growing mushrooms (and how fungi grow themselves), with john michelotti

HAVE YOU EVER grown mushrooms? Or perhaps they’ve just grown themselves in different parts of your garden at different moments of the season and you’ve wondered: why there, and why then? I know I do; I’m fascinated by fungi. I asked John Michelotti of Catskill Fungi to encourage us to try cultivating some edible ones and to go take a mushroom walk too, to get to meet some of the incredible diversity out there.

John (with cultivated shiitake, above) is a self-described “mushroom guy” and has studied fungi with some of the country’s top mycologists. On his family farm in Big Indian, New York, he cultivates indoor and outdoor mushrooms, and provides guided mushroom classes, cultivation courses, private consultations, and even creates mushroom health extracts. John is also part of the Amazon Mycorenewal Project (CoRenewal), researching the utilization of fungi to remediate oil spills in the Amazon Rain Forest.

Read along as you listen to the April 1, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

take a mushroom-growing class or walk with john

FOR LOCAL LISTENERS of Robin Hood Radio, where my radio show and podcast is produced, and visitors to my May 11 Garden Open Day, John will be teaching mushroom growing and leading a mushroom walk as part of our festivities. More on that here.

how mushrooms grow, with john michelotti


Q. I’m just going to ask you: I know it’s like a po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe thing, but I always worry when I say fungi. Is it supposed to be fun-guy or fun-gee or [laughter] … what do you say?

A. It’s pretty interchangeable. I say fun-guy. It’s quite interchangeable as far as that goes.

Q. O.K. I’ve heard you say that your mission is to spread the information about the benefits that fungi, as I say it, have to offer. Like, for example … some of the benefits?

A. Oh, they’re really pretty amazing. When I teach medicinal mushroom workshops, the focus is on people and the role that mushrooms can play in your health, but I also touch on their ecological functions in our gardens, in our forests and how by partnering with fungi, they can really help to create healthy ecosystems.

Q. Yes, so that Amazon project that you’re involved in, that would be like a very large-scale example of that, I suppose?

A. Yes and it’s kind of ongoing research, where we’re looking at how fungi can remediate oil spills or clean up toxins within soils within the environment.

Q. Wow.

A. Yes, they do so with their digestive system. Basically the way fungi grow is in an interconnected network called mycelium. This mycelium is, basically you could think about it like the roots of the fungi, and the fungi are there existing as mycelium 365 days a year, whether we’re seeing mushrooms or not.

The way they break down the dead wood in the forest, the way they crawl underneath the soil, is through a digestive system that’s like ours, but opposite. Where we take in food, enzymes are released in our stomachs to digest the food, and then we absorb the nutrients. Well the fungi are doing this through their mycelium and their tips by externalizing their enzymes, which break down the lignin, the cellulose and hemicellulose, the building blocks of wood, and then they absorb those nutrients through those same hyphal tips into the mycelium, and this is how they grow and spread throughout wood and throughout their soils. It’s only when conditions are perfect, that they pool their energy together and fruit mushrooms, and that’s the part that we see, above ground, growing out of logs and things like this.

Q. Maybe what fascinated me most is how, or fascinates me most every year, is how certain fungi show up in similar spots at the same times of year and not in other spots. It’s like they have their kind of place. Like, I have this one big conifer and around it in certain years, if the weather I guess is right, I get this like fairy ring of, I think they’re Amanitas [above, at Margaret’s]. There’s a place down the road from me, if I walk in I think it’s the early fall, where I see those inky caps, inky caps? Is it inky caps?

A. Yes.

Q. Yes and they’re on one spot, but I’ve never seen them in my yard. You were talking about that when the time is right, they decide to show us their fruiting bodies, but what’s going on underneath? Is it that they have a special place where each species can be happy and thrive?

A. Yes and those are two really good examples of two of the functions that fungi serve within the environment. The Amanitas that you mentioned, listeners can know that one as the emoji mushroom.

