Why you need fungi in your garden

I once spent an entertaining day on a secret mission in the Scottish wilderness with a man known only as “Dick the Shroom.” Along with a chef, we were on the hunt for mushrooms. We weren’t allowed to know where we were going, and I swear he drove about in a few circles to confuse us.

When we arrived at our destination, he pulled out a little black book and a compass and led us deep into the woods, Within minutes he was finding chanterelles, ceps and even a Miller ‘sweetbread’ mushroom. In our baskets, we had mushrooms that were worth hundreds of pounds!

Back then I thought mushrooms were just slightly spongy smelly things you found in forests. Highly prized by chefs, but otherwise just minding its own business in wet damp areas.

In reality, I should have been revering these mushy guys as much as Dick the Shroom, because their value to a gardener and to plants is PHENOMENAL.

Fungi are truly INCREDIBLE. They’ve been around for millions of years and without them, we’d be sitting on top of a LOT of dead matter right now.

Fungi…are unappreciated by gardeners, and yet they play a key role in the soil food web

Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web. Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis

Most of what fungi do is microscopic and cannot be seen. What we can see, is the fruit of the fungi, the mushrooms, like the bracket mushroom or toadstools. The fruit is designed to spread fungal spores.

Are fungi good for my plants?

Absolutely yes. Without them, plants would not be able to get hold of the nutrients they need to grow, bear fruit and, reproduce.

  • Fungi are decomposers. They are responsible for breaking down and digesting matter, whether that’s a fallen branch or a dead animal. If you were to leave dead leaves as a mulch, fungi would be able to travel to the leaf litter, decompose it and take the nutrients to the plant roots
  • Fungi produce enzymes called phenol oxidase that can break down lignin. Lignin is the woody stuff that makes up trees and branches. It can, therefore, decompose woody elements into nutrients that plants can access
  • Fungi also help improve soil structure
  • Fungi also form protective barriers around plant roots and defend against pathogens and bad bacteria
  • Fungi can protect plants against disease and even defend against bad nematodes
  • Fungal strands make tunnels for nutrients, water, and bacteria to get through, improving the structure of the soil in the meantime
  • When fungi die they leave behind ammonium (NH4+) which is great for ammonium loving, woody plants
  • Fungi can change soil pH. The enzymes fungi produce are acidic which can lower your soil pH

Fungi access hard to reach nutrients

If you have any wood lying on the soil, either a tree stump or some bark mulch – try lifting them up. Underneath you may find these white strands. These are called mycelium. They are a type of saprophytic fungi.

A fungi spore (a bit like a seed) sprouts by creating a single cell strand – known as a hypha. These single strands join together to form mycelia. Try lifting up some wood lying on the soil or move a tree stump or some bark mulch – I’m sure you’ll find these white strands (mycelium) clustered together. They can stretch for miles and can absorb copper, iron, phosphorus, nitrogen, zinc, and water and transport it right back to the root of the plant.

Don’t forget that in those instances where a fungus brings food back to a plant root tip, it was attracted to that plant by the plant’s exudates. Fungi are good, but the plant is in control

Teaming with Microbes, p65

This fungal network is MASSIVELY beneficial to plants as they break down nutrients for plants to access. They can then spread all this goodness to plants in its network. Think of it a bit like an underground/subway network – connecting hard to reach towns to the city center – the plant. A forest could be surrounded by miles of mycelium networks.

Soil bacteria and fungi are like small bags of fertilizer, retaining in their bodies nitrogen and other nutrients they gain from root exudates and other organic matter.”

Teaming with Microbes, p22

Fungi also provide food for nematodes and protozoa. Once eaten, the nutrients are released to plants.

What are mycorrhizae?

Some mycelium form symbiotic relationships with roots and root hairs. These groups of mycelium are called mycorrhizae. They actually weave themselves into the root hairs and extend them into a secondary root system- a bit like hair extensions!

Photo by averie woodard on Unsplash

More importantly, the mycorrhizal fungi bring the nutrients back to the plants.

“At least 90% of all plants form mycorrhizae…what is worse, we learned that these relationships began some 450 million years ago, with terrestrial plant evolution: plants started growing on the earth’s surface only after fungi entered into relationships with aquatic plants. Without mycorrhizal fungi, plants do not obtain the quantities and kinds of nutrients needed to perform at their best; we must alter our gardening practices so as not to kill these crucial beneficial fungi.

Teaming With Microbes, p68

How do mycorrhizae help plants?

