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BIO ORGANICS NEWSLETTERS by Don Chapman

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MYCORRHIZAE INOCULANTS

P.O. Box 5326
Palm Springs, CA 92263
1-888-332-7676
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Adding Some Soul to Soil

Most of our newsletters deal with biological elements in soil, especially mycorrhizal fungi and the symbiotic partnerships that exist between plants, fungi, and bacteria. We also make disparaging comments about the misguided (in our opinion) emphasis on soil chemistry.

However, to clarify, our real concern with chemistry is mostly about the excessive use of macronutrients- NPK fertilizers that contain only a few major elements. The application of these incomplete"plant foods" year after year to croplands and gardens can cause harmful salt buildups and depletion of important minor and trace elements.

Deep soils rich in mineral elements do have a substantial "forgiveness factor". Such soils can tolerate decades of poor fertilizing practices before showing obvious signs of distress and experiencing yield failures. The inevitable can be delayed by plowing deeper, which is now being done in some areas of the U.S.

Soils that lack good reserves of glacial or volcanic-origin elements can be burned out fairly quickly by repeated applications of high-analysis fertilizers. These depleted soils are then typically abandoned. This is a common practice for developing-country growers who must coax crops from thin infertile soils.

Damaged lifeless soils can be very difficult to fix. It would be better and easier to keep productive soils healthy. We think that periodically applying minerals containing a broad spectrum of elements should be a routine part of maintaining croplands or gardens.

This is where soil chemistry makes real sense - working to provide a full range of macro, minor, and trace elements for soil organisms to digest into forms plants can use, rather than simply applying the major elements.

True, it is much easier to measure the presence or absence of the "big" elements in soil, but tiny amounts of many other elements may be what plants need for full health and disease resistance. Unless those "little" elements also get replenished somehow, problems lie ahead.

Ideally, each and every mineral element from Aluminum to Zinc would be maintained in ideal proportions to each other, but this is impossible. Luckily, growers can employ mycorrhizal fungi to regulate a plant's uptake of elements. These fungi respond to plant needs. They will hunt for scarce elements, screen out excesses of other elements, and deliver a perfectly balanced diet to their host plants. Endomycorrhizal fungi exchange nutrients inside a plant's roots, while Ectomycorrhizal fungi perform the exchange in a sheath coating outside the roots.

The common advice to apply rock dusts to soil is good, except that widely-available granite rock dusts have a relatively low range of elements. Green sand and Azomite-type minerals are much better, and the best I've found is mined from a large deposit of hydrothermally-changed dacite rock (a crumbly clay volcanically steamed for a few million years) near Crater Lake, Oregon. This light gray material contains nearly every known element, including gold and silver! Wehave observed wonderful plant responses to it, especially in combination with biological inoculants. (This material is not being packaged yet, but I'm hopeful it will be in the future.)

The key point to keep in mind is that a grower's goal is to make sure that the broadest possible array of elements are available to the soil organisms for processing. It is less important to have exact amounts of each element - that's chemical thinking. The smart little soil critters will sort through the materials and pick out what they (and their host plants) need. Simple, eh?

Finally, on a personal note, thanks to all of you who said they hoped I wasn't getting ready to retire after I mentioned that possibility in my last newsletter. However, I am indeed beginning to think about the subject and plan to start the process of finding the right buyer for BioOrganics, Inc.

I'd invite individuals or corporations who might be interested in owning a bio-product business with a good customer base and substantial growth potential to contact me. This simple manufacturing and marketing operation could easily be re-located anywhere in the country and I would provide advisory help as needed.

This could take a while, so don't look for the newsletters to stop anytime soon!

Cheers, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

 

Think "Systems" and Not "Ingredients" to Produce Superplants

During the past few decades, we have begun to understand a little more about how plants really function, but as with most new knowledge it will be some time, yet, before it has much effect on current practices. Established habits are... well, established.

Looking at the broad picture, nearly all farmers, gardeners, and landscapers have been taught to think of soil as being a mixture of ingredients. Under this view, if youmake the ingredients right, then your plants will perform well. This is a chemistry-oriented approach, along the lines of baking a cake, and is simple to understand. A cake without a key ingredient won't taste as good, and a plant lacking some soil element won't be as productive. Simple logic, right?

While this simplistic "ingredients" viewpoint certainly has face logic, a much better starting orientation for growers would be to look at their soil as being a dynamic and ever-changing system populated with living, breathing, reproducing, recycling, eating-or-being-eaten microorganisms, earthworms, and countless other little critters all jumbled together and bumping into each other. In other words, a perfect place for a plant to sink its roots into, becoming a contributing and benefiting member of the club!

Growing plants with only an "ingredients" perspective invariably leads to heavy macro-fertilization (overdoses, by nature's standards), which causes disruption of the natural biological processes that would normally provide nourishment and protection to plant roots. This is currently the norm for both farms and home gardens. "How can I get the soil ingredients right?" is the prevailing guiding concept.

However, plants grown in lifeless soils lack many important natural defenses against diseases and insects. The billions of dollars spent each year on toxic "rescue" products for such plants suggest that there might be a better approach to agriculture and horticulture. That better approach will require growers to ask the question, "How can I promote a strong bio-system in my soil?". You should remember that "system" moment when it happens - it will be the necessary first step toward raising heathier plants with greater yields than you ever thought possible.

We've discussed in detail how to restore bio-activity in soils in earlier newsletters (available for viewing at our website), but in general, it calls for restricting fertilization to small amounts of gradual-release lower-analysis organic types, plus using minimal or no tillage, strategic use of cover/companion crops, introducing beneficial biological elements, and periodically applying broad spectrum minerals.

The system is the solution.

Good growing, my friends. Here in the high desert of Central Oregon, there're piles of snow outside but rows of radishes, peas, carrots, and turnips are beginning to sprout along side their companion-crop crimson clover in my antidote-to-cabin-fever greenhouse. Another good system.

Don Chapman
President , BioOrganics, Inc.

Seeds and Spores - Performance Partners!

When a seed sprouts, that event does not go unnoticed in nature.

As a first tiny root emerges and begins to poke its way into the soil, an outer mucus layer gives off chemical signals that announces its presence to surrounding organisms. These other organisms may have been lying dormant for months just waiting for such a root signal.

One way or another, most of these other living things see new roots as food. Some, such as nematodes, burrow into the roots and damage the plant. Others graze on roots directly. Still others, including many types of bacteria and fungi, have symbiotic mutually-beneficial relationships with roots. They are nourished by root exudates that are provided through the plant's unique ability to perform photosynthesis - to poke leaves up above the soil to gather solar energy.

The mycorrhizosphere, the zone that surrounds plant roots, is normally rich in life. It would be difficult to even begin to explain all the processes that go on in that bio-activity zone. The complex interactions between the plant and countless other soil organisms are still little understood.

For our purposes, however, let's just focus on what many soil scientists have identified as the keystone factor - Endo and Ecto-type mycorrhizal fungi. At the time a seed sprouts in a normal healthy soil there will also be many thousands of these fungi spores patiently waiting for a wake-up call from a new root. When the signal comes, the closest spores quickly come to life and attach to the root.

Time is then of the essence to both the plant and the friendly fungus. If the mycorrhizal fungi do not rapidly fill the mycorrhizosphere with protective sticky hyphae, the always-lurking root predators and pathogens will gain access. In a worst-case scenario, if there are no beneficial fungi spores in the soil, then new roots are dangerously unprotected. This happens in soils where the biological activity has been destroyed by chemicals, excessive tillage, or over-fertilization.

A root that lacks mycorrhizae is not only open to attack, but also cannot uptake nutrients efficiently. This is another evolved role that the fungi performs and some plants will literally starve without the fungi's presence, unless the grower loads the soil with abnormal amounts of fertilizer. (These are the plants that are incorrectly called "heavy feeders" by gardening authors. Rather, they should be called plants that have evolved fungi dependence.)

From the perspective of the fungi, which is nourished only by plant root exudates, if the plant dies, then the fungi won't live long enough to form new spores for next year. So any signal of stress by the plant triggers an instinctive response to a higher level of fungal activity. (We are learning to use this instinct by withholding water from seedlings for short periods of time - the fungal colonization is then greatly speeded up.)

Similarly, if the grower puts high-analysis "plant food" in the soil, especially fast-acting phosphorus, the plants may feel content and not give off the assistance signals that the fungi respond to. This seriously disrupts the natural underground process. With too much P, the fungi may not colonize the roots at all and while the plant may grow reasonably well with the synthetic fertilizer, it will be more prone to insect damage, pathogens, and diseases. The grower loses the "free" nourishment and protection that mycorrhizal fungi normally provide to plant roots.

For sterile potting soils or cropland soils that may not have good numbers of beneficial spores, we recommend treating seeds with our fungi inoculant. One of our products is micronized and clings nicely to slightly-damp seeds, or can be mixed into water and applied as a drench after seeding is completed.

Create and encourage these natural partnerships and see the difference in plant performance!

A side note, readers: We have developed a new product that features trace-element volcanic minerals, plus long-lasting biostimulants and fungi spores. This new MycoMinerals (TM) product is designed to be lightly scattered and tilled into gardens or depleted croplands, or blended into potting soils. In our grow tests, we have observed excellent plant response, but would now like to see how the product will perform in a variety of situations. If any of you are interested and able to set up comparative tests (such as half a garden area with and half without, or side-by-side plantings in pots, or a small section of a field, etc.), please let me know. I'd like to set up perhaps 50 such tests, especially in poorer soils. For the reasons noted above, the test will require withholding of synthetic fertilizers.

Cheers,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Seven Things I've Learned about Mycorrhizae

In the eight-plus years that I've been studying and marketing mycorrhizal fungi inoculants, some basic facts have become stuck in my mind.

  1. The beneficial fungi are not just a nice little extra for plants. Millions of years of evolution together have resulted in plants that need the fungi to efficiently uptake nutrients; and, fungi that cannot survive without host plants. From a function standpoint, the symbiotic plant/fungiare is more a single organism than two separate ones. This fact should be the foundation element of both agriculture and horticulture.

  2. Plants can obviously be grown by overdosing their inefficient roots with increasingly-expensive NPK fertilizer, but why? The eventual soil degradation and water contamination problems from fertilizer run-off are looming disasters. Burning out crop soils that could otherwise be productive for hundreds of years, as well as polluting our children's drinking water with chemical growing methods when there are cleaner and sustainable biology-based methods available seems selfish to my way of thinking.

  3. Much of what is published and promoted about mycorrhizal fungi is wildly over-simplified, perhaps necessarily so. These are highly complex organisms that operate as part of an intricate underground system that we still know relatively little about. A top USDA scientist who has devoted his career to studying the fungi once told me that he always sees people's eyes glaze over when he attempts to explain, in any detail, how mycorrhizal fungi function in relationships with many other organisms.

  4. From a genetics standpoint, the fungi are older organisms than are plants, occupying land areas first. They are also genetically more similar to humans than they are to plants. (I don't know what this means, precisely, but it always makes for interesting conversation.)

  5. The great variety of types of mycorrhizal fungi (more than 150 now named) is a largely unexamined area for future study. Some untested (or even yet-unnamed) types could be the answer to crop yields beyond any that we now consider wonderful. Some theorize that fungi that now support plant life in harsh conditions (deserts or other unfertile soils) may allow crops to thrive with very little fertilizing or irrigation water. Capturing and experimenting with such fungi, matching them up with grains and vegetable crops, could lead to abundant and inexpensive food production from marginal soils.

  6. The fungi are both fragile and tough. By leaving durable spores behind when their host plants die, mycorrhizal fungi can bounce back to re-colonize plants for years to come. It takes a long time to eliminate them from soil, but it can - and is - being done.

