Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.
In sitting down to write this article, I wanted to go deep into the soil food web. I wanted to start from the ground up on how the different bacterium and mycorrhiza work together with plants and trees and help make them a better, stronger version of themselves. I wanted to inspire you the way I have been inspired. Then I came to the realization that I would just be repeating information that was already out there. I would just be siting sources of this wonderful knowledge and rewriting it in my own voice. That’s boring, for me and for you.
What I want to do is show you how to use this knowledge the way I have this past year. I want to show you how to make mycorrhizal fungi on your own. You could go out and buy it (as I did for experimentation) and do it that way, but like I have asked in past articles “what if there was no home depot?”
Mycorrhiza: The Basics
Mycorrhiza can be broken down to its root words and translated literally to “root fungus”. Whether fungus makes you think of yellow toenails or mushrooms on a pizza, most don’t realize the impact they do and can have on all life on Earth. They are an amazing life-form that we are just scratching the surface of their potential. One use that commercial growers and nurseries have known for a while but is now starting to trickle to the average gardener is the symbiotic relationship mycorrhizal fungi has with plants.
All life has co-evolved with bacteria and fungi over millions of years. All life depends on life. Life not only needs to eat life to live but they also need to work together to be successful. Even humans have co-evolved with other life to get to where we are today. Mitochondria, a component in our cells that creates energy for the cell to produce proteins and molecules for cell function and reproduction has some of its own genetic code intact. This is theorized as occurring because at one point in time it was its own organism. It starting working with other cells and over time they became dependent on each other. In the bigger picture, roughly 90% of the cells in our body belong to other organisms. Only 10% of the cells that make up us are actually us. We wouldn’t be able to live without the other micro-organisms we evolved with. And plants are the same way.
The roots of plants can only take in nutrients within its rhizosphere, or the area surrounding its roots. This area encompasses about 1/10 of an inch around the roots. Think about it. All that fertilizer, compost, water and whatever else you dump in the soil is only getting to the plant if it is 1/10 of an inch away from the roots. The rest is wasted. To better survive, the plants root system secretes out certain exudates (organic acids and sugars) to attract particular organisms (fungi and bacteria) for whatever micro-nutrient the plant is lacking. Fungi spread out in root-like stringy webs called hypha and bring the nutrients to the rhizosphere to trade them for the exudates. This basically increases the area of the plants rhizosphere and thus more access to nutrients for the plant.
This alone makes me want to use these little organisms in my garden, but a strong colony of beneficial fungi and bacteria crowd out the harmful ones leaving the plant in better condition. It helps the plant resist pests and diseases, helps the plants from overstressing, and can also increase drought tolerance. Many studies from around the world have shown the benefits of encouraging this symbiotic relationship. So while you can go buy specific species of fungi to add to your garden and fields’, making them on your own is as easy as creating an environment for what is already in the soil to thrive.
Creating Soil Helpers: They Work Hard So You Don’t Have To
Fungi and Bacteria are classified as decomposers. If they weren’t around we would quickly be swimming in un-decomposed organic matter. Though paradoxically, without them we would not have that organic matter in the first place. Bacteria are nitrogen loving and capable of ingesting only the simplest of micro-nutrients and sugars. Woody carbon-filled matter is what fungi are good at breaking down with the enzymes it creates. Knowing this I set out to establish different environments for both organisms to grow.
For the bacteria I made sure to have lots of small organic materials for them to munch on. Layering my compost pile with a good ratio of carbon to nitrogen ensures that the organic matter breaks down enough for the bacteria. Air and water are needed for this as well so a moist and aerated compost pile with plenty of brown and green material is a perfect breeding ground for beneficial bacteria. Lots of worms showing up in your compost pile are a sign of many decomposers present since this is the worm’s main diet. The excreted material leftover by the worms is also a great addition for soil fertility. I cover my compost pile with straw or leaves since UV light can kill the bacterial colonies you are encouraging to grow.
For the fungi I covered my low hoop tunnel bed last fall with straw while my remaining summer crops were wrapping up for the year. Before winter came I added a good amount of leaves I collected in the Compost Bandit over the top of the straw. This mulch covered the fungi within the soil and enabled them to grow around the straw. This method is easier than composting because it requires you to do the opposite; you don’t turn it. As mentioned earlier, fungi spread out with thin stringy webs called hypha. Turning and mixing the soil would destroy that hypha killing the network the fungi had created. This is why no-till or low-till is more beneficial in the long run than tilling the ground up every year. You are making it harder for the beneficial fungi to grow which limits their presence for the plants come spring time.
Before spring came this year, I carefully removed all the leaves from my garden bed exposing all the fungi that had been growing there. The next step was to add the bacteria filled compost directly on top. This gives me fungi, bacteria, and good compost to make my garden bed a fertile one for this year’s crops. When pulling out the few weeds that had managed to grow under the leaves, I saw the fungi all wrapped up in the roots. This was a good sign of things to come for the plants I wanted to grow there this year.
In a world where we are too impatient for things to come, it makes sense to find simple ways of doing things so we can more easily make the transition from short term thinking to long term. Growing beneficial fungi doesn’t take any work from you other than setting up an area that encourages growth. There is no tossing and mixing. There is no checking on it daily. It should be added to your end of the year garden preparation for winter. This will not only enable you to use less fertilizers and pesticides but will also make your plants all the more happier and healthier, passing those benefits on to you.
Sources: “Teaming with Microbes” by Jeff Lowenfels, Wayne Lewis
"Micorrhizal Effects on Host Plant Physiology," Fred T. Davies Texas A&M University
"The Microbial World: Micorrhizas," Jim Deacon, Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology, University of Edinburgh