Grow Your Own Truffles!


I’m a big fan of field trips, so last week I was lucky enough to take a tour of Virginia Truffle Growers. I first read about them in Flavors magazine (look for it at top-notch food shops like The Frenchman’s Corner in Culpeper), and my curiosity was immediately aroused. Truffles in my own backyard? Or yours? This must be too good to be true. Apparently not! With attention to site preparation and some ongoing maintenance, the Mid-Atlantic is apparently a viable climate for Black Truffles.

Virginia Truffle Growers operates their greenhouse and trufferie right here in Culpeper County. I left my home office, and after half an hour of driving (including a few wrong turns), I arrived at a non-descript gate on a gravel road out in the county. I got buzzed through, drove down the lane, and received a warm welcome from Maggie and John- the truffle experts. They showed me around the growing operation, which is pretty simple: a greenhouse, a work shed, and the open field in the photograph above. The process, while very specialized, is very straightforward: young oak trees are inoculated with the black truffle spores and prepared for planting. So, if you decide you want to grow your own truffles, how do you get started?

The first step is carefully select your site. South facing, freely draining soils are recommended. Additionally, you’ll want to be certain that you’re planting the trees in a space that can handle a mature oak tree. The two varieties that Virginia Truffle Growers offer are English Oak (Quercus robur), which can grow to 50’x50′ in urban landscape conditions, and Holly Oak (Quercus Ilex), which has a similar mature size. Next you’ll want to have a soil test done, as the truffles prefer a certain pH and other characteristics. Virginia Truffle Growers can provide a soil test kit for a fee, and their lab will specifically look for the nutrients your colony will need. Following the results of the soil test, amend your soil well in advance of when you plan to plant. Truffles like a higher pH than most other fungi, so you’re essentially eliminating the competition.

Planting is very straightforward. The trees are quite young; the ones I saw are 12-18 inches tall, so planting is not an effortful process. Consistent irrigation is key, and the folks at the trufferie have a system that has worked well for them, that they recommend.truffleday-feb26-2009-6The green tube you see is called a grow tube. Grow tubes offer several benefits for establishing young plants, which is why you’ll see them in use at wineries and tree farms. They’re even in use at the Library of Congress’ Mount Pony location. Grow tubes protect the young plants from wind and drought, animals, and herbicidal sprays. A note on that last point- obviously, since you’re trying to establish a colony of fungi that lives on the roots of the tree, you want to minimize disturbance of the soil around the tree. This is a case where a chemical control, like glyphosate, is preferable to mechanical weed control. What I found fascinating was that as the truffles establish themselves, they “burn” the competing weeds around the tree. Maggie showed me photos of an established truffle orchard where the bases of the trees were completely weed free, because of the truffles.

You may be wondering why you need the oak tree. Why not just plant truffle spores in the soil and be done with it? The answer is that the black truffle has a mycorrhizal, symbiotic relationship with the oak tree. If you follow organic gardening at all, you may recognize that term, mycorrhizal. But what does it mean? In simple terms, a mycorrhizal fungus forms nodules on the roots of a plant. The plant provides sugars (carbon) to the fungus, which because it lacks chlorophyll, cannot produce its own. In return, the fungus assists in the uptake of water and nutrients to the plant, through the roots. There are other trees that can form a mycorrhizal relationship with truffles, but the folks at Virginia Truffle Growers have found success with the English and Holly Oaks.

Once the trees are planted, you simply keep them consistently irrigated and follow the nutrient recommendations from the trufferie. After four to five years, you should get your first harvest! If you’re familiar with truffles, you may be aware that they were traditionally hunted with pigs, which doesn’t seem a viable option. Dogs are very proficient truffle hunters, with the right training, and the trufferie can recommend some resources to help train your own truffle-sniffing pooch. In a pinch, you can even act as your own truffle hound- get down on the ground and sniff around till you catch that distinctive aroma! Truffles have an amazingly rich flavor, and command incredble prices of hundreds of dollars per pound.

Whether you have acres to devote to an orchard, or you just want one or two truffle-bearing trees, it can be a great way to add value and a little excitement to your landscape. If you want to learn more about their operation, there’s additional information on Virginia Truffle Growers’ website. If you want to incorporate some truffle oaks into your own edible landscape, let me know and we can create a beautiful and practical addition to your property!

David Marciniak

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Shawn - March 3, 2009 Reply

Sounds like you had a great time and learned a lot. I am glad the trip went well, and really enjoyed the blog post.

Mike - July 30, 2009 Reply

I have linden trees in my yard that have a white fungus growing under them and now I am finding what look like truffles growing but they are comming out of the ground. What are these thingsw?

virginialandscaping - July 30, 2009 Reply

I couldn’t even presume to guess. Your best bet is to find someone in your area with a track record as a mycologist, and get them to weigh in. There are mushrooms out there with charming names like “looks tasty but’ll kill you by melting your innards” mushrooms, so you REALLY don’t want to gamble and saute random shrooms.

Lynda Brooks - July 23, 2014 Reply

I’m really SHOCKED you are advocating the use of ghysophate on such a precious commodity. This is the main chemical in broad spectrum RoundUp which has been found to cause the proliferation of breast cancer. In an economy that is trying to eliminate chemicals and genetically modified organisms from the world food market, perhaps you may want to rethink adding such a harmful chemical to a delicacy like truffles. Once labeling goes into effect, and gradually it will be required of all states, you don’t want to have to explain why your truffles contain glysophate. Please reconsider… thank you 🙂

    David Marciniak - July 31, 2014 Reply

    Lynda, thanks for commenting. At the time this post was published this was the recommended method as presented by the growers.

    As to your tone, please remember you came into my house (this blog) to comment. You’re kinda pushing the edge of civility. It’s been a while since I’ve done a search for pubs in peer-reviewed scientific journals but as of my most recent pass, there was nothing damning, no smoking gun. I don’t trust Monsanto, and I tend to not use or specify the use of herbicides. But at the end of the day if someone asks me if something is safe, I base it on science. I may say “I’m a little ooked out by it but there’s zero science to back that feeling up,” but I’m not going to lie and say it’s demonstrably unsafe when no, that’s yet to be demonstrated.

    And just FYI, while there appears to be mention of actual peer-reviewed literature I’m going to check out on Mercola’s site, you’d do better to link directly to the source material when making a case. There’s enough tabloid bullcrap masquerading as “science” on that site that linking to it can hurt your credibility. Plus then that way *I* don’t have to click onto that site, which makes me feel less dirty. Correlation =/= causation, people. Honestly after reading some of the bad stuff I was amazed there were citations from actual scientific journals too.

    As to the glyphosate being in the truffles, please go back and read the post again. It’s stated that herbicide was recommended while getting the colony established, but once it starts cranking it suppresses weeds all on its own. Based on the timeline from planting till first commercially viable harvest, I have my doubts that the truffles would actually contain any traces of glyphosate.

    Anyhow I hope that answers your concerns somewhat. Believe it or not we are on the same side, but I think we use different means to get to the same end. Thanks for commenting!

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