Among gardeners, fungi don’t get a lot of love. They usually range in a gardener’s mind from being a minor curiosity (“hey, look at that weird slime mold!”) to being a threat (“what the heck is making these things rot???”).
Rare is the gardener who raises his own mushrooms. Rarer still is the gardener who sees the ground beneath his feet as a vast network of teeming fungal life. Rarest is the gardener who deliberately feeds that fungal network.
Yet without fungi, life on planet earth would grind to a painful halt… and your fruit and nut trees? Kaput.
Today let’s take a quick look at the great things fungi accomplish for your plants – and then talk about adding more of them to your homestead!
Fungi bust up lignin
Lignin is part of the cell walls of plants and is partially responsible for the long length of time it takes wood to decompose. When decomposed, it forms a significant amount of the humus in the soil. Since many decomposer organisms find lignin indigestible, it’s up to fungi to break it down.
Without fungi, we’d have lots and lots of wood lying around.
Fungi dispose of dead things
Ever pull a mold-covered plate of unidentifiable food from your refrigerator? (No? Never? It’s just me, then?)
Mold is fungi. Just as fungi break down wood, they also happily break down spaghetti noodles, tomatoes, Chinese take-out, etc.
The digestion process allows plants to use the nutrients that might forever be bound up in a stale tuna sandwich and put them to better use.
Fungi help plants feed themselves
Beyond just breaking down dead things, some fungi actually connect to tree roots and greatly extend their ability to take up nutrients.
Imagine connecting a great big antennae to your radio: that’s what fungi do for a tree’s ability to reach out and take what it needs. The tree gives the fungi sugars; the fungi in turns reaches out for minerals and brings them back to the tree. They’re particularly good at making phosphates available, which means you have less fertilizing to do in a fungi-rich environment.
Fungi connect the root systems of divergent species
Now this is really weird. Remember the film Avatar? That movie with the giant blue New Age Indian tribe and that huge tree that gets knocked down by a rather silly caricature of the Evil Military-Industrial Complex? Fungi are the interconnectors of nature. They join different tree and plant species together and even allow them to communicate on a rudimentary level. I don’t understand how it works, but somehow when one tree gets injured or attacked by a pest, some fungi are able to transmit its distress to other trees in the vicinity. Those trees can then jack themselves up with alkaloids, etc., so they become less palatable to critters.
Fungi is uncannily like the Internet of nature. (If you’re interested in finding out more, you have to look up Paul Stamets on YouTube. Just do it.)
Fungi eat rocks and free up minerals for the soil
Even though many of us hate having rocks in our gardens, they’re actually a source of long-term fertility. Over time, fungi use acids to eat away at the rock. They then spread the minerals they find through the soil, eventually making many of them available to surrounding plants and trees.
This means if you have rocky soil, fear not: eventually it will break down thanks to fungi. It might take a few eons, but the plants will be happy.
Now here’s where the fungi meets the root layer!
Fungi like to eat carbon… so add carbon!
In a forest, the fungi is nurtured and fed by a blanket of fallen leaves, twigs and trees. By mimicking the same conditions in your orchard, garden or food forest, you can get the good guys working for you.
I’ve noticed a big effect in my own yard. For a couple of years, most of my fruit trees were either surrounded by cultivated open soil or a light layer of mulch. Last fall I was able to get about 6 truckloads of shredded tree debris from an electric company contractor that was clearing the power lines in my neighborhood. A friend and I spread this mulch about a foot deep across a large chunk of my front yard in the early spring.
Now the soil is loaded with fungi. There are mushrooms popping up everywhere and any time you dig in the mulch, you find lots of white hyphae threaded through the decaying wood chips.
Over the last few months, my trees have shot up in growth thanks to the rush of new nutrition and fungal growth afforded them. Some of those trees looked pathetic this spring… but they look great now. Adding fungi made a serious difference (though the water-holding capacity of the mulch likely helped as well).
If you’d like to nourish fungi in your soil, add mulch, sticks, leaves and plant debris. Learn to chop and drop. You can make compost teas that favor fungi or even add fungi via commercial products such as MYKE.
Feed the fungi and the fungi will feed your trees… which in turn will feed you.