By Molly Hays, Photography by Robin Oatts
Show a young child a seed’s magic, and you can expect surprise, typically; awe, even; a budding gardener, if you’re lucky. But if you’re 7-year-old Te’Lario Watkins II’s family? Buckle up, because before you know it, you may find yourself with a mushroom farm where your spare room once was, plus summer weekends suddenly set aside for mushroom sales.
Young Te’Lario’s growing journey began with a Cub Scout project last spring, which set him up with his first two seedlings: one catnip, one basil. It was love at first plant. Pride and enthusiasm fill his voice, as he enumerates each step of his seeds’ care: “I watered them. I kept them in my guest room. I used a grow light.” Water, shelter, light: the small, steady, vital attentions of gardener and crop, caregiver and charge.
With a Columbus winter on the way, and a longing to foster their son’s new passion, Te’Lario’s family hit on mushrooms, which could be grown entirely indoors. Beginning with a boxed kit from Back to the Roots, Te’Lario tended his new crop, spraying it twice daily, watching, waiting, until finally, finally, they were ready. Two weeks—“a long time!”—after the kit arrived, Te’Lario harvested his first oyster mushrooms. Which, for the record, he loves to eat, in pasta alfredo. And on pizza. Naturally.
Te’Lario was hooked.
He soon became a Junior Brand Ambassador for Back to the Roots, a child-centered role for which he interviewed with the company’s co-founder, via Skype. As an ambassador, Te’Lario sold three kits; wears his Back to the Roots T-shirt with pride; and shares his mushroom-growing experience with peers and grown-ups, alike.
Many kids would’ve stopped there. Not Te’Lario Watkins II. He was just getting started.
This spring, Te’Lario and his family converted their guest room into a mini-mushroom farm, erecting shelving, installing grow lights, and embarking on five different mushroom crops: shiitake, oyster, golden, pearl, and blue.
This new, substantial mushroom endeavor is no kit. Te’Lario and his parents begin by prepping the mushroom’s growth medium, straw, which must be pulled from the bale; cut into two-inch lengths; boiled for two hours to sterilize; carefully cooled to precise temperatures; and finally, packed into baskets, where it’s inoculated with mushroom spawn. “He wanted to do it, so we went full throttle,” says LaVanya Watkins, Te’Lario’s mother, in a shining example of maternal understatement and support.
Three weeks of misting and monitoring later, the mushrooms are mature and ready to harvest. And what will Te’Lario do with his bounty? Learn to grow something else, still: a small business. He and his family will market his fresh, homegrown mushrooms at the Easton Farmers Market on Thursdays from 4pm to 7pm on June 4, 11, 25; July 9, 23; August 6; and in May through September every second and fourth Saturday from 11am to 2pm at the 400 West Ridge Market.
And what lies ahead for this mini-mushroom mogul? At 7, only time will tell. Though when asked what he loves best about growing things, Te’Lario’s answer speaks volumes, and suits farming and sales, alike: “I love to watch things grow big!”