During the summer months, you do everything you can to make your garden grow spectacularly. You check your soil to make sure it's full of all the right nutrients. You feed your plants regularly and provide them with plenty of water. What you probably don't realize is that some of these chores may actually be damaging the other lifeforms living in your soil. At this very moment, mycorrhizal fungi could be in your garden helping your plants thrive, but not if you’re destroying their colonies.
Mycorrhizae: The Fungi You Want
Mycorrhizae is not actually a single type of fungus but a term used to describe several species that form symbiotic relationships with garden plants by growing alongside their root systems. You may have noticed some particularly stringy-looking roots before and written them off as part of the root ball, but these strands are actually hyphae. These filaments effectively work as extensions of a plant's roots and provide the plant itself with more nutrients and moisture from the soil. Thanks to fungi and their hyphae, root systems' reaches are extended by about 200 times and can absorb 100 times the amount of nutrients they would be able to on their own. Beneficial fungi also produce a glue-like substance called glomalin that acts as a stabilizer by keeping soil compact without restricting the flow of air and water through it.
It's important to remember that mycorrhizae do not benefit some plants, such as beets and leafy greens. On the other hand, trees, rose bushes, shrubs, and crops like tomatoes and corn respond very well to these partnerships.
Sounds Great for the Plant, Right?
You may be wondering why these fungi choose to pair with garden plants. Simply put, it's because they're getting fed. Mycorrhizal fungi are unable to photosynthesize their own sustenance and must help plants absorb nutrients and water if they are to ensure their own survival. The more the plants thrive, the more the fungi gets to eat. After all, symbiotic relationships are by definition beneficial to both species involved.
Of course, these helpful organisms will give your plants much more than just increased nutrient uptake. For starters, the hyphae's long grasp allows roots to reach down into deeper soil and will help your plants stay healthy in times of drought. Fungi can also increase plants' stress tolerances and their immunity to some common diseases. Mycorrhizae will especially benefit your seedlings, transplants, and cuttings by growing strong root systems for them and establishing them in the soil much more quickly than usual. Plus, you'll reap the benefit of bigger and better yields all across your garden.
Stop Killing Your Mycorrhizae
So long as you're not using a sterile potting soil, it's possible that some of these beneficial fungi are already living in your garden. Unfortunately, there are a few common landscaping duties that can have disastrous consequences for their colonies. Stop over-tilling your soil. If you till on a yearly basis, you’re almost surely breaking up any hyphal connections that might have been growing in the ground. Using too much phosphate fertilizer will significantly weaken mycorrhizae, while clear plastic weed or pest barriers and overwatering will cause them to die off. Finally, you'll want to be careful about mixing organic material into your garden. Some natural products can be good for the fungi, but they're best left in the topmost layers of soil.
Replenishing Mycorrhizal Fungi Populations
Even if you've already killed off your garden's fungal population, it's not too late to get it back. There are many ways to promote the growth of new colonies. The first step is to stop doing the things that got rid of them in the first place. Then, you’ll want to invest in some commercial amendments that contain multiple species of mycorrhizae in them and reintroduce them into your soil.
This is one beneficial relationship you can’t afford to miss out on. Once you've successfully restored your garden's mycorrhizal communities, your plants will thank you with a bountiful harvest that is sure to last all summer long.