This word is used by some to include all the edible fungi, while many take it to apply only to the well known Agaricus campestris, all the rest being classed as toadstools. There are many edible fungi, but unless you are an expert you had better steer clear of them. Many years ago there was a writer in the Gardeners' Chronicle whose articles and tales of his wanderings in the English fields and woods were most charming. He was not only a dry, matter of fact botanist, but a writer of great fascination. I think his name was Worth -ington G. Smith. Although it is thirty-five years since I read his stories I remember that in one of his articles he mentioned a banquet in London attended by a number of fungi enthusiasts where thirty species formed part of the bill of fare and none of the guests died from the effects. To none of these will this article have any reference, it is with Agaricus campestris we are dealing, the common mushroom of our pastures in September and an important product of our commercial greenhouses.
It is a mistake to think that beneath a greenhouse bench is a place especially adapted to the growing of mushrooms. It is often laborious and awkward to handle the material to compose the bed, but few things worth having are obtained without labor. Then there is often a drip from the plants above, and again as spring approaches a great fluctuation of temperature and when summer heat comes the mushroom becomes maggoty. With all these drawbacks tons of mushrooms are grown under greenhouse benches. The writer has often thought a regular and easily worked mushroom house would not be costly to build. It would need no permanent light and should be built so that it would resist the winter's cold and summer's heat. The cold would be much easier to control than the heat of summer. We have seen many different places where mushrooms have been cultivated and a few are worth mentioning. One was a deserted beer . cellar many feet under ground, where the temperature varied little at any time during the year. It was an excellent place, although perhaps expensive to operate. Another was the basement of an abandoned malt-house. This also was successful, although it got too warm in midsummer. In many dry cellars we have seen them cultivated with success, but the ideal place in our opinion exists in the village of Akron, Erie county, N. Y., whose chief industry is the manufacture of quicklime and hydraulic cement. There you find a deserted stone quarry from which millions of tons of carboniferous limestone have been taken out.
Some fifteen years ago I wrote up my visit to these caves and afterwards I rewrote it, and again after a lapse of time I can recall the chief features of conditions and methods of that industry. You enter the caves on the level at the foot of a slight eminence, rising perhaps twenty feet at its highest point above the surrounding land. In a few seconds you are in dense darkness, but are provided with a torch. The rock has been taken out to about eight feet in thickness. In many places the strata you are walking on as well as the strata that forms the roof are as smooth as asphalt pavement. After traveling what seems a long walk, but is perhaps only 100 yards, the familiar odor of fermenting horse manure reaches your nostrils and soon you are looking at half an acre of mushroom beds, of course in all stages of development. The beds are placed on the rock flooring where it is quite dry. They are sixteen feet long and eight feet wide and the manure is ten to twelve inches deep. The beds have the usual covering of loam, but no hay or straw covering; being perfectly dark there is no need of it. The cave covers an area of several acres and near where operations are carried on a hole has been bored up through the flint rock above and through the earth covering the rock bo that a team has only to drive up to this hole and dump the material down. The manure is obtained from several neighboring cities by the carload. This I consider a disadvantage, because the growers have no control over its treatment before shipping, or accidents in the way of rain during transit. The president of the company told me the temperature of the cave did not vary 5 degrees summer or winter and the mean temperature for the year was about 58 degrees. I asked him when there was the best demand for his products. He replied in June, July and August, because greenhouse mushrooms were then infested with maggots and largely out of the market.
The attempt to grow mushrooms is very fascinating, largely because of its mystery. While many of the operations a gardener enters into are gambles, there is none so much a gamble as raising mushrooms. There is a mystery about it. Yo*u may think you know all the essential points and even meet with success for several crops and then you are mystified by a total failure. You have deviated in some slight degree from conditions that were successful and you don't know where, perhaps a little too warm or a little too cold, the bed too dry or too wet, the material fermented too violently and many other causes not evident but sufficient to make the difference between success and failure. This should not discourage the man who has made up his mind to grow mushrooms. Keep at it and you will, to use slang, "get the hang of it," and failure after that does not often occur. Many a good thing is made or done without scientific facts, but from a sort of instinctive knowledge and experiment, and that's the knowledge you want in growing mushrooms.
The literature of the mushroom is aged and extensive. Never mind whether you study Abercrombie's work on the mushroom, published in 1779, or Loudon's, written seventy years ago, or contemporary writers on the subject, they all agree on the simple and substantial points, such as proper material, temperature of the house, depth of bed, covering, time of spawning, etc. All this is easily repeated. The mystery of the thing is to follow and that I believe no man can impart, but experience will teach you and when you have struck it right adhere to it rigidly. Here is what all authors agree on: