Summer is here and the plants are probably starting to feel the effects of the heat. If you’re a gardener, you are probably trying to figure out what you need to add to make your garden grow best. What if I told you that there is a new garden supplement that will deliver exactly the nutrients your plants need directly to its roots? What if I told you that it would go out and find those nutrients, stripping them off solid rock if necessary, just so it can deliver them to your plants? Sound too good to be true?
But wait, there’s more! It will also find all available water, increasing your plants’ drought tolerance. It will increase your plants’ resistance to disease and pests. It will make your plants grow faster and be more productive. It will break down organic matter and improve your soil.
Okay, I lied. It isn’t new. It is called “mycorrhizal fungus,” and some scientists think it has been around for billions of years. Mycorrhizal fungus is a general term for fungi that make their living by forming a mutualistic relationship with plants. A plant provides sugar to the fungus, while the fungus delivers nutrients and water to the plant roots. Around 90% of all plants have evolved to have this relationship with the soil-borne fungi, including nearly all of our cultivated plants.
Scientists decided to test how strong this relationship was. They went out into the forest and were able to find two trees, one deciduous and one conifer, that shared a relationship with the same fungal individual. They tented both trees. The first tree got a black plastic tent, the very definition of “stress” for an organism that needs light to live. The second tree got a clear plastic tent that was filled with a special isotope of carbon dioxide. When they came back and tested the leaves of the tree under the black plastic tent, they found that it contained significant quantities of the special isotope. The only possible way this could have happened is if the fungus was taking the sugar it was receiving from the healthy tree and feeding it to the stressed tree to try to keep it alive.
Clearly, the relationship between the fungi and the plants is strong — the fungi do everything they can to keep the plants alive and healthy.
There are two things to remember about growing a mycorrhizal fungus in your garden: The first is that it grows best in soil with lots of organic matter. Generous applications of compost and mulch will go a long ways towards keeping your fungus happy and healthy — and, as an added bonus, it will also improve your soil. The second thing to remember is that your fungus is a long-lived multi-cellular organism that lives in the soil. Tilling your soil will kill it. It will come back year after year if you don’t till. If you must till, just reapply every year.
The benefit to your plants is pretty incredible. By getting all of the nutrients they need (assuming the nutrients are in the soil in the first place), your plants will grow big and healthy. They will produce more fruits and vegetables and be more resistant to pests and diseases. Why reinvent the wheel when nature has already provided the solution?