Growing your own mushrooms – A Miller’s tale

Philip Miller (1691–1771)

Cultivation of the common field mushroom began in France in around 1650. The technique was transferred to England when detailed instructions were published in The Gardener’s Dictionary, first published in 1731 by Philip Miller. That’s him in the picture above, somewhat enhanced by modern photo editing techniques. Quite an accomplished man, he was a Fellow of the Royal Society.

It seems that this was quite a popular pursuit in the day and that the technique may have been introduced into Australia with the first English settlers. In the Swan River Colony of Western Australia, which was first settled in 1829, there is a comment made by James Drummond in 1845 that the common field mushroom has become established in the colony following its cultivation. It is likely that the species cultivated reflect what was growing wild in England at the time.

People often ask in online forums if it is possible to grow mushrooms from wild ones that occur in their lawns etc. This method details a technique for doing exactly that.

The book is available online as a PDF download courtesy of Google. I have taken that PDF and used OCRbest to extract the information in text form. It did a very good job. In those days an ‘s’ looked rather like an ‘f’ so I have had to weed out those occurrences. I hope that I got them all. I have made some minor edits to allow the text to be broken up into shorter paragraphs. Anyway, I reproduce his method below. Good luck to anyone who wants to try it.

Philip Miller’s Mushroom Growing Method

MUSHROOMS are, by many persons, supposed to be produced from the putrefaction of the dung, earth, etc. in which they are found ; but notwithstanding this notion is pretty generally received amongst the unthinking part of mankind, yet by the curious naturalists, they are esteemed perfect plants, though their flowers and seeds have not as yet been perfectly discovered. But since they may, and are annually propagated by the gardeners near London, and are (the esculent form of them) greatly esteemed by most curious palaces, I shall briefly set down the method practised by the gardeners who cultivate them for sale. But first, it will not be improper to give a short description of the true eatable kind, since there are several unwholesome sorts, which have been by unskilful persons gathered for the table.

The true Champignon, or Mushroom, appears at first of a roundish form, like a button; the upper part of which, as also the stalk, is very white; but being opened, the under part is of a livid flesh colour, but the fleshy part when broken is very white ; when these are suffered to remain undisturbed, they will grow to a large size, and explicate themselves almost to a flatness, and the red part underneath will change to a dark colour.

In order to cultivate them, if you have no beds in your own, or in neighbouring gardens, which produce them, you should look abroad in rich pastures, during the months of August and September, until you find them (that being the season when they are naturally produced then you should open the ground about the roots of the Mushrooms, where you will find the earth, very often, full of small white knobs, which are the offsets, or young Mushrooms; these should be carefully gathered, preserving them in lumps with the earth about them : but as this spawn cannot be found in the pasture, except at the season when the Mushrooms are naturally produced, you may probably find some in old dunghills, especially where there has been much litter amongst it, and the wet hath not penetrated it to rot it.

Likewise, by searching old hot-beds, it may be often found; for this spawn has the appearance of a white mould, shooting out in long strings, by which it may be easily known wherever it is met with : or this may be procured by mixing some long dung from the stable, which has not been thrown on a heap to ferment; which being mixed with strong earth, and put under cover to prevent wet getting to it, the more the air is excluded from it, the sooner the spawn will appear; but this must not be laid so close together as to heat, for that will destroy the spawn : in about two months after the spawn will appear, especially if the heap is closely covered with old thatch, or such litter as hath lain long abroad, so as not to ferment, then the beds may be prepared to receive the spawn.

These beds should be made of dung, in which there is good store of litter, but this should not be thrown on a heap to ferment; that dung which hath lain spread abroad for a month or longer, is best. These beds should be made on dry ground, and the dung laid upon the surface; the width of these beds at bottom should be about two feet and a half or three feet, the length in proportion to the quantity of Mushrooms desired; then lay the dig about a foot thick, covering it about four inches with strong earth. Upon this lay more dung, about. ten inches thick; then another layer of earth, narrowing in the sides of the bed, so as to form it like the ridge of a house, which may be done by three layers of dung and as many of earth.

When the bed is finished it should be covered with litter or old thatch, to keep out wet, as also to prevent its drying; in this situation it may remain eight or ten days, by which time the bed will be in a proper temperature of warmth to receive the spawn; for there should be only a moderate warmth in it, great heat destroying the spawn, as will also wet; therefore when the spawn is found, it should always be kept dry until it is used, for the drier it is, the better it will take in the bed; for I had a parcel of this spawn, which had lain near the oven of a stove upward of four months, and was become so dry, that I despaired of its success; but I never have yet seen any which produced so soon, nor in so great quantity as this.

The bed being in a proper temperature for the spawn, the covering of litter should be taken off, and the sides of the bed smoothed; then a covering of light rich earth about an inch thick should be laid all over the bed, but this should not be wet ; upon this the spawn should be thrust, laying the lumps four or five inches asunder ; then gently cover this with the same light earth above half an inch thick, and put the covering of litter over the bed, laying it so thick as to keep out wet and prevent the bed from drying! when these beds are made in the spring or autumn, as the weather is in those reasons temperate, so the spawn will then take much sooner, and the Mushrooms will appear perhaps in a month after making; but those beds which are made in summer, when the season is hot, or in winter, when the weather is cold, are much longer before they produce.

The great skill in managing of these beds is, that of keeping them in a proper temperature of moisture, never suffering them to receive too much wet: during the summer season the beds may be uncovered, to receive gentle showers of rain at proper times, and in long dry seasons the beds Should be now and then gently watered, but by no means suffer much wet to come to them ; during the winter season they must be kept as dry as possible, and so closely covered as to keep out cold.” In frosty or very cold weather, if some warm litter shaken out of a dung heap is laid on, it will promote the growth of the Mushrooms; but this must not be laid next the bed, but a covering of dry litter between the bed and this warm litter ; and as often as the litter is found to decay, it should be renewed with fresh; and as the cold increases, the covering should be laid so much thicker. If these things are observed, there may be plenty of Mushrooms produced all the year, and these produced in beds, are much better for the table than any of those which are gathered in the fields.

A bed thus managed, if the spawn takes kindly, will continue good for several months, and produce great quantities of Mushrooms; from these beds when they are destroyed, you should take the spawn for a fresh supply, which may be laid up in a dry place until the proper season of using it, which should not be sooner than five or six weeks, that the spawn may have time to dry before it is put into the bed, otherwise it will not succeed well.

 Sometimes it happens, that beds thus made do not produce any Mushrooms till they have lain five or six months, so that these beds should not be destroyed, though they should not at first answer expectation; for I have frequently known these to have produced great quantities of Mushrooms afterward and have continued a long time in perfection.

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