Mushrooms and their extensive and profitable culture should concern every one. For home consumption they are a healthful and grateful food, and for market, when successfully grown, they become a most profitable crop. We can have in Nigeria the best market in the world for fresh mushrooms; the demand for them is increasing, and the supply has always been inadequate. The price for them here is more than double that paid in any other country, and we have no fear of foreign competition, for all attempts, so far, to export fresh mushrooms from Nigeria have been very successful.
In the most prosperous and progressive of all countries, with a population of nearly one hundred and seventy millions of people alert to every profitable, legitimate business, mushroom-growing, one of the simplest and most remunerative of industries, is almost unknown. The market grower already engaged in growing mushrooms appreciates his situation and zealously guards his methods of cultivation from the public. This only incites interest and inquisitiveness, and the people are becoming alive to the fact that there is money in mushrooms and an earnest demand has been created for information about growing them.
The raising of mushrooms is within the reach of nearly every one. Good materials to work with and careful attention to all practical details should give good returns. The industry is one in which women and children can take part as well as men. It furnishes indoor employment in wet season, and there is very little hard labor attached to it, while it can be made subsidiary to almost any other business, and even a recreation as well as a source of profit.
The endeavor has been, even at the risk of repetition, to make the best methods as plain as possible. The facts herein presented are the results of my own practical experience and observation, together with those obtained by extensive reading, travel and correspondence.
There are five major kinds of people that can successfully cultivate mushrooms profitably here in Nigeria. These includes but not limited to:
1. Market Gardeners.—The mushroom is a highly prized article of food which can be as easily grown as many other vegetable products of the soil—and with as much pleasure and profit. Below it is shown, in particular, that this peculiar plant is singularly well adapted to the conditions that surround many classes of persons, and by whom the mushroom might become a standard crop for home use, the city market, or both. It is directly in their line of business; is a winter crop, requiring their care when outdoor operations are at a standstill, and they can most conveniently attend to growing mushrooms. They have the manure needed for their other crops, and they may well use it first for a mushroom crop. After having borne a crop of mushrooms it is thoroughly rotted and in good condition for early spring crops; and for seed beds of tomatoes, lettuces, cabbages, cauliflowers, and other vegetables, it is the best kind of manure.
Years ago market gardening near Lagos in rainy season was carried on in rather a desultory way, and the supply of salads and other forced vegetables was limited and mostly raised in hotbeds and other frames, and prices ran high. But of recent years our markets in winter have been so liberally supplied from the Southern States, that, in order to save themselves, our market gardeners have been compelled to take up a fresh line in their business, and renounce the winter frames in favor of greenhouses, and grow crops which many of them did not handle before. These greenhouses are mostly long, wide (eighteen to twenty feet), low, hip-roofed (30°) structures. In most of them the salad beds are made upon the floor, and the pathways are sunken a little so as to give headroom in walking and working. Others of these greenhouses are built a little higher, and middle and side benches are erected within them, as in the case of florists’ greenhouses, and with the view of growing salad plants on these benches as florists do carnations, and mushrooms under the benches. The mushrooms are protected from sunlight by a covering of light boards, or hay, or the space under the benches is entirely shut in, cupboard fashion, with wooden shutters. The temperature is very favorable for mushrooms,—steady and moderately cool, and easily corrected by the covering-in of the beds; and the moisture of the atmosphere of a lettuce house is about right for mushrooms. In such a house the day temperature may run up, with sunshine, to 65° or 70° in winter, but an artificial night temperature of only 45° to 50° is maintained. Under these conditions, with the beds about fifteen inches thick, they should continue to yield a good crop of short-stemmed, stout mushrooms for two or three months, possibly longer.
Besides growing the mushrooms in greenhouses our market gardeners are very much in earnest in cultivating them in cellars. Some of these cellars are ordinary barn cellars, others—large and commodious—have been built under barns and greenhouses, purposely for the cultivation of mushrooms. Several of these mushroom cellars may be found on Long Island between Jamaica and Woodhaven.
2. Florists.—In midwinter the cut flower season is at its height and the florist endeavors to make all the money out of his greenhouses that he possibly can; every available inch of space exposed to the light is occupied by growing plants, and under the benches alongside of the pathways dahlias, cannas, caladiums, and other tubers and bulbs are stored, also ivies, palms, succulents and the like. In order that the plants may be more fully exposed to the sunlight, they are grown on benches raised above the ground so as to bring them near to the glass; and the greenhouse seems to be full to overflowing. But right here we have the best kind of a mushroom house. The space under the benches, which is nearly useless for other purposes, is admirably adapted for mushroom beds, and the warmth and moisture of the greenhouse are exceptionally congenial conditions for the cultivation of mushrooms. Florists need the loam and manure anyway, and these are just as good for potting purposes—better for young stock—after having been used in the mushroom beds than they were before, so that the additional expense in connection with the crop is the labor in making the beds and the price of the spawn. Mushrooms are not a bulky crop; they require no space or care in summer, are easily grown, handled, and marketed, and there is always a demand for them at a good price. If the crop turns out well it is nearly all profit; if it is a complete failure very little is lost, and it must be a bad failure that will not yield enough to pay for its cost. Why should the florist confine himself to one crop at a time in the greenhouse when he may equally well have two crops in it at the same time, and both of them profitable? He can have his roses on the benches and mushrooms under the benches, and neither interferes with the other. Let us take a very low estimate: In a greenhouse a hundred feet long make a five foot wide mushroom bed under the main bench; this will give 500 square feet of bed, and half a pound to the foot will give 250 pounds of mushrooms, which, sold at five dollars a pound net, brings $1250. This amount the florist would not have realized without growing the mushrooms.
