Delicious, Fresh Mushrooms in 10 Days: Just Add Water

Even if you can't keep a single houseplant alive, you can still grow your own mushrooms successfully, thanks to two innovative young entrepreneurs.

April 26, 2011

Grow-your-own mushroom kits make great school projects, says Back to the Roots co-founder Nikhil Arora (far right).

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Several years ago, while studying business and investment banking in college, Alejandro Velez, now 23, and Nikhil Arora, 24, started experimenting with growing mushrooms in a University of California–Berkeley, frat house. (Wait! It's not what you think!) The two weren't previously acquaintances, but a random fact professed in passing by a professor—the fact that you can grow mushrooms in a sustainable way using coffee grounds—sparked such interest in the two young men that they decided to team up to try to make an urban farming business out of manufacturing and selling grow-it-at-home mushroom kits. (The 'shroom of choice? Oyster—this type grows fast, in just 10 days.)


Flash-forward two years, and the size of Velez's and Arora's business, Back to the Roots, is spawning major interest among investors and backyard gardeners alike. Some Whole Foods stores now carry the Back to the Roots mushroom kits, a product that named among the best in show at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, back in March. "We had no background in food or agriculture, let alone mushrooms," explains Arora. Still, the two perfected the art and are now receiving major accolades for their concept; awards include the 2011 MillerCoors Urban Entrepreneurs Series Business Plan Competition top prize and 2010 Busines Week Top 25 Social Entrepreneurs, and they are winners of the 2009 UC Berkeley Social Venture Competition.

The mushroom kit project, which started off in a 300-square foot-fraternity house kitchen, now inhabits a 10,000-square-foot facility employing 12 in West Oakland, Cal. "We're scaling up," cofounder Arora says. Still, Back to the Roots isn't forgetting its roots—the mission of sustainability. Even with production of the mushroom kits ramping up, the business is still sourcing all of its spent coffee grounds from a local coffee company, Peet's Coffee & Tea, in Oakland. Back to the Roots anticipates diverting 1 million pounds of previously landfill-bound coffee grounds for use in the kits.

"We're creating something positive and useful out of what was being thrown away; but beyond the product, it's creating livelihoods, too," Arora says.

Keep reading to find out how you can get a 10% discount if you order a mushroom kit.

So how does all of this work? Back to the Roots' oyster mushroom kits cost $19. ( readers can get a 10% discount by using the code Mushrooms4me10 in the discount field when ordering online!) While that may not seem like a huge cost savings compared to the store-bought 'shrooms, these mushroom kits offer a few incentives:

1. A kit provides a learning experience, but one even those with no gardening experience can ace and learn from. You just peel back a piece of the cardboard box, cut a few slits in the bag holding the mushroom spawn-infused, coffee ground organic growing medium, and mist with water twice a day. Nothing happens for about three or four days, and then BAM! The 'shrooms grow so fast, it's like you can see them multiplying before your very eyes. (Take day-by-day photos to record the rapid growth—your Facebook friends will love it! Ours did.) The kits have become very popular in schools, where slashed budgets may make an outdoor school garden difficult. For more photos, check out the company's Facebook page. "It's beyond mushrooms. Kids see something grow so fast, and they get exciting about growing food," says Arora. "It creates a sense of empowerment. If we can get kids excited about growing mushrooms, they start thinking, 'If I can grow this, why can't I grow the rest of my food. And where's the rest of my food coming from?'"

2. They are super fresh! Store-bought, gourmet oyster mushrooms, about $13 a pound, are often battered during delivery, and do not even compare to ones plucked fresh and tossed directly into a soup, salad, skewer, or stir-fry, says Arora, who notes you can eat the cap and stem of oyster mushrooms. Each Back to the Roots mushroom kit will yield about 1 to 1½ pounds of oyster mushrooms. Replacement bags of growing medium are $8.

3. They reduce plastic use. You don't have to use those annoying single-use, plastic produce bags the way you would when purchasing mushrooms in a grocery. No annoying clamshell packaging to recycle, either.

4. They leave behind an amazing soil amendment. You can grow two batches of mushrooms with your kit—one on each side. After that, use the mushroom soil to boost the health of your garden soil and recycle the cardboard kit packaging.

If your taste buds prefer shiitake mushrooms, a kit probably isn't the answer. They can take months to grow. But for those up to the challenge, you can learn how to grow shiitake mushrooms on logs.