Q. [Laughter.]

A. It’s the one with the red caps and white dots on it. It’s the Super Mario Bros. mushroom, as they say. This mushroom, even though it’s poisonous to people, actually serves a lot of great benefits for the environment. That mushroom in your yard, it has its mycelium interconnected with the roots of trees. And so the tree and the fungi are exchanging nutrients in a symbiotic relationship, where the fungi, through its mycelium, is mining nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and water, and it’s putting that into the tree in exchange for sugars that the tree is making through photosynthesis.

It’s no surprise when those mushrooms come up again and again in those same spots, usually a couple days after it rains, because that mycelium and that tree are always interconnected.

Q. I see.

A. Yes and then some of the other mushrooms the Coprinus, people may have seen, they’re called inky caps as well, and they kind of turn, they deliquesce into a black mush that was actually utilized for quills in pens a hundred years ago. These mushrooms are generally next to compost, because they are tertiary decomposers, so they’re breaking down things that have been broken down already. [Above, shaggy mane mushrooms, a species of Coprinus, deliquescing along the roadside near Margaret’s garden.]

Q. Oh. That makes sense from where I see them. That makes total sense.

A. Sometimes you’ll see those there.

Q. Yes.

A. It’s really fascinating.

Q. Yes it’s like, besides you just used one of my favorite mushroom words. When I first saw those inky caps one year many years ago in the fall, I think, that word “deliquesce,” sort of melting that it kind of … And like you said, it’s like a black ink and it was long ago used as an ink. It’s just a beautiful word also, you know?

A. Indeed. Absolutely.

Q. And so, two years ago I think it was when you led a fall walk that I coordinated, I remember asking you as I do everyone who comes to teach a workshop or whatever with me or at my place, I remember asking, I said, “So, John do you want to come an hour two or three ahead of time and scout the site to see what is there before your guests come? Before, you know, your attendees come so you’ll kind of have your pit stops outlined?”

And you were just like, “No I don’t need to do that. I’d rather be surprised, Margaret.” And I thought, “Wow, this guy’s confident.” [Laughter.] It kind of made me laugh, but I think that’s because you know from all the exploration you’ve done in so many places, in so many seasons that there’s always, as that expression goes, “Fungus among us.” There’s always something, right?

A. Yes, very well said. Yes and that’s what it is. Just, I know that there are mushrooms everywhere all around us and even, just for example, some of the unseen: We talked about mycelium being the roots of fungi. In the Northeast here, in every square inch of soil, there’s a mile of mycelium.

Q. Oh my goodness.

A. This is everywhere, and so it’s really after the rain that you’ll see different types of mushrooms. Without fail, once you train your eyes to see these mushrooms, they really start appearing everywhere, because the fungal kingdom is the second largest kingdom of living things. I mean there are more fungi out there than there are plants and animals combined.

Q. Wow.

A. There is just so much diversity in our woods, and it’s really just training your eyes to see them. Once you learn a little bit here and a little bit there, it really becomes like a scavenger hunt in the woods.

Q. [Laughter.]

A. The fun is you don’t have to be moving too fast. In fact the slower you mosey, the more you see. But then also, you could also be walking the same woods you’ve walked year after year and find new things. That’s what really makes it fun.

Q. Well it was very inspiring to me, because as I said, normally if I’m going to teach something somewhere, I like want to see the lay of the land first, you know what I mean? Because I’m nervous otherwise, but you were just totally confident, which was great. [Laughter.]

The other thing that I love is that they have each a different almost personality when the fruiting bodies do appear. They don’t all look alike. We talked about the Amanita for a second, and I’ll show some pictures. The inky caps are a different shape altogether and have this distinctive melting habit. And then there’s puffballs and then there’s little tiny cluster, tight little things like clusters of things that are tight on the ground, maybe on mulch or something that I sometimes get, like if I get a load of mulch.

Then there’s things that look like horse hooves, or other ones that look like brackets or fluted ears on the bark of trees, like such diversity of form. What’s that about a little bit?