  7. Just as one cannot do a slow and careful back flip, one cannot ease gradually into biological growing methods. Fast-acting, high-analysis, fertilizers have to be completely dropped from cultural practices before the beneficial fungi can perform at their best. Plants signal the fungi when they are stressed or lacking a needed nutrient; synthetic fertilizers apparently short-circuit such signals.

Side Note:
Thanks to you who have agreed to trial the new MycoMinerals™ product. We very much want to see how its combination of trace minerals, biostimulants, and mycorrhizal spores perform in various situations. If there are other U.S. readers who would like to receive a jar (no cost), please contact me. There is no need to be highly scientific about the testing - just scatter the product across part of a garden area or mix it into potting soil for some plants, or plant a couple rows "with," and a couple "without."

Good growing, my friends!

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Mycorrhizae Creates Drought-Resistant Plants

Most of the articles and research about soil biology focus on plant nutrition - how mycorrhizal fungi greatly boost the ability of plants to uptake nutrients. Indeed, an efficient mycorrhizal plant requires far less fertilizer. A light application of dry organic low-analysis fertilizer at planting time is typically enough feeding for a full season of annual plants.

Of perhaps equal or even greater importance is the ability of biologically-active soils to hold moisture. The millions of tiny root threads of beneficial fungi extend out from their host plant roots and either separate clay platelets or bind together sand particles, depending on the soil type. This results in soil that does not become soggy in the case of clay, or clumps together a moisture-retaining bio-mass in the case of loose sand. For either type of soil, the end result is ideal for keeping a plant alive during drought conditions - a survival tactic that the plants/fungi developed over many millions of years in order to survive low-rainfall years.

We humans can use this to our advantage. As irrigation water becomes scarcer (and in some areas it may become very scarce in the for seeable future) and more expensive, pressure will build to conserve water. For every growing situation, from golf courses to gardens to field crops and especially lawns, it will become important to cut back on watering.

A chemically-fed plant that lacks soil-conditioning mycorrhizal fungi also lacks drought resistance. A few days without water makes the plant's leaves go into wilting status in a desperate attempt to retain water within its system. If water is not provided in large regular amounts by the human caretaker, the plant dies.

Of course, watering all the time also washes away chemical fertilizers (which then contaminate underground drinking water). This heavy watering routine creates the need for frequent doses of "plant food". Unless you happen to be in the employ of a chemical fertilizer company or have a lawn-feeding business, this is not a good thing.

In my own garden, I hold off watering until I begin to see mid-day wilting. If some of the plants wilt slightly in the late afternoon, that's OK and normal. For me, this is part of obtaining maximum yields - forcing the mycorrhizal fungi to go into a higher gear in order to sustain the plants during what they feel is a drought situation. It's a little trick I play on them, and an effective one!

This is working with nature, not fighting it.

Cheers, my friends. Good growing.

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

What Do These Plants Want, Anyhow?

It bears repeating. Providing mycorrhizal fungi spores to plants is NOT giving them something "extra." It is NOT a miracle-plant-food-sort-of-thingy. It is NOT some sort of mystical additive.

Simply put, a plant without mycorrhizae on its root system is not equipped to uptake the necessary nutrients to flourish. You can fiddle with "soil chemistry" as much as you wish, and you may have some short-term success, but if the plant has evolved a dependence on soil fungi over millions of years, that plant will not achieve its full genetic potential without the fungi.

Someday, probably way down the road, it will be widely recognized that nutrients in the soil are not the only important factor for plant productivity. It is far more vital to move those nutrients into the roots on an as-needed basis. And guess what? That is precisely the role that mycorrhizal fungi have assumed. Most plants do not have roots that can do this job by themselves.

To a soil biologist, the frustrating thing is knowing that it can be so very simple to grow food plants that will perform at or near their full genetic potential. But 99 out of 100 growers just keep pouring NPK fertilizer on their fields in the belief that high yields come from expensive chemical methods.

You can plant a beefsteak tomato, drench it with water-soluble plant food every week, and have a decent harvest. I'll take an identical tomato transplant, put it in soil with a small handful of fish pellets and a teaspoon of mycorrhizal inoculant, not add anything else for the entire growing season, and will end up with at least a 50% greater yield than you - maybe 150%. And I'll do it year after year - the soil will never be depleted under a biological orientation.

Higher yields with lower input and long-term sustainability of our valuable crop soils - that's the promise of using biologically-based methods. Using beneficial microorganisms instead of petroleum-based fertilizers is a tough concept to grasp after decades of chemical methods, but the clock is ticking on chem-ag. If we want to leave our children some decent soil to grow crops, it's time to stop burning out our farm acreage and gardens with incomplete "plant foods."

Cheers, and good growing,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

The Cluster of Beefsteaks

It's a good time of the year. The beans, corn and new potatoes in my bio-garden are ready to be picked and transported quickly to the kitchen before any of their delectable sugars are lost. I pity people who have only tasted produce that has sat for hours or even days on store shelves - there is just no comparison. And, sadly, most of those non-gardeners have no idea what they are missing.

I'll never forget the amazed look on an urban friend's face when he put the first forkful of just-picked boiled potatoes in his mouth during a dinner at our home. "What kind of potatoes ARE these?", he asked between rapid bites. Actually, they were just plain ordinary old reds - the same types that are in grocery stores - but about 20 minutes earlier they had been peacefully growing in my garden. The moment that vegetables are harvested, their flavorful sugars begin dwindling. The "super-sweet" corn tries to overcome this problem, but to my taste buds those have an insipid corn flavor compared to freshly-picked standard types.

I enjoy all the veggies from my garden, but the unchallenged stars are the tomatoes. Over the years I've tested more than 150 varieties, a few new ones each season, and have a long "to try" list in my garden journal.

The tomato plants have benefited greatly from my conversion from chemical fertilizers to biological methods. Instead of tilling in granular 10-10-10 (or whatever numbers) in the spring and then drenching miraculous liquid "plant food" during the growing season, I now have beds with huge populations of beneficial fungi, bacteria and earthworms.

I do add a light scattering of pelleted fish, volcanic minerals and a little compost before planting, but only work those materials into the top 4 inches of the soil. When trying to encourage biological activity and beneficial colonization, you don't want to disrupt the established underground system. This limited tillage is gaining ground (pardon the pun) in agricultural circles as well, although few ag advisors seem to really grasp why limited-till and no-till methods work as well as they do.

With absolutely no added fertilization for the entire growing season, tomato plants in a bio-active soil generate super-flavorful fruit in dramatic numbers - far beyond the yields normally consider good. To see a beefsteak variety set nearly every blossom and form large clusters of fruit crowding each other has now become pretty routine to me, but it still gets "Oh, wow!" responses from visitors. (If there's a down side, my large tomatoes rarely have perfect round shapes because of the competition for space.)

The point? Well, I'm just working with natural plant physiology and using the tremendous power of beneficial microorganisms in my garden, rather than trying to improve on nature by giving synthetic feedings, adjusting soil pH, etc. It is a very simple and effective approach as compared to applying incomplete NPK fertilizer, no matter what those slick TV commercials claim.

Also, while I can't prove it scientifically, I am certain that the flavors of my vegetables have improved since I began using only microbial inoculations, gradual-release organic fertilizer, and the volcanic trace minerals. Some neighbors have occasionally grown the same variety of tomato as me, and we have both agreed that mine have superior sweetness and more complex flavors.

But I suggest doing your own testing of bio-oriented vegetable growing, and being ready to sprint from the garden to the kitchen after picking!

Cheers, and good growing,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Mycorrhizal Fungi - NOT Just For Food Crops!

One of the top uses of mycorrhizal inoculant is for landscape plantings. Most flowers and ornamental shrubs have evolved a dependence on mycorrhizae for nutrition and protection, and nursery plants rarely come with the beneficial fungi already established on the roots. For introduced plants (non-natives), the types of indigenous mycorrhizal fungi in the yard may not be the best match.

A 10-cent dusting of spores in the planting hole can mean a huge difference in the survival of a valuable shrub or in the performance of flowers. A drenching of water-soluble inoculant on a bed of flower seeds or new lawn can enable those plants to thrive with minimal attention and care.

As always, the poorer the soil the greater the benefit that will be seen from inoculation. The most dramatic benefits will occur when spores are introduced at seeding or transplanting time.

For professional landscapers, it should be a routine matter to put mycorrhizal spores on new plantings, as insurance that useful biological agents are in the soil. This is particularly true when dealing with the poor topsoils that are commonly found in new housing developments. (The fungi will actually improve that soil for their host plants.)

Just as you only need one match to start a fire on either a large or small pile of brush, you only need a small dose of inoculant to start a mycorrhizal association on either a large or small plant. The fungi, once introduced anywhere on a plant's roots, will quickly colonize the entire root system and remain with the plant for life, unless damaged by systemic fungicides or overuse of high-analysis fertilizers.

There are a few types of plants, such as rhododendrons, that use a type of fungi that is not available in inoculant form, but probably 90% of all landscape plants benefit from either Endomycorrhizal or Ectomycorrhizal spores being put on their roots at planting time. Our Landscape Inoculant contains a blend of eight Endo types and seven Ecto types. This makes the odds very good that at least one of those 15 types will be a match for any plant in any soil in any region.

Please note that the introduction of biological agents should not, repeat NOT, be viewed as an "add-on" to a standard chemically-oriented routine, but rather as an "instead of" method. With the right soil biology at work, lawns will need very little fertilizing and will never build up thatch, flowers will be far more drought and disease resistant, and trees and shrubs will be more like healthy wild plants that never receive human assistance.

All our inoculants (Endo, Micronized Endo, Root Dip, and Endo-Ecto Landscape) have a two-year guaranteed shelf life at room temperatures, so keeping a jar on hand. Putting a small pinch in every new planting hole is a simple way of giving a powerful gift to your ornamentals. Try some plants with and some without to make an interesting comparison.

Cheers, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Functions of the Fungi

One common image of roots is that of rope-like things in the soil which serve to firmly anchor the plant and absorb nutrients and water. To most growers, those type of roots present a simple objective: They must be surrounded with enough fertilizer and water to keep the plant healthy, productive and/or attractive.

All sorts of chemical formulas and measurements have been developed to satisfy these root needs. There are "complete" fertilizers, "balanced" fertilizers, suggested watering schedules, and so forth. Basically, you put the right amounts of food and water in the soil around plants and enjoy the good results.

Just one problem with this viewpoint: It ignores soil biology. A plant growing in biologically active soil needs only a small percentage of the fertilizer required to grow chemically-fed plants, and perhaps half the amount of water. When aware of this important point, the grower's perspective changes dramatically.

Plants that have good populations of beneficial fungi, bacteria, earthworms, etc. around their root systems need relatively little human input to thrive. Nitrogen gets fixed from air and water, other nutrients are obtained from otherwise unavailable elements in the soil, and countless soil organisms contribute plant-perfect fertilizing with their castings and expired bodies. (For just one example, the sticky hyphae of certain fungi can snare and kill nematodes, then transport the resulting body nutrients into plant roots. There are remarkable photos of this process!)

Over millions of years time, many plants have come to depend so completely on mycorrhizal fungi to uptake nutrients and water that they have stopped growing their own tiny foraging feeder roots. For such plants (melons, asparagus, peppers, citrus, grapes, peaches, avocados and many others), sending their "ropes" out into the soil has little benefit beyond anchoring.

A plant without the right mycorrhizal fungi on its roots has abnormally little surface contact with soil, which severely limits its ability to absorb nutrients and water. Hence, to keep those plants healthy, growers must apply fertilizer in huge amounts (at least huge in comparison to natural soils) and must constantly provide irrigation water. The most mycorrhizal-dependent plants are called "heavy feeders", an entirely-undeserved term that seems to be incorrectly used in gardening articles without question.

