by Shirley McClelland
I have been an organic gardener for many years. In the past I enjoyed selling produce at our local farmer’s market.
A while ago I reacted with surprise and dismay when I read an article in Horticulture magazine, “Fantastic Fungi”, by Peter Garnham. In it I learned that I have been committing microbial murder! Although I was aware that the soil life to sustain my plants depends upon bacteria, earthworms and beneficial nematodes, I never gave much thought to fungi. It turns out that fungi are the main decomposers of organic matter, thus hugely important to all of us that choose to “go organic”! It is only after fantastic fungi have done their work can bacteria come in and break down organic material to a form that plants can use.
Here is how fungi help plants: microscopically small filaments of fungi called hyphae travel long distances in an endless search for nutrients. These nutrients include iron, copper, phosphorus, zinc and nitrogen. Each hypha is a tube, and a bundle of them are called mycelium. When enough hyphae are brought together they become visible. Maybe you have seen their white strands in mulch or decaying leaves? A single TEASPOON of healthy soil can contain many yards of hyphae! Plants depend on these hyphae to bring water and nutrients, often from far away, to their roots. Fungal hyphae can travel farther and faster through the soil than the plants own roots. They nose snakelike in search of nutrients, which they pump back and either store until the plant needs them or until the fungi die and decay. In a natural death, the hyphae continue to help as they release stored nutrients and the tunnels they carved become conduits for beneficial bacteria, water and air.
As a rule of thumb, annual plants do best in soil with a predominance of bacteria, and perennials, including shrubs and trees, strongly prefer fungi dominated soil. The first and most important step to achieve this balance is to stop behaving like a mass murderer! For me this required a radical change: no more rototilling. None, ever. A single pass kills quadrillions of bacteria and chops and destroys thousands of MILES of fungal mycelia. And no more “double digging”, which can be just as bad! I didn’t use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, or pesticides which also slaughter soil life, but I was guilty of the mass destruction of fungi and bacteria through my cultivation practices.
So last year I made the change to a kinder, gentler type of gardening. Every fall we cover the whole garden with several inches of straw and horse manure, a gift from our 12 horses. I allow it to overwinter and in the spring I simply use a pointed hoe to make furrows for seeding, or a trowel to dig a small hole to transplant into. Once the plants are established, it’s a simple matter to add to the mulch layer with clean straw or grass clippings.
It was easy and I think very successful. The plants were healthy, unaffected by dry spells, and it seemed there were less bugs! It was so much less work! I encourage you to try it! The only drawback was that weeds that escaped removal were monstrous and healthy as well, but I turn a kind and blind eye to weeds, as they are often just plants in the wrong place, and many are delicious edibles as well!