Mycorrhizae nestle in the plant roots because of one reason. SUGAR. Plant roots sort of sweat out something called exudates, a sugary sweat from their roots which these fungi LOVE. So in return for these delicious treats, the mycorrhizae find it hard to get treats in the form of water, nutrients and, minerals for the plant. Even if those treats are a few meters away, those fungi will grow until they reach them. Even if it is in a rock, they will mine that rock and get it out. They will do ANYTHING for that plant.

There’s more. If there’s a drought, those mycorrhizal fungi will use their fungal network to bring water from far away. They are able to access phosphorus, nitrogen, iron and other hard to get nutrients and turn them into a soluble form using enzymes.

And what if the soil isn’t very good quality. Maybe it’s a bit too claggy or too sandy? Well, those mycorrhizal fungi will use some organic glue (called Glomalin) and stick soil particles together and make it more porous.

These amazing mycorrhizae can help plants withstand drought, grow better, fruit better, flower better and transplant successfully if needs be.

Are there different types of mycorrhizae?

There are two types of mycorrhizae. Endomycorrhizae, that grow into the roots of the plant, and ectomycorrhizae which wrap around the roots.

Endomycorrhizae partners with the majority of plants on earth. You may see letters like AM, ORM or ERM on packets of fungi – they refer to endomycorrhizae like arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM), ericoid mycorrhizal (ERM) and orchid mycorrhizal (ORM). Most plants partner with AM.

ERM – ericoid mycorrhizae tend to partner with the Ericaceae plants – so I’m talking about plants that like acid, ericaceous compost like Azaleas, Blueberries, Heathers and Rhododendrons

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Ectomycorrhizal fungi, however, partners with conifers(pines, spruce, firs) and trees like Birch, Hornbeam, Hazel and Alder.

You also get ectendomycorrhizae (EEM), arbutoid mycorrhizae (ABM) and monotropoid mycorrhizae (MTM) – but these partner with specific trees and plant genera. So don’t worry about those too much.

But if you are about to plant some trees – then there’s a really helpful chart here – which explains the exact types of mycorrhizal fungi plant families prefer.

Left to their own devices, then, plants produce exudates that attract fungi an bacteria (and, ultimately, nematodes and protozoa); their survival depends on the interplay between these microbes. It is a completely natural system, the very same one that has fueled plants since they evolved. Soil life provides the nutrients needed for plant life, and plants initiate and fuel the cycle by producing exudates.”

Teaming with Microbes, p22

How can I get more fungi in my garden?

  • Stop using pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that will destroy fungi
  • Fungi feed on brown stuff – so make sure you use it as a mulch in your garden. Use things like dried up leaves, tree bark (not from conifers though), composted bark, sawdust, or freshly chopped up small branches
  • Add compost, biochar and diverse plants and stop rototilling – and you will grow your mycorrhizal and other fungi populations
  • Buy some mycorrhizae to add to the roots of your plants when planting them out. In the UK Amazon stock, Rootgrow Empathy products are endorsed by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). Their range includes endomycorrhizal fungi and separate ericoid and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi for the Ericas.

Dragonfli mycorrhizal mix provides a mix of endo, ecto, microbes and biostimulants so you can use it anywhere.

In the US – you can find mycorrhizal fungi sold by Wildroot and Myco Bliss.

The delicate mycorrhizae are, inevitably, destroyed by the churning blades of ploughs. They are also highly susceptible to agricultural chemicals…even livestock dung, which is routinely loaded with anti-worming agents and, often, antibiotics, can leach into the soil and destroy mycorrhizae.

Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, Isabella Tree

The wonders of fungi are only just beginning to be understood. They also have the potential to EAT plastic and pesticides. In our garden, they will create stronger, healthier and happier plants. So what are you waiting for…get some FUN GUYS (couldn’t resist that pun. I lasted all the way to the end though).

How can I find out more about fungi for my garden?

I recommend reading books like Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis (UK edition here). This is a good primer on all things going on beneath the soil. It completely changed my view of gardening and set me on the path to organic methods.

Grow Your Soil: Harness the Power of the Soil Food Web to Create Your Best Garden Ever by Diane Miessler (UK edition). These will give you a good grounding in the soil food web and an easy to read view of the science going on with all those microbes and fungi beneath your soil.

Check out too, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, by Paul Stamets (UK edition)

There’s also a new book coming out by Merlin Sheldrake called Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures (Click here for the UK edition)- it’s on my reading list…but there’s not mush-room left!! Sorry 😦

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