“How to grow psychedelic mushrooms” is an excerpt about growing magic mushrooms from my first book, Down and Out in California.
I am beginning to worry about the smell of the mushrooms under my bed.
I learn to grow mushrooms the way everyone does these days, from The Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide, a document I download and print while I am still working in post-production sound. I experiment then with small scale growing. I mail order spores, sending off money to a P.O. Box in Florida – the only state with legal spores. Once they are in the mail they weren’t legal anymore, and I was surprised when I received them with no issue.
I grow once, small scale, while working in Hollywood. I even leave for Burning Man during it and have Eve come over to fan my tiny farm with a piece of cardboard I’ve spray-painted to read “#1 Fan”. At the end of the grow cycle I have the sense to collect spores from my crop by dropping a cap in a small canning jar and, once I see the telltale purple kiss on the bottom of the glass, removing the cap and sealing the jar. It’s this spore print that fuels the commercial enterprise now, years later.
I start growing again because my friend knows that The Medicine Man is looking for a supplier, and is one of the few people who knows that I have the skills to do it. He introduces us.
The Medicine Man’s house is beautiful, covered in pretty things and houseplants and smelling of incense. The room where we meet reeks of marijuana. There is a large safe in the corner and a beautiful, giant, triple beam scale on an ornate desk. The room also contains a few canvas sacks filled with geodes, another of The Medicine Man’s side businesses.
It is an interesting meeting, like a job interview. I ask more questions of him at this job interview than I do any other.
My last question is “How much would you buy? What’s too much per month?”
He smiles, his eyes full of pride. His smoke-stained voice cracks “There’s no such thing. I’ll take as much as you can give me.”
With this security I invest the last credit I have on my measly limit card into setting up the farm. I’m very relieved the first time I drop off a Ziploc bag full of dried psychedelic mushrooms to The Medicine Man and he opens the bag, cracks a few of them to test their dryness, sniffs them, raises an eyebrow at me, and pushes cold hard cash into my hand.
“Nice work.” He says.
I set up the farm days after The Armenian and I move in together so as not to arouse suspicion moving the equipment into place. I buy almost everything I need at Target. It takes me under a week and I’m testing the grow chamber and refining it on Halloween, getting ready for my first crop coming into the unit over the next week and my first harvest before Thanksgiving.
The election happens and I am listening to the results while I am moving my first fruiting bodies into the grow chamber. I swell with pride on hearing that Proposition 36 – an amendment to the three strikes law that sends non-violent drug offenders to rehab instead of prison – has passed by 61%. I think of the thousands of signatures I collected to put that on the ballot and smile.
We still have no president though. The results are inconclusive, Gore and Bush have tied and there is a big to-do about hanging chads in Florida. By the time the results come in and Bush is declared president, I have sterilized and prepared another round of substrate and moved all that’s been colonized into the grow chambers. The first turn of my farm, and another turn in presidential history.
There’s so much illegal going on in this place that the smell of mushrooms still gives me anxiety decades later. It colors everything I do, the underlying worry that I could get caught and put in a cage. I am able to put it out of my mind enough to actually go through with it, but the deep dread is always there. I go out of my way not to break any more laws. I don’t even jaywalk. I become silent, I don’t ever share details about my life, which strangles my self-expression. I become very law abiding. And very clean.
Before this, I am a slob, never picking up after myself. I grow up having maids and cleaning people and am never made to do that kind of chore. Through this experience, I become meticulously clean and a mistress of moldkilling. I learn to be neat and tidy, save for one area of my space. I have to put the creative mess somewhere, and since it doesn’t get along with the stringent process of growing mushrooms it’s relegated to the trunk of my car. That habit still sticks with me today, clean everywhere, but for tiny pockets of free expressive mess.
It’s a two bedroom, two bathroom apartment with a living room and hallway separating the bedrooms. It’s an older house in the Russian neighborhood of West Hollywood now converted into two separate apartments, and I live on the upper floor. The house is set back from the street and there’s another in front. The driveway is frustratingly narrow. There are beautiful, old, creaky hardwood floors that I work very hard to protect from moisture and bleach. I have the master bedroom in the back, it’s long and rectangular, and located right near its own bathroom and kitchen.
