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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.

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