Those same "heavy feeders" (or, I guess, "heavy drinkers") would thrive with far lower inputs if they had their naturally evolved fungi partnerships in place. When those rope-like roots have the normal billions of attached mycorrhizal fungi hyphae threads exploring the surrounding soil, they become a hundred or even a thousand times more efficient. Fertilizing can be drastically cut, wasteful run-through of nitrates and phosphorus can be eliminated, soils gain fertility instead of being depleted, and increasingly-precious water supplies can be saved.

Producing food crops and growing ornamentals, gardens and lawns with less fertilizer/water makes good sense from several stand points, and based on the numbers of orders for test purposes we have received in the past year from researchers all over the world, the use of biological soil science is gaining momentum. I'm just hoping that changes happen sometime pretty soon.

Unfortunately, it seems that impossible-to-ignore acreage will be have to be ruined by over use of synthetic fertilizers, and some major cities' underground aquifers will have to be rendered non-potable before there are any widespread changes in chemistry-based growing routines. I view this as short-sighted "strip-mining" instead of responsible stewardship of natural resources. But maybe future generations won't mind that we depleted the crop soils and left them with polluted drinking water, eh?

Too gloomy a view? Maybe. I hope so.

Good growing, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

New Sizes and MycoMinerals!

Rather than describing the functions of beneficial soil organisms this month, I'd like to announce some additions to our line of mycorrhizal inoculant products. I know that many of you use or experiment with soil biology as an alternative method of growing crops, gardens, and ornamental plants, and you might be interested in these new offerings from BioOrganics, Inc.

First, each of our four basic products - Endo Inoculant, Micronized Endo Inoculant, Endo Root Dip, and Endo/Ecto Landscape Inoculant - will now be available in smaller size containers. In past years our only containers have been 3-lb. jars, suitable for commercial growers but too large for most gardeners. These 3-lb. jars can inoculate 500 new tree or vine transplants, up to 5000 small plants such as strawberries, or up to 3 acres of closely-planted seeds.

The new containers will be 1.5-lb. wide-mouth plastic jars (quart size) and can be direct-ordered individually or in cases of 12, for those of you who have retail stores. We will have these new smaller jars added to our website shop in the next week or so, or you can order by calling our toll free number - 888-332-7676.

The other announcement is that we will begin marketing a new minerals-oriented product, MycoMinerals™. This contains finely ground volcanic-origin rock rich in trace elements, plus humates and 15 types of Endo and Ecto spores. The purpose of this new minerals product is to ensure that garden soils or potted-plant mixtures contain the many minor and trace elements that are essential to full plant nourishment, plus it introduces the important biological agents that help plants uptake these nutrients.

One of the persons who volunteered to test MycoMinerals™ for us this spring said this about it:

"I wanted to thank you for the trial product. My tomato and pepper garden is the most lush I've ever seen. I actually have serrano peppers that are 3 feet tall in 6 weeks. I lost count at over 200 developing tomatoes in my 14 plant plot (after 6 weeks). Your product has produced eye popping results."

We have seen similarly-impressive differences between plants grown in typical potting soils and those grown in mineral-rich soils during our internal trials. Fertilizers do not contain all the elements that plants must have for maximum performance, plus most soils lack the ideal broad spectrum of trace minerals and beneficial microorganisms.

One note about the volcanic rock in MycoMinerals™: It is not, repeat NOT, common lava rock. Lava typically contains very few plant nutrients. Our minerals are from an ancient hydrothermal rock deposit near Crater Lake, Oregon, and analyses show that it contains more than 40 separate elements, including all those regarded as essential to plants.

As would be expected, the minerals are low in N and we suggest adding small amounts of fish-based pellets to the soil as a perfect nitrogen-providing component. See Peaceful Valley Farm Supply - www.groworganic.com - for these pellets. We recommend the 9-3-5 formula, but the 7-7-2 version can also be used.

I encourage all of you to act on your interest in biology-based growing techniques. There is simply no legitimate reason for the chemical sciences to dominate the growing of plants, especially in home gardens or potted plants, and you can easily create super-healthy, high-yielding plants with some attention to soil life.

Cheers, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

 

The Ignored Parts of Soil

Over the years, I have managed to get on the mailing lists of several trade magazines that deal with commercial agriculture and horticulture. Nearly every issue of these magazines contains at least one article about soil management, but I rarely see any mentions of either trace elements or biological components.

If you knew nothing about soil except what you read in trade journals, you would have to believe that the only role of growers is to create the proper macro chemistry for their plants. There are thousands of astute words about getting the pH and the N and the P and the K just right, and the more sophisticated articles even discuss Iron and Zinc.

However, the common attitude about other minor and trace elements seems to be that they are either "probably already there" or "don't matter all that much", and (with a few exceptions) soil biology is never mentioned at all.

The authors of these advice articles seem to be intelligent and educated people, so I have to assume they have at some time been been exposed to two fundamental concepts: 1.) At least 16 chemical elements are equally important to the full health and performance of plants, although required in greatly differing amounts; and 2.) A substantial percentage of good crop soil consists of beneficial living organisms (tons per acre).

So, why do the ag/hort authors tend to consistently ignore these obvious soil issues? Is it a vast conspiracy by the big chemical fertilizer corporations? (And are there any non-vast conspiracies, perhaps only half-vast ones?)

No, I would instead speculate that discussions of lesser trace elements and/or soil biology have a tendency to get too complicated and confusing. Putting out information that is easily understood and giving advice that is easily followed does make far more sense from a simple-to-grasp standpoint (by editors as well as readers).

I do have to admit that relating to the living things in soil (many of them invisible) is not always easy, and that focusing on just three or four major chemical elements is more measurable-manageable than worrying about 16 or more. However, for those growers who really comprehend words like "sustainability" and who are getting tired of constantly battling pest and disease problems caused by unhealthy soils, some added depth to advisory articles might be a welcome resource.

Perhaps the trade magazines could put a caution on their covers - "Warning: Contains new ideas!"

Listen to the plants, folks.

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

 

Bringing the Dead Back to Life - SOIL RESTORATION METHODS

One of our dealers in Florida recently asked what we would suggest for restoring life to soils that have been damaged by years of over fertilization and chemicals. As there are probably others among you who face this same issue, here is how I replied to him...

Hi Jeff -

There's an old saying about when you find yourself in a hole: The first thing is to stop digging deeper. With soil that has had its biological components damaged or destroyed, the first step toward restoration is to stop adding any more chemical fertilizers. Nitrogen is usually not a lasting problem, but phosphorus and potassium levels are often extremely high in over-fertilized soils - there may be years and years worth of P and K present in such soils.

Lawns and croplands are two different animals as far as treatment is concerned. For lawns, the best remedy is to aerate by physically removing plugs (not just probing holes with spikes), raking off the plugs, scattering a biological inoculant, and then immediately applying a couple inches of compost - raking it all into the holes before they close - and finally watering regularly for a few days. Our standard Endo spore BEI is normally used, but I'd also suggest experimenting with our new MycoMinerals product which adds essential minor and trace minerals to the soil.

Especially in soils like you have in Florida, (which did not get the benefits of glacial or volcanic activity), the addition of trace minerals can make a dramatic difference in plant performance. After you have completed this renovation of the lawn, apply only dry slow-release organic fertilizers in the future. Never apply any liquids or synthetic NPK stuff, as that will counteract the good biological soil activity that you have started. You should find that very little fertilizer is needed. If a mulching mower is used, that will be about all the input required. There will be no thatch build-up - the soil organisms will recycle the clippings - you will notice a great increase in earthworms.

For crop acreage, a different approach is called for. I would suggest the strategic use of a cover crop for a few weeks - an annual legume, such as Crimson Clover, with the seed inoculated with our micronized BEIM product can fairly quickly restore soil health. Don't let the crop go to seed. Till it under when it blooms so you don't have undesired sprouting afterwards. (This is why I don't recommend a perennial legume.) If you have any local source of affordable rock dust, it would be beneficial to till some in at the same time. We have some wonderful mineral products available out here in Oregon, but that doesn't do you much good in Florida with the high shipping costs these days. Finally, if higher-value crops are going into the soil, lightly inoculate transplants to make certain that the right type of beneficial fungi spores for that particular plant are on the roots. Here's the tricky part: The grower will have to cut way back on fertilizer (or even not fertilize at all) to get the best biological performance. I find that growers all have a strong urge to "feed" their crop. If you tell me what crop is going in, I can help you with more specific advice.

What you are doing is important. I think you might show the way for many others to convert from soil-damaging methods to a healthy biological approach, and I hope you will set up several side-by-side comparisons to document the difference. Keeping small samples of each customer's soil for before-and-after comparisons could also make for very useful analyses.

Let me know how I might help.

[Don Chapman]

There is obviously some effort involved in restoring bio activity to soil, but the benefits can be dramatic and lasting. (Here's that word "sustainable" again!) And, once soil has been brought back to a good state of tilth with natural biologically provided fertility, the expensive chemically oriented inputs can be stopped. A periodic dusting of trace minerals and shallow tilling-in of crop residues and cover crops may be all that is ever required. I would particularly like to see the tonnages of high-analysis "lawn food" cut back, as this is such a major (and unnecessary) contributor to water contamination. Getting lawns off the chemical feeding treadmill should be a goal of more communities who are experiencing nitrate buildups in their drinking water supplies and excess phosphorus runoff into ponds and rivers.

Best wishes for the holiday season, and for a happy prosperous (with less phosphorus) new year.

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

 

A Bright New Year For Biology?

Best wishes for a wonderful 2003 to all of you.

Here at BioOrganics, we are looking forward to a very substantial increase in the use of our mycorrhizal inoculants, as we added more dealerships in the U. S. and other countries during 2002.

The use of beneficial microbial agents, especially mycorrhizal fungi, as an alternative to NPK fertilizers continues to gain strength, although it will still be some time before most growers switch away from the idea that proper soil chemistry is the only factor that needs to be considered for good plant performance.

I think water contamination and soil depletion/compaction problems will eventually force growers to abandon the unsustainable practice of spreading tonnages of synthetic fertilizers on crop soil, but as usual the problems will have to reach crisis levels before there is any great motivation for change. Human nature versus Mother Nature!

While I do believe strongly that biological alternatives will become the primary tool for both agricultural and horticultural growing in the future, I've come to realize that the use of bio-methods cannot outpace the practical understanding of such methods. The USDA, ag/hort university researchers, and supplier companies such as ours must all contribute to expanding the body of knowledge that will lead to productive and predictable results from using microbial inoculants. Based on the number of jars of our product that were ordered by researchers around the world during 2002, this is happening. The camel's nose is definitely under the tent.

The last half of the 20th Century could probably be labeled as the Golden Age of Soil Chemistry. This force-feeding of plants with incomplete NPK fertilizers brought great short-term increases in crop production, but after a few decades of whoopee yields some bad side-effects are showing up. I think we are now ever-so-gradually entering the Age of Soil Biology, and expect that it will be far more permanent in duration once it gets established.

But I feel like the old joke, "Lord, give me patience...and give it to me NOW!"

Happiness and prosperity, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.




Growing Good Plants In Bad Soils

One of the benefits of mycorrhizae - the symbiotic linking of a plant root system with microscopic fungi - is the ability of the fungi to selectively regulate the uptake of elements from the surrounding soil. This is quite common knowledge among experienced soil restoration people, who routinely see transplants all die in “toxic” soils (mine tailings, etc.) unless mycorrhizal fungi are on the plant roots. In simple terms, the fungi seek out what is needed by the plant and block out what would be harmful.

I’ve witnessed this first-hand at a Central Valley California farm where a market vegetable grower had a few acres in a low swale where the soil was so extremely alkaline it had a white crust. He had tried several times to grow plants there, but none had survived. As an experiment, he dusted pepper plants with our mycorrhizal inoculant and transplanted them into the field.

