By Michael Dunbar
For three months I had the incredible opportunity to be an intern at Plant Chicago. I spent my internship cultivating edible mushrooms under the direction of Urban Agriculture Specialist, Jessica Zeiger.
My enthusiasm for mushrooms started years ago while hunting for morels in the forest. It was exhilarating to stumble upon dense patches of morel mushrooms, I was simply amazed by fungi. Some varieties need such particular environmental conditions to grow while others seem to grow anywhere. The interest has always remained within me; I jumped at the chance to learn more as an intern.
In the lab… Plant Chicago has a fully equipped lab for cultivating mushrooms. The first thing I learned was how important a sterile environment is for successfully growing mushrooms. From Lysol and rubbing alcohol, to an autoclave and flow hood, keeping everything as sterile as possible is a huge part of the process. The autoclave heats and pressurizes to sterilize growing substrates and containers, while the flow hood keeps the air clean where we work with the mycelium.
Each week the focus was on a step in the process of getting to the fruiting stage. Mushroom cultivation is all about getting your mycelium to multiply: starting from a petri dish, to grain, and finally into sawdust or straw-filled bags for fruiting.
This is how you maintain a constant cycle of mushrooms to harvest and keep a solid supply of spawn to inoculate your growing media. I felt like a chemist when mixing up batches of agar agar for growing mycelium in petri dishes. I also got to experiment with a few different substrates for fruiting the mushrooms. We most often used sawdust but also grew mushrooms in straw. And it wouldn’t be Plant Chicago if we didn’t use a waste product from The Plant, so we added coffee chaff from Four Letter Word Coffee to many of our sawdust bags and the mushrooms loved it!
Beyond the lab… After my internship, I most likely won’t have a lab with an autoclave but I got to learn how to use a pressure cooker as a way of sterilizing jars. I also learned plenty about growing media and making the agar agar. We built fruiting chambers that are easily portable: a clear plastic bin with many holes drilled into it and filled with vermiculite and water. This is the perfect container to maintain proper humidity and air flow for growing mushrooms in your house. With everything I learned during the internship, I have the confidence and know how to grow mushrooms at home or anywhere.
The Mushrooms… It was great to be able to grow a variety of mushrooms and feel the excitement of seeing them fruit. We grew different kinds of oyster mushrooms such as Pearl, Blue and King. I had never eaten Lion’s Mane mushrooms before, so that was a treat to grow. I was thrilled that we grew shiitake since I thought those would only do well outside. All the mushrooms grown by Jessica can be seen on display during the fruiting stage in a massive fridge converted into a fruiting chamber in the lobby of The Plant. If they are fruiting at the right time then they may be available at the Plant Chicago Farmers Market.
The People… Besides learning so much about mushrooms, the experience as an intern was greatly heightened by the passionate folks at Plant Chicago and tenants of The Plant. Everyone there contributes something great towards fulfilling a spectacular vision of what a sustainable society looks like. It’s always in constant transformation with interior/exterior improvements and the new additions to its residency make it more incredible everyday. However, the most awesome transformation is the one it has on people who come there to intern, tour, or shop and leave inspired by its concept. Plant Chicago and The Plant are treasures here in Chicago. I hope its model for sustainability is replicated over and over throughout the world.
To learn more about Plant Chicago internship opportunities, email firstname.lastname@example.org.