they can be frozen or dehydrated, and dehydration seems to be
the preferable choice.
Heidrich has done some wild mushroom hunting on his own, but found
that it was less than fruitful. After all, wild mushrooms arise
based on many factors, such as rain, weather, time of year, association of
certain trees, humidity, and other factors. Heidrich did find some
turkey tail mushrooms, but generally prefers to grow his own oyster
He’s not a vegan, vegetarian, macrobiotic enthusiast, or a food
faddist of any sort. “Yes, I eat meat,” with a smile that barely concealed a
bit a guilt. He’s a man who loves one of nature’s finest foods, and
he’s found a way to have a constantly supply at home.
Heidrich does offer occasional workshops where he takes
participants through the various steps involved. His workshop
participants walk home with an instruction sheet, and a bag of spawn to grow at
home. For more information, he can be reached at email@example.com
[Nyerges continues to teach classes in self-reliance and survival. Go to www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com for the Schedule]