The bed is lifted as far as it can be without the frame puncturing the ceiling. My farm is made up of various bins with holes melted in them, and wet air fed through by tubing and a humidifier. These bins are filled with enough fruiting bodies to produce plenty of pounds per month. Stacks of cardboard boxes line the walls of the room, all containing substrate slowly colonizing with mycelium. Between the bed and the wall on one side are more bins full of layers of chicken wire, calcium chloride, fans, and drying mushrooms.
The mushroom life cycle starts with a spore finding something that it likes to eat, its food is called “substrate”. From here it spreads a mycelial network, a tangle of fibrous strands, much like roots, designed to funnel nutrients. This thickens until a trigger is reached and the mycelia produce fruiting bodies, also known as mushrooms. These start out small little pinheads, with no cap, just a darker color at their tip, and then the stalk develops and the cap grows and separates and then pops out from the body of a mushroom like a cocktail umbrella. The bottom of this cap has gills that then release spores, starting the whole cycle anew.
Every week during my roommate’s guaranteed work hours I bleach the air of the house with a spray bottle containing fifteen percent bleach. My towels and sheets are stained, but it doesn’t harm the hardwood floors as long as I spray from the very top of the room. I then use the kitchen stovetop to sterilize massive amounts of substrate and let it cool, while baking the drying agent in the oven to remove the moisture and re-use it for drying. These are the only things I have to do outside of the room itself, the only things where I run the risk of The Armenian catching me. Once he does. I tell him it’s fancy fertilizer for my friend’s tomatoes, hoping he’ll think I’m growing marijuana and stop asking questions. He knows I smoke weed constantly. Marijuana is so much less illegal than mushrooms, so it seems a reasonable excuse.
The grow chambers are made from plastic storage bins that seal tightly but not too tightly. Years later I take them to Burning Man, storing costumes in them. Occasionally people ask about the drainage holes drilled in them. I have some story about leaving them in storage over the year and how my costumes would mold. I buy these bins at K-Mart, as this is before the Wal-Mart times. During the early era of the farm I also have Styrofoam coolers with part of the lids cut out and plexiglass silicone glued to them, but switch over to all plastic as the bins are easier to work with. Styrofoam sheds, and creates yet another thing to obsessively clean. I take a lot of showers.
Connecting these is PVC tubing, adhered into place with silicone. I have some 2.5 gallon water jugs acting as dilution stages for the humidifier. The substrate ingredients I order online, in bulk, except for the vermiculite which I get from Home Depot. I get most things from Home Depot. I learn to wear a miniskirt when I visit and am helped immediately by the men working there. I often consider getting a day laborer from the parking lot to come home and tend the mushrooms. The daily work of harvesting, rotating and spacing the mushrooms on the drying rack, hydrating substrate, disposing of spent substrate, draining and cleaning bins, moving newly colonized substrate – it is all monotonous, and difficult due to the space not being designed for the process. I would gladly have someone else do it if I could trust them. I fantasize constantly about the perfect grow facility and team. I put designs on paper and come close to selling those alone, but have the sense eventually to delete the file.
I expand my resources once I start growing large scale, using every book and article and post that I can get my hands on. Paul Stamets, the world’s most renowned mycologist, becomes a personal hero. Because of his article called “The Blob”, that explains that kombucha is an often contaminated mix of antibiotic producing fungus, yeast, and bacteria: I stop drinking kombucha. Touted as a fermented probiotic tea from China, it’s swept the California hippie scene and people are brewing their own at home by sharing cultures with each other with absolutely no mind to sterility. No one views that as dangerous. I’m enough of a mycophile by this point to see the dangers. I become hyper-conscious of microbiology in my daily life.
I think about moving away from Los Angeles. To somewhere where there are no earthquakes, and therefore basements. I think about having more space and fewer roommates and wonder if I should move out to the desert, Lancaster, Palmdale, but then realize that the babies wouldn’t like being around so many tweakers. Such specific needs, the mushroom people. It also would be difficult to keep it cool enough to maintain the grow. I’d arouse suspicion with weird A/C bills. These anxious thoughts of moving circulate and repeat without ever leading anywhere.
I stop at McDonald’s every few months and steal fistfuls of straws. It used to be because they are bigger and make better wells with which to hydrate substrate. Now it is just a ritual for me. It’s the only risky thing I do anymore. And I hate fucking McDonald’s. I’ve never eaten there in my life.