Later, the grower invited me to see the results. I noted that the healthy plants were typical of those grown with mycorrhizae - short and stocky with very thick stems and nearly every blossom had set a pepper. It’s normal to see similar effects with tomato vines, where even beefsteak types form crowded clusters of fruit - a fully-nourished plant apparently senses that it is able to support a heavy fruitset.

Why is there such a great difference in ability to tolerate bad soil between a mycorrhizal plant and one that has only its own root system to uptake nutrients? I asked that question of a USDA scientist who had studied these beneficial organisms for more than twenty years, and he told me that the fungi, in effect, disable the plant’s own uptake system and take complete control of that function.

Mycorrhizal fungi not only seek out nutrients in required amounts, (working in cooperation with nutrient-producing bacteria) but they also prevent the plant from taking in harmful elements from the soil. This is nature’s survival design for both organisms. As the fungi’s only food source is root exudates, it is imperative that their host plants be kept alive; consequently, the fungi evolved the ability to completely regulate uptake.

What does this all mean to growers? Well, for one thing, it means that soil tests can be one of the worst things a grower can do. The measuring of a few macro elements and pH level is a chemistry-based way of thinking and can lead one down the wrong path as far as healthy soil is concerned.

Think about it: When a “scientific test” indicates that a crop soil is “deficient” in some element or the pH level is “too high/low”, the typical grower will rush to add N or P or K or pH-adjustment products to “correct the problem”, right? This has become so routine that it is rarely questioned. Why would it not be a good idea to change the soil so it is better suited for plants?

Unfortunately, such corrective chemistry processes often damage the very bio-life in the soil which might have made those additives unnecessary. If the plant-tending fungi are destroyed by chemicals, then plants have only their own roots for nutrient uptake and seem to lack the ability to regulate that uptake. After all, smart foraging is the fungi’s evolved responsibility, not the plant’s.

Without the regulating fungi, plants are hyper-sensitive to any soil problems. With sensitive and vulnerable plants to tend, growers perform more chemistry tests, make more “corrections” in their soil preparation/fertilization, and further mess up their soil biology. It is both difficult and expensive for humans to replicate what mycorrrhizal fungi do instinctively correct day and night all season long.

In the long run, I think better use of natural plant-fungi partnerships will let us produce good crops in marginal or poor soils with minimal inputs. To me, this makes more sense than continuously “testing and fixing”.

Cheers, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Sentimental Over Ornamentals?

Most of the scientific research and widespread publicity about using mycorrhizal fungi to grow plants has been focused on food-type plants, but these beneficial organisms can be put to work equally well on ornamental plants.

Just like food plants, many ornamentals have evolved a dependence on mycorrhizae and have largely lost the ability to efficiently uptake nutrients without the fungi on their roots. Without mycorrhizal fungi, we humans must take on the job of providing all the nourishment to fungi-less plants - usually by continuously applying “plant foods” that mostly wash right through the root zone into underground water supplies.

Keeping a mycorrhizal-dependent plant nourished when it lacks its fungi partnership is difficult and expensive. In effect, the soil must be kept artificially overloaded with nutrients (typically incomplete NPK fertilizers) to the point where even an inefficient root system can suck in enough food to survive. Besides being environmentally harmful, this abnormal loading-up of NPK is harmful and disruptive to soil biology. If there were any beneficial organisms present (and many urban/disturbed soils are lacking in them to begin with), repeated doses of “plant food” can prevent them from multiplying into large populations.

Ornamental plants that would normally use mycorrhizal fungi and nitrogen-producing bacteria to thrive are made dependent on artificial chemical feedings. This almost makes me want to write one of those angry letters to a newspaper that always ends with, “Wake up, America!” but I’m not quite that old and cranky yet.

Turf grass is by far the most egregious example of creating a high-profit industry by making simple-to-grow plants dependent on direct feeding. Grass is ridiculously simple to grow if there are good populations of soil microbes present, and ridiculously difficult/expensive to keep alive and healthy without such organisms.

A biologically-active lawn where mulched clippings are returned to the soil instead of being removed needs virtually no additional input, does not build up thatch, suffers few disease problems, and provides its own soil aeration.

You would think that the chemical fertilizer companies, with all their good knowledge about plant physiology, would realize that they are disrupting the biological processes that would allow plants to grow with very little input. (Pause for thought)

About the only negative I can think of for using a biology-based approach to turf grass is that golf courses do not like the idea of having little mounds of earthworm castings appear on their fairways and greens, but most grass growers should be happy to see such evidence of healthy soil.

I might mention that many golf courses, including some listed in the top 10 nationally, are now using our inoculants. Golf courses are increasingly under fire because of nutrient runoffs and are also faced with the need to fight turf diseases with relatively non-toxic methods for the safety of the golfers. (Ironically, golf courses would probably not dare to use some products that are routinely applied to our food crops, but that’s another story.)

Decorative trees, shrubs, flower beds - all can be very successfully grown without pouring on the great amounts of synthetic fertilizers that we have been instructed to apply. But as I watch the artful TV commercials showing smiling happy people lovingly caressing the fantastic-miracle-lush grass or flowers that Brand X has given them, I can understand why the cash registers at garden centers go ding-ding-ding-ding with “lawn food” sales.

And, as you might imagine, I do a little tooth-grinding when I see homeowners buying soil fungicides that will harm their plant-protective mycorrhizae. To me, this is like fogging your yard or orchard with a general pesticide that kills all insects...including those that would have happily eaten the harmful bugs at no cost. I’m also reminded of a lady who asked what she could do about honeybees that were “invading” the flowering shrub next to her front door. She was spraying them with an aerosol pesticide, but more kept coming! Can you imagine how she would have panicked if she learned there was fungus on her plant roots?

To learn more on this topic, look at all the mycorrhiza studies that have been done on food plants and remember that the same symbiotic logic applies to ornamentals...and wake up, America!

Cheers, my friends.

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Don’t Get in the Way of the “Good Little Soil Bugs”

The more I learn about how soil and worms and fungi and bacteria and plants interact, and how their underground “systems” work, the more I realize how mistaken we are about so many things. Our intentions are good - we’re following prevailing soil chemistry advice given in textbooks, articles, and by crop advisors - but much of what we do for (or to) our plants and crops is horribly wrong.

To understand the problems, first consider the natural cycle of plant-soil-microbial relationships which have evolved over millions of years )greatly, greatly, simplified).

  1. Leaf litter, dead plants, bird and animal droppings fall to the ground.
  2. Decomposing fungi and bacteria “digest” the fallen material.
  3. Earthworms feed on the decomposed material and then transport it underground.
  4. Other types of fungi and bacteria feed on the earthworm castings, further digesting it.
  5. The bacteria produce nitrogen and digest minerals into forms plants can use.
  6. A plant seed sprouts or new root growth occurs in the biologically-active soil.
  7. Mycorrhizal fungi attach to the roots and send millions of root-threads out into the soil.
  8. The plant extends its leaves up into the sunlight, and performs photosynthesis.
  9. Mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria feed on root exudates generated by photosynthesis.
  10. In return, the fungi forages for whatever nutrients the plant requires for full health.
  11. The plant thrives aboveground with these symbiotic actions going on underground.
  12. Leaves drop and/or annual plants die and we go back to Step #1.

The closer we can replicate the above cycle, the better our crops and plants perform. It’s difficult, and I would even say impossible, to improve on it. It seems that our goal should be to figure out how to work WITH the established method instead of trying to take over the complex soil functions ourselves.

But aren’t we helping the plants when we “feed” them? Well, not when we drench the soil with immediate-acting fertilizers, synthetic or organic. Small amounts of gradual-release broad-spectrum fertilizers and minerals can offset the leaf litter (crops) that we remove from the field, but whenever possible the crop residue should be allowed to remain in place.

Are we helping when we turn over the crop residue by plowing it under? Well, a no-till or limited-till program will keep the underground biological communities from being disrupted. A rototilling is the equivalent of a powerful hurricane leveling a human city. There are impressive results being reported from no-till agricultural studies and I expect many more farmers and gardeners will adopt this practice.

The “little soil bugs”, if encouraged to develop into large populations, will keep the soil fluffed-up for good aeration, will provide nutrients (in ideal proportions) for plants, and will protect the roots from pathogens. They will happily do all this work for free and will not contaminate our water supplies.

A side note on “Organic” additives: From my biological perspective, the “nature=good,” “manmade=bad” orientation is an imperfect way to judge materials. It does have the general benefit of prohibiting the most harmful fertilizers, such as high analysis fast-acting synthetics (i.e., 20-20-10) which can be lethal to mycorrhizal fungi, but it gives the impression that all natural materials are OK. In fact, a drench of liquid fish can disrupt the soil system far more than applying dry pelleted fish. A slow continuous supply of the broadest possible array of nutrients is the feeding objective for bio-growers.
For good reading on this subject, the March/April issue of The American Gardener (the magazine of the American Horticultural Society) has an article entitled “Fertile Ground.” One quote from a gardening writer: “I believe the biology of the soil creates the chemistry. It is only when the biology is killed off, as it is with salt-based fertilizers, pesticides, tilling, etc., that the chemistry takes over.” I say Amen!

The June issue of Mother Earth News will also have an excellent article on mycorrhizal fungi written by Doreen Howard, who has considerable first-hand knowledge of biological inoculants.

Both articles are geared toward home garden issues, but the overall descriptions of natural soil systems are certainly worthy of study by commercial growers, landscapers, plant researchers, and government officals concerned about agriculture and/or environmental issues.

Good growing, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Chemistry and Biology - Working Together?

As the use of biological methods for crop production and landscaping gains wider popularity, it seems some people view it as a some sort of rival to soil chemistry, which has dominated agriculture for several decades. To me, this is the wrong way to look at the issue.  This need not be a contest between two different approaches to growing plants - it’s not biology looking to wipe out chemistry (or as some seem to see it, good versus evil). An intelligent perspective would be to blend together elements of both sciences in a way that provides the maximum benefits to plants in a sustainable, non-polluting manner. 

A plant in biologically-active soil has many advantages. It is more resistant to diseases, insects, soil pathogens, and drought because of superior nutrient uptake and natural defense mechanisms that come from association with mycorrhizal fungi. Therefore, it is a given that growers should introduce and encourage large populations of beneficial microorganisms.

As these beneficial soil microorganisms can be easily damaged or destroyed by strong fertilizers, a basic guideline for bio-growers is to avoid all fast-acting, high-analysis “plant food”. The harm that such fertilizers cause to valuable soil bio-life far outweighs any short-term benefits. 

The alarming contamination of underground drinking water and streams just adds a further reason to cut the use of cheap NPK fertilizer, including the vast  tonnages of lawn food and water-soluble stuff being routinely overapplied by homeowners. Farmers aren’t the only offenders in this category.

Many growers also seem to have become nitrogen junkies - thinking that N is the solution to any and all plant problems. True, one can usually produce a quick greening effect by applying nitrogen. But in truth, it is no more important than any other element to the overall health of a plant. A broad range of elements are needed, all in differing amounts (just as for humans). 

In nature, this is one of the most important roles of mycorrhizal fungi - to seek out nutrients in the soil for their host plants and to regulate the amounts of the various elements. You could think of the fungi as being responsive to the needs of their companion plants, and for good reason. The fungi are entirely dependent on the symbiotic relationship with the plant for their own survival. Without root exudates, the fungi die (leaving behind spores which will only activate when a new root comes nearby).

This leads to the point that soil chemistry cannot be totally ignored, although under a biologically-oriented program the standard NPK chemistry is not all-important. The soil biota will perform corrections to pH, generate N from the atmosphere and solubilize other soil elements - functions that chemistry-oriented growers try to duplicate with varying degrees of success. 

