Recently I was reading an article in the Mother Earth News and came across one of those statements that forever change one's world view: "A white fungal network called hyphae, not plant roots, is the principal structure for the uptake of many important nutrients in the plant kingdom." If that hits you like it did me, take a moment for it to sink before reading on.
This extensive network of hyphae, also known as mycelium, are the fine roots that make up the main body of a fungus (the mushroom we see above ground is merely a spore delivery mechanism) and interact with the root system of a plant to the mutual benefit of both. In order to exchange those nutrients, the mycelium inserts microscopic tendrils that are only a single cell wide into the root tips of a plant. In return for the nutrients, the plant gives back up to 20 percent of the sugars it produces through photosynthesis. Because the mycelium can literally extend for miles, it acts as a backup root system for the plant, putting it in contact with a subterranean volume of soil up to 2,500 times greater than the plant could reach on its own while providing it with an increased resistance to drought.
Understanding this, it's easy to see how this mycelium network can speed up a plant's growth, increase yields, and improve its immunity to pests and disease. In addition, compounds secreted by the outer walls of the hyphae cause the soil to clump, making it less susceptible to erosion. All in all, supporting this tireless subterranean worker is one of the best things you can do for your garden.
If you dig up a patch of well-established garden soil, you're likely to find a network of healthy hyphae already in place. If not, you may want to purchase an inoculant to get a network started. Here at DripWorks we offer Vital Roots, a water soluble mycorrhizal fungus from our Vital Earth line.
Once your mycelium network is established, maintaining it is relatively easy.
Rule 1: Avoid heavy tilling that can break up the network. I know, avoiding heavy tilling will be hard for many of you to give up, but you can do it.
Rule 2: Avoid the overuse of phosphorous, a component of most fertilizers that can build up in the soil and block the mycelium's ability to transfer nutrients to the plant.
Rule 3: Keep something growing in your garden at all times. The mycelium needs a steady food supply so that it can survive through the winter and early spring.
If you're interested in making a large amount of your own inoculant, rodaleinstitute.org has a guide to the procedure on their website. If you want to know more about the subject of mycorrhizal fungi, I recommend starting with Douglas H. Chadwick's article ‘The Amazing Underground Secret to a Better Garden' in the August/September issue of Mother Earth News.
Join the underground revolution. You'll be glad you did!
Besides all the good they can do for your garden, fungi are also quite tasty. Here's a quick recipe you can whip up for a party or gathering in less than 10 minutes! Have fun!