Explore From tree surgeon to gourmet mushrooms

One positive that has come out of the pandemic has to be our love and appreciation of nature, and how it can help lift our mood. Someone who has always appreciated nature since childhood, and understands how it can benefit not only our mental wellbeing but our health too, is Iain Hickinbottom.

What made you decide to retrain as a tree surgeon?
I started my career doing a degree in engineering and my master’s led me to work within a laboratory based R&D role for some years. I’d always craved working outdoors, and I started on this path when I lived in Spain and worked with a guy called Drummond who was a tree surgeon.

We became firm friends and I ended up working for him, and I thought wow, this is brilliant – what a great job being paid to climb trees is. So, with the seed planted, I came back to the UK, retrained and took the qualifications to pursue this path. After qualifying, I was lucky to pick up work through the council as my first job.

I quickly migrated to running a friend of a friend’s tree surgery business for him, which allowed me to gain more experience. Then I guess it was just a natural progression wanting to be my own boss, and I enjoy the freedom that self-employment can bring. My business allows me a huge amount of flexibility – with the type of work I do, it’s not a typical 9 to 5, which allows me to pursue other passions.

Talking about passions, what inspired you to take up cultivating gourmet mushrooms?
I’ve always loved growing food since I’ve had a garden. Many years ago, when I was living in London, I had a juice bar in Shoreditch where we would take the food grown from The Coriander Club. I supported setting up this project in East London with the Bangladeshi community, and it gave me a chance to share the joy of gardening.

Being part of both projects rekindled my love of growing food and I guess it never left me.

Can you walk us through the process?

It’s essentially taking grafts or cuttings, from different species that you like, and placing them onto agar plates and encouraging the mycelium to colonise the agar. It takes a lot of time to get right as growing mushroom spawn takes multiple steps. It’s labour intensive and a constant learning curve, but I love it. I’m enjoying updating my knowledge of what works and sharing the end product with friends and family.

One of the most interesting things I’ve learnt is the traditional method of growing Shitake mushrooms by impregnating logs. In Japan, they’ve been using this method for hundreds of years. You’ll need large outdoor areas to accommodate this however, as you’re reliant on seasonal triggers of humidity and temperature.

Shitake farmers trigger the fruiting cycle by shocking them. They do this by using a special stick to whack the whole of the log and place them in large cold-water baths.

What varieties do you grow?

I mainly grow Shitake and Lion’s Mane for me and my friends as they have interesting deep flavours and that fifth taste that has recently been discovered called umami. I do have the capacity to grow quite a lot, especially as I converted my shed into a grow room, so I can control temperature and humidity levels to give the mushrooms exactly what they need, when they need it.

Do gourmet mushrooms have special nutritional value?

Yes, a lot of them have medicinal and health benefits. Many are high in antioxidants and have been shown to boost the auto-immune system. Lion’s Mane, for example, is high in protein and vitamin D.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m a hobbyist at the moment, but once things start to normalise, I’d like to look at setting myself up as a commercial grower. Am I going to carry on being a tree surgeon too? I mean, I’m nearly 60 and it’s a very physically demanding job. I’m not a spring chicken anymore, and turning growing gourmet mushrooms into a business is definitely appealing.

If there was one piece of advice you could give to your younger self, what would it be?

I feel it goes hand in hand with knowing yourself, but also just listening more to yourself rather than listening to what everyone else is saying. It took me a long time to start following my instincts.

If Iain’s passion has piqued your interest in giving growing gourmet mushrooms a go, we suggest reading Home-grown Mushrooms from Scratch: A Practical Guide to Growing Mushrooms Outside and Indoors, by Magdalena and Herbert Wurth, or learn more here

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