The goal of the bio-grower is to ensure that the widest possible spectrum of minor and trace elements are available to the foraging fungi, while providing much-reduced amounts of NPK in gradual-release forms. If tiny amounts of boron or selenium or any other essential minor/trace element are absent from the soil, then the fungi cannot find it and plants cannot enjoy full health. This is the appropriate chemistry side of the equation: to provide every possible chemical element to the soil-searching fungi so that they can bring them as-needed to the plants. Note that it is not necessary to provide all elements in ideal ratios to each other; the fungi will make the appropriate uptake adjustments. Of course, extreme overdoses of any element are to be avoided.

This is a different way to view soil chemistry - in a supportive role to the microbial populations - but the net effect is a powerful and non-polluting way to produce high-yielding crops and ornamentals. Simply put, the current overemphasis on NPK fertilizers needs to be redirected to include many more elements in small amounts.  

The simplest way to ensure a broad range of elements is to occasionally apply volcanic-origin mineral powders or rock dust to the soil. However, be aware that not all rock dust contains the desired broad range of elements. The best I’ve found is called hydrothermally-changed Dacite. This is basically a soft volcanic rock deposit that has been steamed for millions of years and is now a crumbly form containing virtually every element. A commercial product called Zeolite is also good, as is greensand.

Getting the soil chemistry right is indeed important, but not the kind of blunt-instrument NPK chemistry that we have been practicing. Keep the soil organisms happy with a wide-range diet, and their host plants will also be happy.

Cheers, and good growing, friends.

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Underground Give and Take

One of the most widespread wrong ideas in horticulture is that roots simply serve to anchor plants in the soil and suck up nutrients. This perspective leads to many mistakes, not the least of which is the overuse of “plant food”. I won’t go into any detail about the process of photosynthesis, but the gathering of solar energy by plant leaves is crucial for healthy soil. 

As a plant’s roots grow and push out into surrounding soil, they exude a thin layer of mucus which acts as a lubricant. This gel is rich in nutrients and provides nourishment for microbial life underground. Mycorrhizal fungi spores which may have laid dormant for decades are brought to life by a signal from the root exudates, as are many types of beneficial bacteria that convert nitrogen, phosphorus, and other elements into forms that the roots can uptake.

Soils without growing plants tend to be relatively lifeless and compacted. But when a seed germinates and a new root extends into that soil, there is a powerful reaction from the living organisms, something like children hearing the sound of an ice cream truck coming down their street. Here comes food!

Fueled by the photosynthates, fungi attach to the roots and send their own root-threads (hyphae) out into the soil to forage for the nutrients their host plants require. Soon the surrounding soil is loosened by the fungi hyphae and great populations of bacteria develop, supported by the roots and fungi.

The fluffed-up soil allows more oxygen to penetrate deeper, which further promotes the microbial life that is now busy seeking out and also creating plant nutrients.  For example, a major source of N is the excretions and dead bodies of soil microbes - it is to a plant’s advantage to support the living organisms in soil. The further out the plant roots extend, the more soil becomes alive with helpful “associates” that are all benefitting from the aboveground plant leaves absorbing solar energy. Of course, in return the plant is receiving valuable nutrients and improved soil conditions for its roots.

For the grower, this all argues for avoiding bare soil and also for using companion plants as much as possible, such as legumes or wildflowers between the rows in orchards or vineyards. The more leaves that are gathering and sending energy to underground organisms, the better. This is why “living mulches” increase yields so much in USDA trials, as compared to inert mulches. In reading the reports of these trials, the scientists seem rather puzzled as to why the yields are higher when tomatoes are planted into vetch fields, but the answer is quite simple and predictable to a soil biologist: More solar energy has been captured and “sent downstairs” to helpful soil critters. The tomato plants then benefit from the increased life in the soil that has been supported by the vetch.

All of the above can be disrupted by fertilizing with fast-acting synthetic fertilizers. It’s hard to improve on a system that has taken many millions of years to build. We simply need to learn how to better work within that elegant system instead of trying to impose our mistaken ideas about feeding plant roots.

Cheers, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Giving Plants a Perfectly Balanced Diet - Automatically!

There is some debate about how many elements are really, really, essential to good plant health. Growers with a chemistry orientation always focus on the macro elements - NPK - which are indeed needed in relative large amounts. Some more advanced chem-growers also pay attention to minor elements - calcium, iron, magnesium, etc. - which are needed in lesser amounts. Probably not one in ten thousand ever worries abouttrace elements, believing that they are either not as important or are hopefully in the soil already.

The critical need fortrace elements in a plant’s diet has been well documented, and their absense in some soils is probably the cause of many puzzling diseases and yield problems. A parallel situation is the human need for minute amounts of Iodine to prevent goiters - solved by making iodized salt.

The chemical grower faces a major problem in that all the essential elements - Macro, Minor, andtrace - must be kept in roughly correct proportions to each other. If the uptake of any essential element is too high or too low, the plant will suffer. Overdoses and deficiencies of individual elements are very common (perhaps even the norm) in chemically-amended soils - usually not to the point of killing the crops, but still preventing plants from performing at peak levels.

So how does a grower deal with a plant that needs twenty units of element A, ten units each of element B & C, two units each of elements D through G, and varyingtrace amounts of elements H-Z? How does one give crops ideal combinations throughout the life cycle of the plant? (This can get more complex, as the nutritional needs of plants change as they go from seedlings to maturity.)

The simple answer is that chemical growers find it impossible to measure, add, monitor, and regulate the uptake of all the essential Macro, Minor, andtrace elements in ideal proportions. The best that can be done is to test for the major elements, conduct leaf analyses, and try to apply additives that will “correct deficiencies”. At one level, this does work, at least in the short run, but all too often the result is fields, orchards, or vineyards filled with imperfectly-nourished plants that invite disease and insects.

I think this is a key difference between chemical and biological methods. With chemistry as a base, there is little margin for error as far as proportions between elements and mistakes cause big problems with crops. Under biology-based methods, where bacteria process elements into plant-useful forms and mycorrhizal fungi regulate nutrient uptake according to the needs of their host plants, growers can have large variations in their soil elements and plants will still thrive.

For example, an excessive amount of boron in soil will not bother mycorrhizal plants because the regulating fungi will not allow the excess to enter the roots. This is also true for salts or heavy metals. Any amount of an element beyond what the plants require will be blocked by the mycorrhizal fungi. (Mycorrhizal inoculants are commonly used to establish plants in toxic mine tailings.)

The other side of the coin is that the foraging fungi cannot manufacture elements that are not in the soil, creating the need for growers to occasionally add broad-spectrum minerals (along with much-reduced amounts of fertilizer - perhaps only ten percent as much).

If there is “some of everything” present in the soil, then the fungi can pick and choose whatever their host plants need at any given moment in their development. The difference in health, vigor, and yields from perfectly-nourished plants can be dramatic.

It’s the grower’s choice: try to create the ideal recipe of all essential soil nutrients for the plants, or grow mycorrhizal plants that can adapt to just about any soil they find themselves in. Dealing with the uptake of plant nutrients is the beneficial fungi’s role in nature. They’ve been practicing the role now for many millions of years, and will be happy to take that difficult job away from humans if given the chance.

Cheers and good growing, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

The Bio-Inoculant Marketplace:
Who’s Trying, Who’s Buying, and Who’s Lying?

When I first got involved with beneficial mycorrhizal fungi several years ago and realized what these microorganisms could do for agriculture, I was wildly enthusiastic about the marketing prospects. After all, here was a natural method that promised to grow high-yielding, disease-resistant plants without contaminating water supplies, without having to apply heavy doses of expensive fertilizer, and without depleting our food-producing soils. At the time, I thought, “Wow - If just 5% of the corn farmers in Kansas convert to biology-based methods, it will be a billion-dollar market!  How will suppliers ever be able to propagate enough of the fungi to satisfy the demand once the word gets out?”

Well, seven years later, with the added wisdom of actual experience, I now see that nothing short of major yield failures or government restrictions on excessive fertilizing will move large farmers away from chemistry-based practices.  The cost and complexity of restoring biological activity to huge acreages of croplands makes for a pretty overwhelming task, no matter how great the long-term soil and yield improvements might be.

Yes, the interest level in biological practices is increasing; Many growers around the world are now routinely applying bio-inoculants to crop plants and ornamentals. Dozens of university and USDA researchers have published thousands of articles to describe favorable test results...But we’re a long way from getting even one-half of 1% of those Kansas corn farmers on board.

So, if the large acreage, lower value crop farmers are not great prospects (yet), then where is the market for bio-products?  Based on our general experience, two distinct factors produce orders - poor soils and higher value plants.

For growers with sand who are having problems holding moisture and nutrients in the root zone, the mycorrhizal fungi can perform miracles by clumping together sand particles and promoting the development of an underground biomass.  Also, soils that are too salty, overloaded with some element, or with pH levels that are outside the acceptable range for plants are all excellent candidates for using biological rather than chemical methods. 

Grain crops can certainly benefit from having mycorrhizal fungi in the soil; but grapes, citrus, avocados, melons, stone fruit, tomatoes, peppers, and other market vegetables are better candidates from an economic standpoint.  A one-time inoculation of seeds or transplants can produce a quick and significant monetary payback. 

Of course, landscape plants and turfgrass (especially on golf courses or in stadiums) also fall into the higher-value category and we have many customers in those areas.  For example, check out the grass in the Baltimore Raven’s stadium next time they are on TV.

Combining the above factors, you can see that valuable plants being grown in problem soils represents the most immediate market for inoculants. I could add another consideration as well: The larger the acreage, the more difficult it will be to get off the chemical treadmill.  But it can be done.

So, home gardeners, landscapers, market growers, and orchards/vineyards will  probably be the “early adapters” of soil-biology methods.  Actually, I see absolutely no reason why any home gardener or landscaper should ever rely on chemistry when it is so simple for them to create wonderful soil conditions with beneficial organisms.  These are not, repeat, not places to copy chem-farmers.

There have recently been good articles about mycorrhizae in “Mother Earth News” and “The American Gardener” (the publication of the American Horticultural Society), and I expect there will be many more in coming months. Hopefully, all this favorable publicity will not bring fast-buck artists out of the woodwork, making exaggerated claims for the fungi and turning off potential users.  Read the small print on the labels folks. Look for guarantees of species and spore counts - and don’t pay Endo prices for Ecto spores!  (Those of you who know one from the other will understand.)

Good growing, friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Soil Biology - Nothing but Normal and Natural

I find that many of our customers believe that the introduction of mycorrhizal fungi to their plant root systems is adding an "extra" benefit - something like a new and improved fertilizer. It's not. Actually, a biological approach to growing healthy and productive plants is simply trying to copy normal and natural methods that have evolved over millions of years.

Mycorrhizal fungi are a key element in an overall ecosystem, as described in earlier newsletters (see the Archive section at our website - www.bio-organics.com). Most notably the fungi greatly enhance and regulate the uptake of nutrient and moisture by plant roots, along with protecting their host plants from pathogens and diseases.

Plants have their function in a healthy soil system, too. They are uniquely equipped to perform photosynthesis - gather and transform sunlight into nutrients (photosynthates).  The plant roots then serve as a "give and take" nutrient exchange site - some of the plant's photosynthates directly and indirectly nourish beneficial soil organisms; while in return those organisms gather, digest and deliver essential nutrients to the plants.

The details and components of this complex nutrient producing-and-exchanging system can be found in any modern soil biology textbook, but for our purposes it is enough to recognize the interdependence of plants and living things in the soil. Because of the way they are linked together in nature, neither can enjoy full health without the presence of the other.

When a plant is set into lifeless soil, or into soil that lacks the correct microorganisms to match up with that type of plant, the plant suffers from, essentially, starvation. On their own, many plants lack the ability to effectively uptake nutrients. Foraging is not what plant roots are designed to do - they are like anchoring pipelines that have limited surface contact with soil (as compared to fungi with millions of root-threads that make contact with huge amounts of soil).

