If you're looking for something new to grow in your garden this year, Tyson Allchin of Columbus Junction, Iowa, suggests you consider mushrooms.
Allchin, 39, is a graduate of Iowa State University with a degree in horticulture and a background in growing mushrooms for food stores and restaurants in Minneapolis as well as the Quad-Cities.
On Saturday, March 17, he will give a how-to talk on growing oyster and wine cap stropharia mushrooms in your garden at the annual "Art of Gardening" horticulture seminar in Muscatine. His is one of 24 talks that will be offered throughout the day.
Really, Allchin says, mushroom-growing is not that hard.
All you need is a 5-pound sawdust block containing mushroom mycelium (a substance that will absorb nutrients and grow into mushrooms), wood chips and a shallow trench in your garden.
Dig the trench about 4 feet wide by 8 feet long by about 6 inches deep next to where you will plant tomatoes so that as the tomatoes grow, they can shade the mushrooms, he suggests.
Put down a layer of wet woodchips, followed by some of the broken-up sawdust block (the blocks are purchased from a supplier), followed by another layer of wet wood chips until you have used up the block, he said.
Keep the area "slightly watered" for the first two or three weeks if you don't get rain.
After three weeks, reach into the chips to see if the mycelium are growing. You will be able to tell because the sawdust turns bright white, and from that the mushrooms will emerge, he said. Once established, the mushrooms shouldn't need water. Then, be patient.
"Mushrooms grow on their own time schedule," Allchin said. "There is nothing you can do to speed them up."
If you plant in spring, you should be able to harvest by fall.
Later in the day at "Art of Gardening," Allchin will give a second presentation on how to successfully "fruit" purchased sawdust blocks from the comfort of your kitchen. Materials will be listed to create your very own table-top fruiting chamber.
How the mushroom business started
One day in class at ISU, the subject turned to mushrooms. This reminded Allchin of his childhood growing up in Muscatine and how he used to go hunting for morels with his grandparents and how much he liked the sponge-capped delicacy.
After class he bought some mushrooms, cooked them up and wondered: "Why is something that grows out in nature so expensive? They must be hard to grow."
He decided to investigate, buying some equipment and starting a hobby of growing oyster and shitake mushrooms. He found it was not hard.
Several years after graduating from ISU, and including a stint in Minneapolis, he and his wife, Summer — also from the Muscatine area — found themselves in Louisa County, looking for a home in the country.
One day in 2010, "we stumbled across our farm accidentally while on our way to see someplace else," Allchin said.
The "for sale by owner" sign that distracted them was for a place with several outbuildings and 11 acres of land, perfect for them and for growing mushrooms. This site became Allchin Acres.
In time, Allchin, who also has a full-time job off the farm, began growing enough mushrooms — easily 100 pounds a week — that he could sell to some Hy-Vee food stores as well as restaurants, including Duck City Bistro in Davenport and DeBeets Bistro in Muscatine.
He grew them in a fruiting chamber that he built inside of a high tunnel, financed with the help of a cost-share, food production grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS. He grew year-round with heat provided by a wood-burning furnace that he ducted into the room.
He also grew his mycelium, a process that IS difficult, or at least complicated, and incorporated it into sawdust blocks.
At present, Allchin has decided to transition out of growing his own mushrooms into growing mycelium and producing inoculated sawdust blocks, becoming a supplier for other small farmers/producers.
Allchin and his wife have two children, Naomi and Everett. His wife is a graduate of the University of Iowa law school and when he's not growing mushrooms, Allchin works for Tenco Industries.
Tenco is a company founded in 1965 whose focus is teaching life skills and employable skills to adults with mental and physical disabilities. It currently serves about 300 people from seven offices, two hydroponic greenhouses and two thrift stores. Allchin is the lead grower at the greenhouse in Ottumwa.