3. Private Gardeners.—It is a part of their routine duty, and success in mushroom growing is as satisfactory to themselves as it is gratifying to their employers. Fresh mushrooms, like good fruit and handsome flowers, are a product of the garden that is always acceptable. One of the principal pleasures in having a large garden and keeping a gardener consists in being able to give to others a part of the choicest garden products.
In most pretentious gardens there is a regular mushroom house, and the growing of mushrooms is an easy matter; in others there is no such convenience, and the gardener has to trust to his own ingenuity where and how he is to grow the mushrooms. But so long as he has an abundance of fresh manure he can usually find a place in which to make the beds. In the tool-shed, the potting-shed, the wood-shed, the stoke-hole, the fruit-room, the vegetable-cellar, or in some other out-building he can surely find a corner; or, handier still, convenient room under the greenhouse benches, where he can make some beds. Failing all of these he can start in August or September and make beds outside, as the London market gardeners do.
In fruit-forcing houses, especially early graperies, gardeners have a prejudice against growing any other plants than the grapevines lest red spiders, thrips, or mealy bugs are introduced with the plants, but in the case of mushrooms no such grounds are tenable. As the vines have yielded their fruit by midsummer and ripened their wood early so as to be ready for starting into growth again in December or January, the grapery is kept cool and ventilated in the fall and early winter, but this need not interfere with the mushroom crop. Box up the beds or make them in frames inside the grapery; the warm manure will afford the mushrooms heat enough until it is time to start the vines, when the increased temperature and moisture of the house will be in favor of the mushrooms because of the declining heat in the manure beds. The mushrooms have no deleterious effect whatever upon the vines, nor have the vines upon the mushrooms.
4. Village People and Suburban Residents.—Those who keep horses should, at least, grow mushrooms for their own family use and, if need be, for market as well. They are so easily raised, and they take up so little space that they commend themselves particularly to those who have only a village or suburban lot, and, in fact, only a barn. And they are not a crop for which we have to make a great preparation and need a large quantity of manure. No matter how small the bed may be, it will bear mushrooms; and if we desire we can add to the bed week after week, as our store of manure increases, and in this way keep up a continuous succession of mushrooms. A bed may be made in the cow-house or horse-stable, the carriage-house, barn-cellar, woodshed, or house-cellar; or if we can not spare much room anywhere, make a bed in a big box and move it to where it will be least in the way. But the best place is, perhaps, the cellar. An empty stall in a horse-stable is a capital place, and not only affords room for a full bed on the floor, but for rack-beds as well.
5. Farmers.—No one can grow mushrooms better or more economically than the farmer. He has already the cellar-room, the fresh manure and the loam at home, and all he needs is some spawn with which to plant the beds. Nothing is lost. The manure, after having been used in mushroom beds, is not exhausted of its fertility, but, instead, is well rotted and in a better condition to apply to the land than it was before being prepared for the mushroom crop. The farmer will not feel the little labor that it takes. There is no secret whatever connected with it, and skilled labor is unnecessary to make it successful. The commonest farm hand can do the work, which consists of turning the manure once every day or two for about three weeks, then building it into a bed and spawning and molding it. Nearly all the labor for the next ten or twelve weeks consists in maintaining an even temperature and gathering and marketing the crop.
Many women are searching for remunerative and pleasant employment upon the farm, and what can be more interesting, pleasant and profitable work for them than mushroom-growing? After the farmer makes up the mushroom bed his wife or daughter can attend to its management, with scarcely any tax upon her time, and without interfering with her other domestic duties. And it is clean work; there is nothing menial about it. No lady in the land would hesitate to pick the mushrooms in the open fields, how much less, then, should she hesitate to gather the fresh mushrooms from the clean beds in her own clean cellar? Mushrooms are a winter crop; they come when we need them most. The supply of eggs in the winter season is limited enough, and pin-money often proportionately short; but with an insatiable market demand for mushrooms all winter long, at good prices, no farmer’s wife need care whether the hens lay eggs at Christmas or not. When mushroom-growing is intelligently conducted there is more money in it than in hens, and with less trouble.