Seeking Safer, Saner Agriculture Through Mycorrhizal Fungi

Gardeners and farmers can work to sustain the ancient, beneficial partnership between plants and microscopic fungi that helps boost plants’ access to nutrients and moisture.

| August/September 2014

Plot of Land

To promote the beneficial fungi that boost plants’ access to nutrients, farmers and gardeners should till the soil as little as possible and use natural methods to suppress weeds. Here, stalks decompose in a no-till field in Ohio.

Photo by Fotolia/iphoto

We are especially proud of our story, Mycorrhizal Fungi: The Amazing Underground Secret to a Better Garden, which explains one key way we can improve our gardens: by supporting the astonishing partnership soil fungi form with plants.

New scientific understanding of this relationship has emerged over the past few decades, and we now know that invisible networks of super-thin fungal threads (hyphae) are the principal structures for nutrient uptake for plants — not plant roots alone, as we had previously thought.

Scientists have discovered that this partnership is more than 400 million years old. So far, they have identified more than 6,000 species of these fungi — called “mycorrhizae” — that support crop and tree growth.

These extensive fungal networks interconnect with roots, making plants more drought-tolerant and extending plants’ access to many nutrients by up to 2,500 times! Plus, the fungal threads help hold topsoil particles together, protecting the soil from erosion.

The fungi-plant relationship is symbiotic, meaning that both organisms benefit from it. The fungi deliver nutrients to the plant and, in return, the plant releases 10 to 20 percent of the carbohydrates it produces to the fungi. If there are no plants to feed them, these beneficial fungi die.

To promote this fungi-plant partnership, we should change several things about how we farm and garden. First, we should till the soil as little as possible. Second, we should avoid using chemical pesticides. And, third, we should never leave soil bare, even in winter. Instead, we should cultivate cover crops to keep live plants growing in our beds and fields year-round.

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