Mycelium and Soil
Life as we know it would be much different if it weren’t for the mysterious and miraculous mycelium. Such an impressive entity, so different than most life on earth. This fungus can destroy and give life simultaneously.
I’m no expert on mycelium, but I love my soil and mycelium helps my soil by breaking down organic matter, keeping moisture in the soil, and helping to prevent erosion. I’m sure mycelium does much more than those three things, but this is how it affects me and all life in my garden.
I’m an organic matter fanatic. I like putting all sorts of natural products on my soil. Wood chips, leaves, straw, and my rabbit manure all feed the mycelium. After a year of putting down these types of ground cover, I have a really nice mat of mycelium. It’s more than one type, all wild strains. I would say that I put out between 4”-6” of organic matter every fall and by the spring almost all of it has been transformed into soil.
I will be inoculating my ground with some edible mushroom spawn, but it will have some serious competition with the wild fungus. I hope to be able to cultivate some edible mushrooms that will grow in my soil. Why not grow a strain that will be edible?
My mycelium loves me back, because I don’t till. Tilling is probably one of the worst things you could do to soil and will, among other things, break up the mycelium and can kill it. I just like to feed it and let it do its thing. What if you scratched off a layer of your skin and, before it healed, you scratched it off again? You could possibly bleed out. You may become septic (blood poisoning) and would become sick. How healthy could you be like that? Then, after repeating this process over and over, you would get all sorts of secondary issues. Well the same exact thing happens to your soil when you tear up its top layer of skin.
So, let’s find ways to keep our mycelium healthy. I cover new soil with cardboard, then cover it with a healthy layer of organic matter. Then, I let the organic matter compost and the mycelium will start to inhabit the organic matter, then spread to the cardboard. All this layering will build a mycelium mat and keeps moisture in all but the worst of droughts. Even then, it goes into stasis, then comes back to life when the conditions are right.
When the mycelium returns, a symbiotic relationship with my plants begin. Mycelium will entangle the roots of plants and trees and nourish the plant life. Mycelium will help plants absorb water and nutrients, as well as build up the immunity of the trees and plants. This is called the mycorrhizal network, but I don’t worry about that sort of technical jargon. Just remember that Mycelium is the helper of life. Whole books have been written about this process and it is amazing.
Ok, I don’t like too much technical talk, but I should mention that there are 2 types of mycorrhiza: Arbuscular mycorrhizas (fungi that penetrates the host root) and Ectomycorrhizas (surrounds roots without penetrating). They can both be found on tree roots or just one kind may be found. Either one creates direct connection with the roots to exchange nutrients.
I started getting a lot of mycelium when my neighbors needed help cleaning out horse stalls. They didn’t have the time they needed to empty them, so I gave them a hand in return for the manure. I put a huge pile in my hoop house and it warmed it up for weeks, to the point that there was always condensation. When I turned the pile weekly I noticed all the mycelium growing. The manure was breaking down quickly. Then spring came and I spread the manure around my fruit trees. Not long after that I saw such an increase of life in my soil, and my plants were very healthy.
One of my fruit trees was attacked by ants where it was left stripped of leaves. I thought it was going to die, but it ended up coming back better than it was. I think it was because of the mycorrhiza building up the immunity of the tree. I was simply amazed and the ants never came back.
The basics of this root mycelium relationship is that the mycelium gets sugars from the roots because mycelium can’t photosynthesize. The fungi then give the plant essentials like nitrogen and phosphorus from decaying matter.
Mycorrhizas can even stimulate root growth and protect plants from nematode worms and pathogens that may kill the plants or trees. Plants that have mycelium growing through their organic matter will be healthier. I have seen this in my own plants that have minimal pest issues, where before I grew this way crop failure due to pests was normal for me.
One way to protect your mycorrhizas is by not using synthetic chemicals or fertilizers. Compaction is also detrimental to mycelium, so heavy equipment can really damage the system. I don’t like to use any mechanical equipment. I used to have a tiller, 4-wheeler, and garden tractor. Even though these are smaller machines, the repetitive traveling over the same path leads to dead ground. If you can, refrain from compaction.
This is an amazing cycle and if people would become part of this system, soil would be so full of life. We would be fed such nutrient rich foods by our soil. Our bellies would be full with less food, making us healthier, and we could feed everyone for less money and effort. Permaculture is the key to working with our friends the mycorrhizas and letting them work for us to feed all!