Humans have learned to deal with fungi-lacking starving plants: Feed them fertilizers, placing abnormal amounts of NPK in the root zone, so even inefficient root systems uptake enough macronutrients to perform adequately - but not optimally. No amount of synthetic limited-ingredient fertilizer can substitute for the ideal bio-origin nutrients.

Again as noted in earlier newsletters, this direct-feeding of plants has some serious downsides which are becoming obvious after a few decades. For homeowners, chemically-dependent lawns are the worst problem,as such lawns need near-continuous applications of "plant food" to keep inefficient grass green. For farms, heavy fertilization and the resulting loss of soil bio-life causes compaction and salt buildups. Plus, the growing contamination of water supplies with nitrates and phosphates from this heavy fertilization should be a concern to all.

The general solution is to have a goal of increasing beneficial life in soil. The old phrase, "Feed the soil, not the plant" has perhaps more truth than even most "expert" growers realize. I suspect because it is difficult to measure the soil biota. It's much simpler to recommend chemical tests (which invariably lead people to "fix" and damage their soil).

Let's be clear, putting a big handful of 10-10-10 in a planting hole is NOT what's meant by feeding the soil!  And 10-10-10 fertilizer is NOT "complete", nor is it in any way "balanced". Those are marketing terms that I see in print over and over again as accepted facts.(My teeth would be a bit longer if not for the grinding that those two words have caused.)

Feeding soil means adding composted material and using organic mulches, plus occasionally scattering trace minerals and small amounts of dry low-analysis fertilizer (such as fish pellets). Ideally, it means adopting no-till or limited-till practices to avoid disrupting the underground networks of beneficial living organisms that plants link into.

It may seem self-serving, but I do believe that the use of biological inoculants is also a key part of any soil enhancement project. A one-time addition of mycorrhizal fungi spores (that also carry beneficial bacteria with them)ensures the presence of perhaps the single most important soil organism - the one that bonds all the plants and soil life together. Please note that this is all normal and natural - NOT some miraculous new additive - and promises the ultimate sustainability. A biological orientation builds up the soil's production capacity, instead of depleting it.

And speaking from personal experience with my vegetable gardens over the years (too many years), seeing my robust plants now perform closer to their full genetic potential with minimal input is exciting stuff. My investment in soil life is paying off in stronger plants with bigger yields than I ever had under chemically-oriented methods. Anyone who would now try to drench liquid fertilizer on my garden beds would quickly gain some hoe-handle marks on their rump!  

Cheers, and good growing, friends.

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Plant Roots: Are Some Slow on the Uptake?

The mycorrhizae linkage between plants and soil fungi varies greatly. Some types of plants do not use the fungi for nutrient uptake while other plants have trouble even surviving without mycorrhizae. Clearly, the evolutionary process over millions of years has led different plants down differing paths, and bio-growers should be aware of their plants’ needs.

Based on our company’s experiments, grower feedback and published research, some of the most dependent plants are (in no particular order): Grapes, roses, melons, potatoes, beans, squash, cherries, plums, peaches, alfalfa, oaks, pines, blackberries, onions, garlic, citrus, chrysanthemums, lilies, asparagus, bananas, strawberries, turf grass, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes.

Some plants that seem to be in the “only somewhat” category of fungi-dependence. We have observed or heard of only minor differences between inoculated and non-inoculated plants are apples, pears, rice, and somewhat surprisingly, peas.

Members of the cabbage and mustard families apparently do not use mycorrhizal fungi, although there are reports of the opportunistic fungi attaching to Brassicaceae roots when the plants go into decline - most likely to scavenge nutrients!

As with every issue involving soil biology, the sorting of plant types into fungi-dependence categories is not as simple as it might seem, particularly with plants that have been subjected to “improvement”.

Our experience with tomatoes is a good example. We were puzzled at first when we observed major differences between some varieties of test and control plants and nearly no differences between others. In time, we figured out that heirloom types and early hybrids were the most responsive, leading to the speculation that fungi-dependence has been largely bred out of newer varieties. Through careful selection, “modern” tomatoes have been developed for direct-feeding of synthetic fertilizers and can therefore be successfully grown in lifeless soils, while older varieties still retain their need for beneficial soil organisms, particularly mycorrhizal fungi.

One of the tomato varieties that we have found most responsive to inoculations is the old Beefmaster, which sets nearly every blossom when grown in good biologically active soil. It’s quite a sight to see big beefsteak tomatoes growing in crowded clusters. I also have a letter from a Master Gardener (who had been chemically-oriented) who tried a little test-versus-control experiment in his garden with two Roma tomato plants. The non-inoculated plant produced 48 full-size tomatoes - a decent yield and typical of what he had harvested in previous years. His non-fertilized inoculated plant produced 183 tomatoes. To me, this illustrated the principle that bio-dependent plants show their full genetic-potential yields only when grown in “living” soils.

For those of you who might be interested, Clear Pink Early, Pineapple, Big Girl, Lemon Boy, Burpee’s Supersteak and Park’s Whopper are others that perform much better in bio-active soils. (From a flavor perspective, I suggest any of these for your personal gardens. We look mostly at growth, yields and disease-resistance in our tests, but unscientific taste-testing does occur from time to time.) To grow fungi-dependent plants, inoculation with dormant spores at planting time and avoidance of high-analysis fertilizers are both important.

I would like to invite any of you who may have made your own observations about differences in fungi dependence to send them to me for possible inclusion in future newsletters. I think we have barely scratched the soil surface of this topic.  

Cheers, and good growing, friends.

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

As We Enter the Age of Biology...

These are exciting times for soil microbiologists. The value of their research on soil-dwelling microbes is beginning to be recognized. The potential usefulness of the tiny critters they have been studying for decades is finally starting to be appreciated by people outside of laboratories, plus the "Age of Soil Chemistry" from the 1950's is no longer looking like such a great concept.

It is also a confusing time for bio-scientists, who are more geared toward writing up study results with the elegant precision appropriate for publication in academic journals (motto: "eschew common words") than toward explaining product-usage details to dirt farmers.

I believe it was Tom Peters who said it is relatively easy to describe something using 500 words - just about anyone can do that. It is far more difficult to boil a product description down to 50 (or ideally 5) common words that capture the essence of the subject. Brevity and simplicity are not the usual writing orientations of the science folks, nor should they be.

This is where I believe a company such as BioOrganics fills a needed role: translating the specialized jargon and findings of academic researchers into simple terms that users can easily understand and, of course, setting up manufacturing, packaging, marketing and distribution processes that can convert scientific findings into a business.

A common misconception is that viable product ideas are rare and valuable. Actually, wonderful ideas are pretty much a dime a dozen. In our field, any halfway competent soil biologist can identify some beneficial organism or bio-stimulant that would benefit plants. As an established bio-products company, we regularly receive inquiries about introducing new biological concepts to the ag market, many of which probably have some real potential. But the hard part is finding the manpower and resources required to turn great ideas into profits. That's really, really, tough to do.

Classic marketing theory calls for identifying a problem, developing a product that solves that problem, calling the attention of potential customers tothe product, persuading those potential customers to buy (or at least try) the product, and then following through with good customer service.

I often see respected scientists spending goodly amounts of their own money to present their great product ideas to growers who do not believe they have problems, or think that a verbose brochure filled with "big plant - little plant" lab results is a complete marketing program, or neglect to set up a decent product order fulfillment system. These are bright people, but out of their normal environment. When their great-new-bio-product sales fail to materialize, they invariably seem to link up with the sort of "sales pros" that make you count your fingers after shaking hands. Great schemes are hatched (generally involving wildly-optimistic public stock offers), outside investors are milked,large sums are spent on advertising,and when still no substantial orders flow in, the parties involvedsue each other.

Growers, meanwhile, see these exciting new bio-products enter and depart the marketplace, and most simply continue to use easier-to-understand chemicals. Familiar products and trusted brand names have a strong appeal when one's livelihood is involved.

Biological methods will eventually replace the currently pre-dominant chemistry orientation for growing crops. I think that change in approach is inevitable, given soil degradation and water contamination projections. But the ag and hort marketplaces definitely need more bio-supply companies with staying power, not just wonderful new product ideas.

There are attractive business opportunities developing in the field of agricultural/ horticultural biology, and it's tempting to go chase some of them. However, I'm nearing retirement age with the battle scars of seductive great ideas all over my back. It's probably time to begin looking for younger business people with vision and energy to take BioOrganics onward and upward while I continue my search for the perfect tomato in the greenhouse.

Cheers, and good growing, friends.

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc. 

Choose Your Bio Potting Medium with Care

Along with reduced fertilizer, an important part of biological growing methodology is for nurseries to select a potting mix that will not inhibit soil bio life. Common bark-based potting products may have some fungicidal qualities, which is desirable when one is using a disease-prone chemistry-based approach, but not such a good idea when trying to encourage beneficial fungi on root systems.

In general, peat and sand mixtures work much better than wood-based products. Even pure sand can be used if weight is not an important factor. The sticky hyphae of AM fungi will quickly bind sand particles together into a moisture holding biomass, which will become an excellent environment for helpful bacteria.

Small amounts of gradual-release fertilizer will still be needed, but nothing compared to the continuous direct feeding required with a sterile potting medium. With the right biological activity in its root zone, a plant becomes nearly self-sufficient, making greater use of its own photosynthesis and the symbiotic relationships with nutrient-providing fungi and bacteria.

For nurseries that wish to adopt clean biological methods of growing healthier and more vigorous plants, the first step should be to experiment with various potting mixes. Through observation and microscopic exams, it will not take long to determine which mixture produces the best rate of mycorrhizal colonization.

Of course, the choice of potting mixtures is somewhat restricted by local availability and cost factors. The lucky nursery growers who have good affordable sources of bio-friendly mixes will enjoy an advantage over those with only wood-based options. It should be noted that some wood products may work OK - it will depend on decomposition levels, presence of fungi-inhibiting resins, addition of peat and/or sand, etc.

I expect that bio assays of soil will eventually be regarded as being far more valuable to growers than chemistry tests. Mycorrhizal fungi can fix various soil chemistry problems, shield their host plants from toxins or undesirable pH levels, and regulate the uptake of nutrients to individual plants on an as-needed basis.

For a grower the tricky part is learning how to provide good habitat for these valuable living organisms. Unlike chemicals, the AM fungi, beneficial bacteria, and other biological plant-helpers have specific media requirements.

Onward and upward, friends!

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

In Disease Suppression, Timing Is Everything

The ability of mycorrhizal fungi to ward off a wide variety of plant pathogens (such as nematodes) and diseases (Phytophthora, etc.) has been well documented. Any search will turn up dozens of studies on this topic.

However, it is not widely recognized that the beneficial fungi must have a chance to colonize the roots and surrounding soil before this important protective role can be realized. This argues for inoculating crop plants as early as possible - either at transplanting time or preferably while still in the nursery.

I am not aware of any research that indicates that mycorrhizal fungi can perform any recovery-type functions after a plant has been infected with disease or infested with harmful soil organisms. Its role in nature seems to be geared almost entirely toward the prevention of, rather than curing, plant problems.

There are at least four ways in which mycorrhizal fungi protect their host plants: 1) They create physical barriers around roots with sticky hyphae; 2) They produce antibiotic exudates that specifically target plant enemies; 3) They create positive hormonal changes in their host plant's immune system; 4) They provide greatly increased mineral uptake that leads to stronger plants better able to withstand diseases.

It is impossible to artificially replicate all the above good effects of mycorrhizal fungi with chemicals and synthetic fertilizers, which explains why crop plants tend to suffer from so many diseases and pathogen attacks as compared to non-cultivated plants. Without the normal and essential presence of their natural fungi partners on their root systems, crop plants are at a terrible disadvantage.