A. Absolutely and each one is so different. Generally mushrooms have evolved differently. They’ve gone from being underground sclerotia, similar to truffles, into the forms of fruiting bodies that you think of when you think mushroom, your cap and stem mushrooms. And then back to truffles and then back to fruiting bodies, from stinkhorns and things like this. Really over the millennia, we’ve seen different forms change evolutionarily. But when you’re mushroom hunting, especially when you’re starting out, it’s great because a lot of these mushrooms you can cluster into groups, just like you’re doing right there. There’s certain mushrooms that grow on trees that are bracket-like fungus, and horse hooves, and then there’s other ones that grow in mulch. The one that I think you’re talking about is called a Bird’s Nest Fungus, because when you look at it, you’ll see it’s a little tiny cup with maybe three or four what look like eggs in there.

Q. Yes, that’s exactly right.

A. Yes. Each one’s a little different, but there are some basic categories that can really help you narrow down what type of mushroom it is that you’re looking at. From there, a beginner can get a guidebook such as the “Audubon Guide to North American Mushrooms,” and look up, based on the category of mushroom, what it is they might have there. There’s really a lot of diversity not just in shape, but size, color, texture, and flavors.

Q. Right: flavors, but we’re not going around and tasting the ones we’re finding on our walk. [Laughter.]

A. Absolutely not. No way.

Q. No way.

A. I just got a call from a local environmental group and they were saying, “Hey we have a lot of people that ask about different types of mushrooms.” And being part of the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association, I also get a lot of questions like this, and it’s true, we do have deadly poisonous mushrooms in our woods here. So you do have to know what you’re doing. There’s really no easy way to do it. You have to identify your mushrooms to species.

If you’re interested in edibility, there are about five easy edibles that you can really learn within the first year of mushroom hunting, that are abundant in our woods [in the Hudson Valley of the Northeast], but you got to triple-check them.

Q. Right.

A. I mean, you got to have three different pairs of eyes signing off saying it’s the same thing. That’s what I always recommend.

Q. Triple-checking. Well you know until I met you, I’d never grown a single mushroom intentionally. As I said, they’re all over the place in the garden and since I’ve met you, thanks to your confidence and how you kind of told me, “They’re everywhere. Go ahead and just slow down and look more carefully.” So I’m meeting more of them all the time.

But when I was treated to one of your outdoor mushroom growing classes, I think it was last year, it turns out that some of them are pretty easy once you inoculate a medium of some kind, whether logs or mulch or whatever, to grow at home. If people want to get started, what are some of the easy ones that you teach at first and that you’re going to be covering in that morning talk class on May 11th when we get together for my Open Day?

A. Actually I’m really excited that you brought the May 11th up, because the main mushroom, some of the easiest mushrooms to grow and incorporate within your garden, are the ones we’re going to be covering then.

Q. O.K.

A. That means we’re going to be talking about how to grow shiitakes on logs, so especially if people have sugar maples or oaks, you know, we can harvest some of these logs using forest-management plans, of course. If a tree comes down, and you can kind of chop up the smaller pieces, you can take the logs, and you’re basically drilling holes in the logs [above] and introducing that mycelium, which remember are the roots of the mushroom, to the log which, eventually grows through the log and fruits shiitake mushrooms.

These logs can be left outdoors in a shady area, where it can get rained on and it takes about a year for the mycelium to grow through that log and start fruiting mushrooms, but then that log will produce about three to four years after that.

Q. Wow.

A. We’re going to be talking about how to grow shiitake mushrooms on logs. We’re also going to be talking about how to do Stropharia or wine cap, or the garden giants.

Q. Oh the wine caps. Yes.

A. Yes. Wonderful, big, burgundy mushrooms that have these beautiful veils and dark spore print. They grow in mulch and in hay and are a really great companion plants that you can put right into your garden. We always put straw or hay on our garden beds during the winter to really hold in the moisture and keep the temperatures regulated and then we kind of move that straw aside and plant our plants in between. We consistently put straw on top of that and hay on top of that.

We have raised beds in our garden, and in between our raised beds we have mulch and what’s great about the Stropharia mycelium is that you can introduce it both through the hay and straw and the mulch. It will run through the mulch and it’s really great for the straw, too. It helps break down the straw and create healthy soil for your plants, but it also attracts beneficial insects. It’s really healthy for all different forms of nematodes and bacteria within your soils as well. It really helps to add to the ecosystem within your garden and cultivate healthy soil, and it provides a really delicious mushroom. Really a very easy one to grow as well.

