Clara Schmidt holds up a very large mushroom from her funi farm and says something about it.

Myko:nect - How Clara Schmidt regenerates soil by cultivating mushrooms

|

An interview with Clara Schmidt about the beauty of fungi and their many uses

In 2022, Clara Schmidt founded Myko:nect, a laboratory for the cultivation of fungi, in the Kaiserswerth district of Düsseldorf, more usually known for its castle ruins, Michelin-starred cuisine and idyllic beer gardens. Her company allows Schmidt to realise her ideas for a sustainable approach to nature. The mushroom expert conducts research into the most energy-efficient methods of cultivating fungi and their mycelia, and has made it her mission to teach her skills to others, based on the very latest scientific findings.

You founded your company, Myko:nect, at the beginning of last year. When did you first come across the idea of mushroom cultivation?
Two years ago, on a course about permaculture in Portugal, I became aware of fungi in a roundabout way. When I immersed myself in the subject more deeply, I discovered the books by Paul Stamets1 and was absolutely fascinated. This might sound a bit melodramatic, but they changed my life completely. I familiarised myself with the world of fungi cultivation and set up my own business, Myko:nect. The idea first came to me in January 2022, and by the end of 2022 I had got my own laboratory up and running.

What is it about fungi that fascinates you?
I find it exciting that fungi form a subterranean network. We’re talking about very large organisms here that communicate underground and exchange nutrients with plants. Fungi are more than just the visible part, the fruiting body or mushrooms that we see on the surface. The mycelium, the underground network that is invisible to us, is much larger. Some of the people who attend my course are not aware of that. I am also fascinated by the beauty, healing powers and effects of fungi.

Clara Schmidt and Ilona Marx standing outside talking to each other.
Clara Schmidt (left) explains to Ilona Marx how she cultivates fungi.

What applications do you envisage for your fungi?
Oyster mushrooms are edible – they make a great meat substitute. The therapeutic powder that I extract from lion’s mane mushrooms is added to food, and reishi mushrooms can be made into tea. (Editor's note: lion's mane and reishi are regarded as superfoods. Lion's mane, for example, are abundant in minerals and trace elements). I grow my mushrooms on a substrate of wood chips and rye, which I afterwards use as fertiliser for the vegetables in my garden. Even when the mushrooms have been harvested, that substrate is still full of mycelia, and although I only began to use it just under a year ago, the vegetables are growing like crazy. It’s a circular process. I only use wood from freshly cut trees from the surrounding forests. All of the raw materials I add are grown organically, and most are from local sources. I use the my vegetable scraps and other organic waste to create my own humus in the basement, with the help of earthworms. And then I use that humus to regenerate the soil in the gardens of my customers. That, together with the mushroom courses, is my main business.

Regenerate soil?
Yes. I get asked to look at gardens where plants are either diseased or not thriving. I apply humus, build mushroom beds and mulch the soil with fungal substrate. And I use nettle manure as a natural fertiliser. That also boosts the plants’ immune systems. By deliberately introducing certain fungi into the natural environment and adding biomass, I enrich soils with important nutrients and remove toxic pollutants. This allows healthy plant growth and cures diseases.

Clara Schmidt holds soil in her hands.

Have you found any support for your idea in Düsseldorf?
Not a lot so far. At the moment I’m finding Instagram very useful. It’s where I connect with many like-minded people and I’m able to network. This happens organically, almost effortlessly in fact, quite similar to the process I observe in my fungal networks (laughs).

What are you teaching people on your mushroom courses?
My own core knowledge about fungi cultivation. I also provide some insight into all the different things fungi can do. And I sell my own grow kits and demonstrate how to cultivate fungi. I also talk about the possibilities of soil regeneration.

How do you find your customers?
Through word of mouth. I gave a talk at the Im Schiffchen restaurant once. It all took off in a fairly organic way from that.

Photos of fungi arranged on a dark wooden table.

What role does Düsseldorf play in your business?
Düsseldorf is my home, it’s where my family live, and they really support me in my work. I feel at ease here. Since I’ve been living in Kaiserswerth, I rarely visit the city centre. I have everything I need right here.

Are there other sustainable projects of note in the city? Does Düsseldorf have its own scene here?
Yes, definitely. There’s the Ökotop (ecotope) community in Heerdt and the Solidarische Landwirtschaft (solidarity in agriculture), or Solawi. Both of them take a sustainable approach.

What would be your dream be?
My utopian vision is that we all start working together more again. Nature depends on give and take. We humans upset the system by not giving back as much to nature as we are taking. My own specific, personal dream is to move to the countryside and live self-sufficiently. Even now, I grow almost all of the vegetables I eat, avoid all processed foods and compost all of my food waste.

Apart from your work, how do you get close to nature?
I like to go to Ratingen Forest. I can really switch off there.

mykonect.de

1Paul Statmets is a US mycologist who sells various mushroom products through his company.
Fun fact: The Sci-Fi series Star Trek Discovery has a character named after him. The fictional Paul Statmets in the series is a scientist who works in the fields of mycology and physics. He is also one half of the first openly gay couple in a Star Trek series.

Interview: Ilona Marx
Photos: Markus Luigs

Want to stay up to date with what's going on in Düsseldorf? Then subscribe to our newsletter!