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.The 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!