The smell of bleach is a constant source of strain. I know that it is caustic, not toxic. I use it liberally. I lose the ability to smell it, which elevates the strain into paranoia. The roommate knows I am not OCD and has never smelled bleach visiting my prior residences. I am perhaps too intimate with how little he cleans his portion of the house, or even the common areas, which I keep spotless. When he questions me about the bleach I challenge him on his role in cleaning, and explain that if he’s not going to contribute time or money – I’m going to use the cheapest solution: diluted bleach. I’m really proud of this cover.
Making weight every month is a challenge. It seems such a rigid measurement for such a tenuous, fluid, natural process. I sell them wholesale to The Medicine Man who lives on the Westside and makes mushroom fudge. His customer base is mostly Hollywood studio musicians. One time he turns up the tunes on some musical interlude or outro for a talk show filling out cable programming and says “Your crop is behind every instrument you’re hearing”.
At his wedding, in a State Park, there are two hundred and fifty participants all under the influence of my mushrooms. I’m the only one who doesn’t take them; I never once try his fudge. If he could, he’d buy ten times what I’m able to supply him. He tries to negotiate lower rates based on higher volume. He often offers to invest in my farm, but I am wary of any such arrangements.
The second time I bring him a harvest I throw in a wet mushroom at the top thinking it’d be a nice gift, but realize how quickly the rest of the pound soaks up the moisture when he gets stern about the weight. I’m young. I play the idiot and he lets me off the hook. I don’t make that mistake again. These days they go for a thousand dollars a pound, wholesale.
Early on I decide that using the home trash is too much of a risk. I drive around searching for open garbage cans, dumpsters, anywhere I won’t be seen disposing of spent substrate. I resent the extra time this takes and how it cuts into my profit. Why can’t it just be legal? Of course, it wouldn’t be lucrative, the cost of the mushrooms would drop. And, of course, there’s nothing preventing me from going into the legal mushroom growing business. I hear that Shiitake sell for five dollars a pound.
Whenever I am weary or bored by the work it expresses as annoyance that what I’ve chosen to do is illegal, and I feel oppressed, all while knowing that this is entirely my choice. I chose to do this because I wanted to work from home, I wanted to be on my own schedule, and now that things are running I feel entitled to the justice and protection of the law. On some level I know, though, that I couldn’t compete were this a legal industry. No one would want mushrooms grown under my California King. I justify the work to myself by thinking of other people who have little choice, and thinking of the lives I’m changing by supplying psychedelic experiences to people.
I think more about that as I become closer to the customer base by occasionally selling retail. I take greater risks as I become more comfortable with my success, but am also still spending more than I am making. If I wasn’t desperate for rent money I would never let my friend RP bring a stranger to the place. But I am and I acquiesce and a small long-haired, skinny, shifty-but-beautiful-eyed stranger comes into my space.
“Smells like bleach.” He says, and winks at me.
He looks at a sample of my mushrooms, which are now larger and larger as I push for more money and heavier weight. Larger means less potent, but I notice that not many buyers know this. This one does. “I’d rather not buy these by weight, if you know what I mean.” Before I can answer, he says the magic words “Would you consider trading some bud for them?”
I grin, rent money suddenly pushed from my mind for the first time in days, replaced by the thought of instant weed. “Sure!”
He goes back to his car and returns with a metal briefcase, complete with combination lock. He spins the dials, clicks open the locks, and reveals a case brimming with stunningly beautiful weed. Something in his nature makes me nervous, but I go to my room anyway, grab a gallon sized Ziploc full of mushrooms, and return to the living room.
He chuckles on seeing the bag and says “I don’t have a scale.”
“Neither do I.” I am grinning.
“Half for a quarter?” he cocks his head.
We both pick an appropriate handful of homegrown and hand it to one another. He meets my eyes with a twinkle. I can tell he is as pleased as I am. Trading drugs with growers satisfies an urge to be above the law and to have your work truly appreciated. The exchange requires the ultimate trust, and therefore an intimacy.
Five years later The Madman’s hair is short and he’s filled out into a gorgeous man, so I don’t recognize or remember him when RP brings him to Burning Man, and I fall in love. Be careful who you trade drugs with. Be careful who you fall in love with. Be careful who you live with.