Moral: Give your plants the symbiotic protection they require for good health, and give it to them BEFORE they develop problems.

For good growing,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Advisory Help Needed!

In the wonderful world of agriculture (more gamblers than Las Vegas ever sees), there is a desperate need for professional soil advisory services.

No, I don't mean more soil chemistry advisors - there's already an overabundance of them. We're all familiar with conventional soil test routines - dig a sample, check the pH plus a few macroelements, then issue a prescription for "fixing" problems or deficiencies. Very simple and easy to understand - match the soil to the plants.

Well, maybe TOO simple. We seem to have created an entire generation of ag advisors who believe that soil chemistry is the only factor behind crop success or failure, and "add X lbs. of ___ per acre when you're low" is giving good advice.

Actually, soil pH and availability of mineral elements are automatically regulated by natural biological processes, if the right macro (earthworms, etc.) and microbial elements are present in substantial populations. There are whole families of bacteria that efficiently produce nitrogen from the air, and other families that convert phosphorus into a form that plants can use, and then mycorrhizal fungi allow plant roots to uptake needed amounts of those now-available nutrients. 

Larger organisms, especially worms, move decayed plant material from the surface of the soil down into the root zone and also transport beneficial microbes from one location to another. This is how wild plants thrive and do not deplete their surrounding soil - it's a team effort and this team of plant helpers can be utilized in agriculture if (and this is a big if) someone knows how to encourage them.

I was delighted recently when a California tomato farmer called to get information about our microbial inoculants. He told me that his local Extension Agent said his soil seemed to lack biological activity, and that could be the reason his yields were falling off! I had never before heard of an Extension Agent suggesting a non-chemical solution to a problem, even though it is well-documented that plants often struggle when their soil biology is not right. Light at the end of the tunnel!

What is really needed now to promote healthier, sustainable, and more productive crop soils is for all ag advisors to learn more about the living components of soil, and then learn how to apply that knowledge to individual fields. I've said it before and I'll keep repeating it: If the soil biology is healthy, then the chemistry for crop plants will also be right. A focus on the biological elements will lead to good soil chemistry; the opposite is not true.

By all means, let's conduct soil tests. But, instead of over-simplistic testing for just NPK and pH levels, let's train ag advisors to do bio-assays at the same time. That information will help growers really understand the living dynamics of their soil, and it should also make them question quick chemical "fixes" that do more harm than good to their soil in the long run.

Might be time to blow the dust off that old soil biology textbook.

Cheers, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Looking for a Growth Business Venture?

Based on the many agreeing comments I received after last month's newsletter, the idea that soil advisors should analyze biological elements as well as just simple chemical elements was on target with many of you. To continue further with that thought about advisors looking at the biological activity in soil, let's keep in mind that a bioassay requires someone trained in microbiology looking through a microscope to identify and count little critters.

Which leads to the point of this newsletter: I can pretty well count the number of well-organized and inexpensive bioassay services on my thumb and first finger! As the interest level in using soil biology to replace chemical methods grows (and it has already grown dramatically since I started this business seven years ago), I see a great need developing for more lab testing services, especially regional ones.

Ideally, such services would not only provide bio-profiles of soil samples, but would also offer general benchmark standards. Growers need some sort of "high-low, good-poor, above-below average" interpretive commentary for bioassays to have any practical value (and those comments need to be expressed in plain words, not in scientific jargon!). I would suggest that there are wonderful opportunities in this area for soil biologists with entrepreneural ambitions and communication skills.

The existing labs do good work, but there will be a need for many, many more in the future, especially for services that become intimately familiar with their local soils and crops. There is substantial business potential developing among commercial growers, but also among home gardeners, nurseries, and landscapers.

A good bio-testing service should retain individual field or garden results for making year-to-year comparisons in addition to general standards. I expect most growers would enjoy seeing their soils measure healthier over time as they learn how to encourage beneficial fungi and bacteria instead of destroying them.

And after we get all these local bio-testing labs set up, we can get busy building lots more composting facilities - another biology-based area of opportunity!

Onward and upward, friends!
BTW, thank you for the feedback. But, if you ever wish to correspond with me, don't just hit the "reply" button - that goes to our webmaster instead of directly to me. Use [email protected]

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Introducing Beneficial Fungi to Established Trees - Worth Doing?

The topic of this newsletter was prompted by a note I recently received from a customer, who stated: "Three years ago I planted a small orchard of cherries using your product on all but one row -- I wanted to see if this stuff really worked. It did. The results were startling from the onset. However, I now need to get these trees up to their brothers rate of growth!!! How do I apply the product and at what rate?"

He has decided to try probing inoculant down to the root zones of the "Without" trees, and I hope the fungi will colonize them. However, as I told him, I have to wonder if it will be as effective at this later date as it was for his new transplants.

Nature does not leave things vacant for long, whether it be topsoil or the mycorrhizophere below ground. After a period of time, the root zones of all existing trees are occupied by native fungi and various other bioorganisms. I think it then becomes difficult or impossible to successfully introduce new players.

Note that this is speculation on my part, as I am not aware of any good research that has been done on this specific subject. I am aware that there are bio-supply companies that actively promote the application of expensive mycorrhizal inoculants to existing trees and claim that such applications produce wonderful results, but my sceptical side can't help feeling that the fertilizers and biostimulants that are injected at the same time might be entirely responsible for any positive responses.

If my logic is correct, then the opportunity to establish the most effective symbiotic match between a tree and the best type of fungi for that tree may be lost if other less-beneficial fungi are allowed to become dominant in the ecosystem around the roots. (I think that native fungi and native plants are almost certainly the best and most obvious match for each other, but introduced plant types often seem to respond better to introduced fungi.)

In other words, when setting out new trees or shrubs, I think an inexpensive dusting of multi-specie fungi spores on the roots - either Endo or Ecto types, depending on the tree type - makes good economic sense. Comparison tests such as done by the grower quoted above attest to the value of such planting-time inoculations.

However, for established trees, I doubt that simply putting new mycorrhizal fungi spores in the root zone will do any good. It is difficult to see how later entries can succeed in the competition for root exudates. (But, I freely admit that I could be wrong about this).

I personally think the best possibility for helping problem orchards or vineyards is to dust new spores on cover crop seeds. Then, as the legumes, grasses, or wildflowers activate and host the new fungi, the cover crop roots may transport those better fungi species down to the roots of the target trees or vines where they may co-colonize.

Trees are certainly capable of hosting multiple species of mycorrhizal fungi at the same time, and research has even shown that, for unknown reasons, the types of fungi found on a root system change as trees mature.

Still much to be learned. In the meantime, I just hope that row of cherry trees catches up!

Cheers, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Bio-Lawns Make Better Sense

Lawns are interesting. A nice lawn is generally considered to be an integral part of most landscaping in the U. S. and serves as both a decorative and practical feature. A lawn is a cooling, dust-free, barefoot-friendly and attractive part of most homesites.

Much advice has been written about how to successfully maintain a lawn - which is essentially a monoculture crop of grass. A huge industry has built up to produce specific chemicals for weeding and feeding lawns, along with countless service companies who will apply those chemicals on a periodic basis.

At one level, these products obviously "work", as lawns remain green and weed-free under chemical regimens. However, besides the high cost, the runoff of all that combined tonnage of lawn fertilizers is contributing to the contamination of both underground aquifers and surface water. Lawn-care chemicals are a primary source of water pollutants, including nitrates, and communities that depend on wells for their municipal water supplies are facing major decontamination problems in the future.

As an experiment, last summer I tilled under a rather average-looking lawn area that had been chemically maintained by the previous owners of this property. I then blended in compost from the local yard-waste recycling center, along with gradual-release pelleted fish fertilizer and a light dusting of mycorrhizal inoculant. After leveling, I seeded a fescue and annual ryegrass mix which is recommended for this climate.

This spring, I applied more of the fish pellets (developed at Oregon State specifically for turf grass). I water deeply about once a week (this is a high-desert zone that typically receives less than 10 inches of precipitation - mostly snow - per year). I will not fertilize again until next spring.

The new lawn is beautiful, to the point where strangers have driven in to ask what I use on it, and I feel that I am now contributing minimal amounts of runoff into the local water supply. 

By using compost, natural biological agents and small amounts of dry organic fertilizers at a rate the grass can actually uptake, I think homeowners can greatly reduce the collective harmful impact of lawns on the environment. 

However, as with agriculture, I have no illusions that widespread conversion to cleaner lower-input biological methods will happen overnight. As usual, soil and water problems must become severe before being dealt with - that's just human nature.

But I feel good about having a low-impact lawn.

Cheers, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

The Search for The Great Fungi

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to observe an experiment that consisted of transplanting tomatoes into large pots containing pure beach sand - unwashed and quite salty.

Each of the dozen or so groups of test plants had been inoculated with a different type of endomycorrhizal fungi - Glomus mosseae, G. intraradices, G. aggregatum, Gigaspora margarita, etc.

Very quickly it became obvious that the beach sand was a less than ideal potting medium. The non-inoculated control plants died almost immediately, followed by most of the test plants. Some test group plants survived, but were weak in appearance and bore only a few small fruits.

However, one group of test plants all thrived and produced good crops of large tomatoes. That one particular fungi, and only that one, had the ability to help its host plants deal with the extreme low-fertility/salty growing conditions.

The moral of this? With more than 150 named types of AM fungi, plus countless local adaptations that have evolved, be very sceptical of the projectability of any testing that involves only one or two types. Just because one beneficial fungus does not perform well in a lab test does not mean those results are typical of all types.

I would speculate that AM fungi that have evolved in the harshest soil and climate situations will prove to be most useful for growing crops in poor soils, and hope that researchers will devote some time to identifying, capturing, and trialing such types.

Yes, it is more convenient to conduct tests using only commonly available types, but I'm guessing that the greatest rewards will not show up there.

Cheers, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

How to Turn Good Loose Soil into Sticky Clay

With few exceptions, farmers and gardeners alike complain when they have to deal with heavy clay soil - the type that sticks to their boots and tools. Whole industries exist to loosen such soil or to assist water in penetrating brick-solid surfaces.

But, if those frustrated growers were to step over to any nearby naturally wooded area, they would discover that the soil under those untended trees, shrubs and grasses is generally loose to the point where a person can scoop into it with bare hands.

What's going on here? Why dense sticky clay a few feet away from loose soil? Were the wooded areas just lucky enough to get better dirt?

Well, as usual, the answer is mycorrhizal fungi. Undisturbed, these beneficial organisms will completely colonize every square inch of the soil surrounding their host plants and form massive networks of interlinked hyphae (their microscopic root threads).

This hyphae network, sometimes called a "foodweb", serves many useful purposes underground: searching soil for nutrients that are brought back to the plant as needed; exchanging nutrients between established plants and seedlings; providing fodder for countless other soil organisms; preventing access to plant roots by pathogens; etc.

Indeed, it would be difficult to point to just one of these functions as being the most valuable to plants, but physically improving soils would have to rank near the top. The tiny platelets that make up clay are separated and pushed apart by exploring hyphae. This action "opens up" dense soil, which then gives water and oxygen easy access to the root zone - in effect, allowing the soil to "breathe" and quickly drain away excessive moisture.

Plants and all sorts of aerobic soil organisms thrive in such conditions, and their success then supports further growth of the beneficial fungi - a most useful and self-sustaining symbiotic cycle. When these fungi and their extensive hyphae network are destroyed by tillage and the application of high-analysis synthetic fertilizers, the clay platelets stack tightly together and the soil becomes compacted and waterlogged.

Many aerobic organisms, from worms down to friendly bacteria, cannot tolerate tight soggy soil, leaving growers on their own to deal with the stuck-together clay platelets. Tillage fluffs up such soil only temporarily, as any owner of a rototiller who then uses chemical fertilizers will verify.