Q. Now you said “spore prints.” Now that’s another phrase, not in a single word but a phrase having to do with mushrooms: spore prints. Can you explain that quickly? Like, what spore prints are?

A. Yes. Spore prints are great. Every mushroom, and you can think of the mushroom as the fruiting body of a fungi, similar to an apple on an apple tree where the apple is there to produce more seeds to grow more apple trees, right?

Q. Right.

A. Well the mushroom is there to make spores, and the spores are the seeds of the fungi, and they’re microscopic. They get released from the cap of the mushroom. If you take that typical-looking mushroom with the stem and a cap on top, the spores would be released from the underneath side of that cap, which sometimes has gills in a lot of the grocery store mushrooms and shiitakes and things like this that we buy.

The way you find out what color those spores are, since these spores are microscopic, is that you can cut that stem off and put that cap, that top part of that mushroom on a piece of construction paper or cardboard or a piece of glass, and overnight, the spores from that cap will drop onto the paper or cardboard or the glass.

And then you can pick up that cap and see what color it is that they leave behind. This is one of the identifying characteristics of fungi. Yes, taking spore prints can be a lot of fun because you can make a lot of art from them as well.

Q. Huh! Cool, so they leave their fingerprints behind. [Laughter.] Right?

A. [Laughter.] I love it. Yes. That’s exactly right.

Q. That’s so interesting. On May 11th, I think in the morning class you’re going to do a hands on, do-it-yourself and then take home your own sort of pre-made kit of an indoor growing type as well, yes?

A. Yes, we’re going to be growing oyster mushrooms on coffee grounds, which is a class that I teach for the New York Botanical Garden and a few other places. We have a really great time because we’re upcycling a waste stream. If you can imagine how many coffee shops there are around the world that are just taking your coffee grounds, after they brew you a delicious cup and just tossing them in the garbage. Well this is an opportunity to take those coffee grounds and take a little oyster mushroom mycelium, and mix them together, lo and behold the oyster mushroom mycelium will start growing on the coffee grounds and fruiting edible mushrooms.

Q. And like on your kitchen counter, is this-

A. Yes, that’s right. Well yes, you’re not like dumping the coffee grounds on the kitchen counter. [Laughter.]

Q. Oh sorry, John. You know me. I’m a terrible housekeeper. No.

A. [Laughter.] I don’t think that’s very true at all.

Q. No, no, no, no.

A. But yes, we put them in a to-go container, a little quart-sized container with your coffee grounds and your mycelium, and you can just leave it in your kitchen and just mist it every couple days. And you’ll see the mycelium run over those coffee grounds and turn those coffee grounds completely white until it’s bound them all together in a thick mat, before it pools its energy together and fruits a mushroom.

Q. I wanted just to ask you, because I’ve been fascinated by it on your website for CatskillFungi dot com and at the events that we’ve done together, you do these tinctures, these concoctions of different mushrooms. What got you into that, briefly?

A. Yes, that was actually my trip to Ecuador to study myco-remediation. I took a class with somebody that was teaching about the medicinal properties of mushrooms and they taught us how to do extracts of those medicinal properties.

Q. Oh.

A. And when we got back, I had been making those for friends and family and for myself for a while and I realized that there was kind of a need within the community for local mushroom tinctures. So I started producing them and selling them from mushrooms that I was growing and mushrooms I was foraging. I’ve had a lot of support from the community since.

Q. Yes it’s very interesting, and I think that in the fall you brought this, it kind of looked like a petrified thing. [Laughter.] What was it, chaga [below]?

chagaA. Oh yes, chaga‘s a very interesting one. It grows on birch trees and hyper-accumulates betulin, which is really good for your immune system. There’s other cultures in Europe that use this as even an anti-cancer drug or a long list of cancer treatments. It’s really great for boosting the immune system, for skin, digestion and detoxing. Yes, each mushroom kind of has its own health benefits similar to some plants, and they’re quite fascinating. Everything from modulating blood pressure and the immune system to brain function to blood sugar.

Q. Right. They’re used in traditional medicines in many cultures. Very, very interesting.

A. Yes. That’s right.

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 1, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify
or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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