For indoor gardeners who want to try something a bit more exotic, cultivating mushrooms can be rewarding and FirstBuild’s Mella smart mushroom fruiting chamber promises to take some of the guesswork out of the challenge. New Atlas recently got its hands on one and we put it through its paces. Here’s what we found.
For centuries, mushrooms have been a mystery and often suspected as being something supernatural. Suddenly appearing out of nowhere, they were thought to be the works of the devil, or witches, or lightning, or shooting stars.
Folklore even suggested that rings of mushrooms in a field were the gathering places of fairies. According to legend, if you stepped into one, you could end up in Fairyland, where you would be dined and entertained all night by your generous fairy hosts, only to wake up the next morning outside the ring of mushrooms to find that one evening in Fairyland equals 20 years in the mortal world.
Fairies have a warped sense of humor.
We now know that mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi – that strange third kingdom of life that is neither plant nor animal. Despite their strange reputation, people have been eating them from prehistoric times, though most of the time they’ve been gathered in the wild by those with enough luck and knowledge to find where they grew and to tell which were edible from those that were poisonous.
The poisonous bit gave mushrooms such a bad reputation in some parts of the world that many English-speaking regions were, until recently, mycophobic and mushroom hunters had a reputation as eccentrics who flirted with death for their dinner.
Today, mushrooms are easily found in our supermarkets and about four million tonnes are consumed worldwide. However, it wasn’t until 1893 that mushroom farmers learned how to cultivate their crop from spores so they could produce a regular, abundant crop of predictable quality.
It’s a process that in its early stages looks more like a laboratory experiment than cultivation because of the need for a high degree of cleanliness, Petri dishes, and agar mediums. Also, despite these advances, many species of mushroom are still impossible to cultivate and even many commercially sold varieties are still gathered in the wild.
However, there’s a new frontier opening for mushroom lovers as GE Appliances’ FirstBuild division introduces its Mella mushroom fruiting body chamber, which is intended to do for mushroom growing what the home bread maker did for baking.
Growing mushrooms at home has been possible for some years as a number of companies sell blocks made of ground up ingredients that have been infused with fungus spores, the mycelium allow to grow, and then the blocks are wrapped in plastic to keep out the air. When a slit is cut in the plastic, moist air activates the mycelium and the fruiting bodies of the mushrooms begin to grow.
That sounds simple, and it is, but mushrooms are fussy about their environment. They have the temperature, humidity, and light just so, and they like them to remain stable as they grow. This means that using growing blocks on their own requires either finding just the right location in one’s home or trying to supply the required conditions. True, you can just put a block on the kitchen counter or in the laundry room, but the results won’t be as abundant nor of the quality that they could be. Also, a block sitting out in the open risks being contaminated by unwanted spores, which can lead to unfortunate results.
The Mella was originally intended for expert mushroom growers who wanted as much control as possible over the growing environment, but the makers say that feedback from potential users indicated that there was a great deal of interest from beginners. As a result, simplicity and user friendliness was a major emphasis in the development.
About the size of a countertop oven (25.25 x 16.50 x 16.50 in (64.13 x 41.91 x 41.91 cm)), the Mella isn’t exactly compact. It’s made out of stainless steel and plexiglass, though this gives it less of the aesthetics of an appliance than of a high-tech terrarium and can fit in most decor about as well.
It consists of a steel-framed chamber with plexiglass sides and a flip-up plexiglass front. This is loose fitting to allow for easy air circulation from the inside out. Inside is a small water tray in which sits a spongy filter cartridge topped by a motorized fan to humidify the chamber. Outside the chamber is a rectangular reservoir that holds enough water for up to two weeks, depending on the settings.
On top of the Mella are three knobs to set the LED lights (it turns out that mushrooms like a bit of light), humidity, and fresh air flow. These are monitored by internal circuits and the system responds within limits to changes to the environment to keep the chamber at the desired levels. If the environment becomes too extreme for Mella to cope with, the lights flash as a warning signal.
Setting up the Mella turned out to be relatively simple. Once unboxed, all we had to do was place the water dry in its side hole, insert the filter cartridge, slide in the fan module and plug it into its power socket, then fill up the reservoir, check the regulating plug to make sure it was secure, and install the reservoir in the tray. Then it was just a matter of plugging in the device and setting the dials to the parameters recommended in the setup guide.
After that, it was just a matter of preparing the growing blocks according to the maker’s instructions and placing them in the chamber. The chamber can hold up to three, but for test purposes we only used one at a time. After that, it was just a matter of sitting back and watching the mushrooms sprout and grow while adjusting to dials to keep the environment optimum or to turn off the lights at night. In addition, the air circulating fan, while far from silent, is no more distracting than that of an air purifier.
Where to put the Mella is an important factor. The device isn’t designed for outdoor use, it doesn’t have a temperature control, and its humidity control has its limits, so it can’t be set up in a cold cellar, or a kitchen or laundry room where the temperature and humidity can change drastically. It’s also for this reason that the Mella must be kept out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources to prevent it from turning into a greenhouse.
Once properly up and running the Mella doesn’t need much more attention than an apartment hydroponic unit would. It’s mostly a matter of keeping an eye on the water level and adjusting the dials. There aren’t any readout gauges, so we had to buy a digital thermometer/hygrometer to monitor the chamber. The alternative was largely a matter of seeing how well the mushrooms grew and experimenting accordingly. This is very much a hobbyist setup, so trial and error is one of the expectations.
The versatility of the Mella is also something of a setback and the user would be rewarded by taking the time to do some research into mycology and mushroom cultivation before trying out the first crop. The documentation that comes with the Mella is pretty basic, but the company does have an extensive playlist of instructional videos. Also, the device was developed with the help of fruiting block company North Spore. First Build recommends using North Spore blocks and the North Spore site provides an extensive FAQ on how to grow, when to harvest, and even how to cook their mushroom varieties.
The Mella is also designed to be easy to dismantle and clean. When we grew a first crop of lion’s mane mushrooms, this didn’t seem too important, but a second trial with pink oyster mushrooms was a graphic reminder that the mushroom’s purpose in life is to act as a spore factory. Within days, the chamber was coated with what seemed like a miniature snow storm.
With its steel and plastic design, the Mella is easy to clean with soap and water, followed, perhaps, with a wipe down with alcohol. However, the makers strongly suggest avoiding disinfectant chemicals because these could affect the mushrooms.
We found that the chamber produced larger outputs than that experienced with growing blocks on their own, with three yields from one block weighing in at close to a kilogram. A second block of a different variety only yielded one crop, though this was almost half a kilo.
Though it’s designed for mushroom cultivation, the Mella has other potential applications, including spore cultivation for advanced mycology, micro-greens cultivation, and even as a reptile terrarium. In addition, the makers are considering a number of improvements, like a mat to make cleaning easier, a heating pad to control temperature, an accessory panel for greater environmental control, and an interchangeable door that could swap out the plastic panel for one incorporating built-in gloves for working in the chamber while maintaining sterility.
The Mella is available in the United States and Canada for US$479 at www.mellamushroom.com.
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