The trend toward no-till agriculture makes very good sense from the standpoint of preserving and encouraging the underground community of microbial organisms (along with earthworms). Also, compost or shredded crop residues should be scratched lightly into the soil surface and only "gentle" lower-analysis, timed-release fertilizers should be applied.

Step lightly - there are valuable little critters under your foot!

Cheers, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

And the Desert Shall Bloom...

As a companion piece to my earlier article about mycorrhizal fungi, tomatoes and salty beach sand, an agricultural advisor who lives near Yuma, Arizona, told me an interesting story about creating cropland from desert sand.

A farmer in his area set out to create a large field of alfalfa to be watered by circle irrigation - a long motorized pivoting pipe. The area to be converted was basically pure sand with a few widely scattered greasewood bushes.

Growing conditions were not the best that first season - there were some water supply problems, the seeding was not done quite early enough, etc., so the alfalfa didn't perform well...except in a few spots where the difference was obvious from a quarter-mile away. In those spots, the plants were tall and beautiful compared to the rest of the new field.

This was puzzling until my friend, who had been involved with conversion of desert into cropland during Egypt's "Green Revolution", pointed out that the good-growth spots were where the greasewood bushes had been located.

His analysis, which I agree with, was that there had been mycorrhizal fungi and beneficial bacteria colonizing the greasewood roots and that dormant spores in those spots were activated by the exudates from the alfalfa roots. 

The alfalfa plants that had been lucky enough to gain the symbiotic assist of these powerful biological agents thrived under the extremely difficult growing conditions, while those that lacked the nutrient-uptaking fungi had trouble even surviving.

Using this observation, it seems to me that any desert conversion project might benefit from dusting mycorrhizal spores on the roots of transplants, or by simply adding spores to seed coatings. 

Of course, the ideal approach would be to use the fungi types that are best adapted to the local plant/soil/climate conditions. (There is often more than one type colonizing a plant's root system, perhaps performing differing functions for their host plants?). I would wager that excellent candidates for controlled propagation could be easily found by digging up roots of the nearest greasewood, cactus, or acacia tree. 

Two related ideas: The mycorrhizal fungi are not as plant-specific as many people seem to think - they seem to attach quite happily to nearly any new roots that come nearby - and the mature fungi spores are extremely durable. One microbioogist told me he thought some spores from inside the pyramids would probably still activate with exposure to root exudates.

These are some very determined (and useful) survivalist organisms, folks!

Good growing to you, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Lessons from the Garden ... Again!

For those of you who have been reading these newsletters for a while, you know that I often use my vegetable garden as an example of biological growing methods.

Several years ago, when I first began experimenting with mycorrhizal fungi, I stopped my old ways of rototilling and putting synthetic fertilizer in the soil every spring, with added sidedressings and cultivation during the season. While this routine served me reasonably well for more than 45 years, my research into beneficial microbial organisms indicated that tillage and abnormally high fertility are harmful to mycorrhizal fungi.

Having an ultra-productive vegetable garden that is based on biological, rather than chemical, principles has now become such a routine thing to me that I hardly take notice of the big yields except when a neighbor visits and makes a fuss over the plants. "What fertilizer are you using?" is their usual question.

I've gotten used to seeing their puzzled looks when I explain that I never dig the soil and use hardly any fertilizer - just a very light scattering of compost, dry fish pellets and some volcanic trace minerals scratched into the top couple inches of soil early in the spring.

I think the most important lessons I've learned from my garden are:

  1. 1. Tillage, especially "fluffing up" clay soils with rototilling, is counter-productive. It makes the beds nice and loose for a few days, but if there is limited biological activity in the soil, they quickly revert to a hard-packed condition. I've found that the no-till concept - just lightly scratching nutritional materials into the surface - is gentler on the valuable living organisms that keep the soil loose without human help.
  2. 2. Replicating nature's own "from the top down" method of replenishing nutrients works better than blending fertilizer deeper into the root zone. Artificially enriching the soil several inches deep might seem helpful to plants, but letting earthworms, bacteria and fungi do the job of transporting the nutrients down lower in the soil seems to be the better strategy.
  3. 3. The amounts of fertilizer commonly recommended by manufacturers and "soil experts" are excessive and harmful to beneficial soil organisms. Small amounts of slow-release materials that contain a very broad spectrum of major, minor, and trace elements are preferable when following a biological approach to growing plants.
  4. A covering layer of mulch conserves moisture and discourages weeds. This step completes all my fertilizing and cultivating for the whole season. Almost too easy!

Some of these same procedures are catching on in agriculture - especially no-till or limited-till, although from what I read, the practitioners are mostly unaware of the biological reason these methods work so well. They are unintentionally encouraging beneficial organisms!

But we must always keep in mind that it is a mistake to think of gardens as just little farms, or of farms as just big gardens. The differing scale of operations call for differing methods, plus farms have profit considerations which are absent from home gardens.

However, both gardens and farms can benefit greatly from the "cheap and clean" low-input assistance of living soil organisms, and I think there is a role-reversal of sorts happening as ag researchers look at successful biology-based gardens for new ideas.

Motto for the day: Take care of your fungi, and they will take care of you.

Cheers, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

Saving Our Valuable Croplands...While We Still Can

I've just finished reading about inoculating wheat seed in some Nebraska test plots with mycorrhizal spores. A very small amount of inoculant produced good yield increases over comparable control plots during a drought year.

The results came as no surprise to me - most areas of the midwest have been so intensely tilled and synthetically fertilized that the once-abundant beneficial bio-life in the soil has been nearly eliminated. Restoring these important biological elements to plant root systems almost has to produce observable benefits.

I think it is inevitable that soil scientists will all someday come around to the realization that soil biology is at least as important to plant performance as are NPK levels, and I'd make a strong argument that the microbial life in crop soils is actually far more important.

In general, most of us have trouble really and truly grasping big abstract ideas such as "sustainable agriculture". Such long-term concepts, no matter how important, always tend to get overshadowed by immediate issues. (It's hard to remember that your game plan was to drain the swamp when you're up to your rear in alligators!)

If a soil sample shows that the soil pH is on the low side, or so many units of N per acre has always produced good yields in the past, then it would be the rare modern farmer who hesitates to use the recommended chemical inputs for each season's plantings. I would wager that not one out of a thousand of them thinks about harmful effects on soil biology.

At a glacial rate of progress, this may be changing. The USDA is actually beginning to notice that soil problems may be linked to the destruction of beneficial organisms. True!

To quote from an ARS News Service release, "When you think of endangered species, you never think of soil fungi. Yet the fungi that make plants hardier have had their numbers greatly reduced by the intensive agriculture practiced in the United States since the 1950s. Agricultural Research Service scientists are trying to figure out how to put these beneficial soil fungi back, as farmers make the transition to using less chemicals... Farmers today have to rely on whichever of these native fungi survived years of chemical use…"

I don't know whether to feel good or feel nervous when government bureaucrats agree with me, but even if this idea goes nowhere fast within the USDA, as I would expect, someone there seems to be actually concerned about restoring soil fungi. If interested, you can read more about this research at http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/may01/fungi0501.htm

As I mentioned in an earlier newletter, an internationally-respected soil scientist told me that he was worried that massive crop failures in the U. S. would begin occurring by the year 2025, if not sooner. He felt that our rich soils were being burned out by too much nitrogen fertilizer in a push for higher and higher annual yields. His theory was that there are very specific critical lines in soil for such things as living organisms, trace elements, and humic matter. Above the lines, plants will survive and below them they cannot. Consequently, he thinks there will probably be sudden dropoffs from one season to the next, rather than gradual yield declines, as lines are crossed.

Now, I'm not saying he's right and I'm not saying he's wrong. Time will tell. I will say that his dire prediction does tie into the USDA idea that we are not taking very good care of our precious food-producing resource - soil. As we kill off its bio-life, soil becomes compacted and salt levels increase, eventually leading to decreased yields if not sudden disasters.

I hope there will be many more soil scientists conducting in-field trials involving biological methods. I would think there is greater potential value to be found there than comparing the effects of one NPK fertilizer to another. If any of you are aware of such bio-trials, please let me know. (I'm aware that there are thousands of lab test results available, and they are useful, but I'm far more interested in learning about real-world applications.)

Cheers,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.

The Inoculation Didn't Work - Why not?

We occasionally receive word from a customer that our inoculant failed to develop any infectivity on plant roots in trials, usually in nursery situations. When dealing with living organisms, it can be difficult to specifically determine why the fungi perform so well in one situation and not in another, but there are some "usual suspects" to consider.

Here are are the primary reasons why inoculations fail:

  1. Improper potting mixes. Easily the leading reason. The mycorrhizal fungi are adapted to earth-type soils, not to partially-composted wood. Even kitty litter or pure sand would be better for fungi than bark or sawdust-based media, some of which retain fungicidal qualities. A wood-products growing medium might work for chemistry-based growing methods, but is not a good choice for biology-based methods. This, of course, pertains to plants being propagated in nurseries. The blend of species in our products should be suited to nearly any in-ground planting situation, and we see fewer performance problems in fields.
  2. Over-fertilization and over-watering. Nurseries in particular are reluctant to change any of their traditional routines and often try to use our inoculants as "add-ons" to their regular chemistry-based procedures. The effects of the beneficial fungi will diminish as soil fertility (especially the presence of P) increases. The fungi perform best in low-fertility soil, at least what we humans consider low-fertility. In natural settings, plant nutrients come from decomposed leaf litter, bird droppings, and microbial conversion of mineral elements. Drenching seedlings with liquid fast-acting fertilizer can make the soil unsuited to biological elements. Actually, the most powerful biostimulant in the world is a "help!" signal to the fungi from the roots of a stressed plant. The fungi "go into a higher gear" when a plant's root exudates signal that it is stressed, either from lack of water, lack of some necessary nutrient, or pathogen attack. A nursery that puts inoculan spores in a proper low-fertility potting mix and then briefly withholds water from sprouted seedlings will see great results fairly quickly - but how many would dare do this?
  3. Incorrect species of fungi for the particular plant/soil situation. Some types of fungi will do well in a given environment while others will fail. Experimentation by the grower is the only real way to find the best inoculant to use in their particular soil. (We have 15 different types of Endo and Ecto fungi spores in our Landscape Inoculant, but a rare situation might need #16.)
  4. Inadequate application dosages. With eight types of AM fungi in our blends, a given dosage per crop plant might call for a minimum of 25-50 spores to ensure that at least a few of the right type are included in each dose. I know for a fact that many laboratory researchers apply as many as 500-1000 spores per plant when conducting their studies, which would be economically impossible for real-world growers to duplicate.
  5. Poor inoculant. Hopefully, never ours, but as more supplier companies enter the marketplace, there will predictably be a very wide range of quality between inoculants. I suggest a careful reading of the labels. What species are included - just the easy-to-propagate Glomus intraradices or several other types? (Multiple species improve the odds of infectivity.) What is the guaranteed spore count, and does the count refer to only Endo-types or is it inflated with inexpensive Ecto types? Is the specific word "spores" used, or do you see the word "propagules"? Endo spores are relatively expensive and very durable, while propagules are generally nothing more than shorter-lived hyphae fragments. (We do not even count the many thousands of hyphae pieces in our products.)

I could probably come up with more possibilities, but the above - individually or in some combination - are the most likely reason(s) why a grower might have problems getting the fungi to perform.

There can be a huge potential benefit in growing plants with the powerful mycorrhizal fungi on the root systems, both for nursery propagation and after outplanting. The nurseries, farmers, landscapers, and soil reclamation people who manage to figure out how to create hospitible soil environments for the fungi will be well rewarded. We'll do our best to help them.

Happy Holidays, my friends.

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics, Inc.