Beneficial Fungus, Really?

Posted on Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

When a gardener hears the word fungus, their first instinct is to head to the shed and collect a sprayer with an all-purpose fungicide product to quickly get a hold of the problem. Did you know that for hundreds of millions of years, a symbiotic relationship has existed between Mycorrhizal fungi and plant roots? It’s true! These are beneficial fungus and soil organisms that are found naturally in healthy soil. The fungus attaches to root hairs and colonizes the roots. The outcome is that roots benefit from the increased uptake of water and nutrients from the enlarged root system. It is estimated that a plant’s root mass may increase by 10 to 1000 times! Imagine how much healthier a plant is by having that much greater a root mass.

Why would this be important, you wonder, in a time when we have all the fertilizers, soil amendments and rooting hormones possible to supplement plantings and gardens? Man-made landscapes and elements can cause great detriment to natural fungi. Developed sites with concrete, asphalt, drainage fields, large cleared and machine graded and bulldozed areas are particularly stressful and manage to kill most of the beneficial fungi that would otherwise be in the soil. Compaction, erosion and topsoil loss result in the loss of natural organic material in soil making it hard for mycorrhizae to stay viable. Artificial landscapes present their detriment in a couple of ways as well. First by isolating the plant from beneficial mycorrhizae which is found in natural settings and second by increasing the plant’s stress and need for water, nutrients and soil structure which are naturally provided by the fungi in soil.

For about a decade, mycorrhizae have been in commercial production. This has led to great advances in the ability to begin rebuilding the natural soil elements that have existed for millions of years. The result is healthier, more vigorous, pest and disease resistant plants, shrubs, trees, flowers, veggies and turf. I began reaping the benefits of natural mycorrhizae supplements in 2005 when I first discovered the product. Since then, I have noted and recorded profound success in the greater portion of all of the plantings which have received the supplement. Besides having very little plant loss due to death or decline, the best attribute that I can tout is the lower water need for all of the plants treated. During summers when Georgia fought extreme drought and heat, the inoculated plant’s irrigation requirements were next to none. Not only have these landscapes survived and pulled through years of drought and heat, but they are thriving! Now with the extended periods of rain which have come over the past couple of seasons, they are also hardier to withstand root rot, pest and disease infestations.

I can also speak to the benefits of this added soil partner as it relates to inoculating existing trees and shrubs which are exhibiting symptoms of stress and decline in artificial landscape settings. New home or landscape construction sites are a prime example of where to consider investing in the inoculation of the plants. First picked up on largely by arborists and tree care specialists, deep root injections of the mycorrhizae have played a beneficial role in stress recovery in trees and plantings on these sites. Here are a few cited examples of improvement in various species which have been recovered by injections of the proper kind of soil fungi. Cryoptomeria trees planted on a new home site in a large, graded backyard landscape setting were experiencing tip decline and were exhibiting poor growth and color, interior die-back and general ill health. Once injected, within a few months these trees made fast-noticed recovery, flushing new interior and tip foliage and the color was restored to a lush, vibrant green. Another example has been noticed in American boxwood shrubs. These shrubs can be very hardy and long-lived in the landscape, but are susceptible to a vast amount of harmful fungus and insect pests. When injected, poorly growing, discolored and infected plants begin to turn around and show signs of immediate improvement. Seasons later, with the healthier and more vigorous root system, these plants have been much more resistant to environmental stresses than ones which have not been treated. A final example is one most people can relate to having observed the symptoms. Old oak trees on a property were showing a sign of stress and dieback since a new driveway was constructed through the root zone 5-6 years prior and there was little hope for survival, though without the trees, the yard and nearby house would be barren and hot. The dilemma was to decide whether there was enough value in these trees to inoculate or if it would be better to remove them and start with new, grossly smaller trees. We inoculated during the autumn and by the following spring season; these trees were flushing tip buds on branches that were believed to be dead! With specialized pruning done to remove dead branches, these trees went from the neighborhood hazard and eyesore to being the talk of the town about their success.

You can have the same results! In order to deep root inject, or even to install new landscaping with mycorrhizae supplements, it’s necessary to find a landscaper or arborist who is keen and knowledgeable about the use of different varieties of mycorrhizae as not each strain of fungi works the same for each plant’s needs. Not all modes of transportation into the root zone are effective for each type of plant, either. It is ideal to work with service providers who understand the relationship and importance of supplementing artificial landscapes with natural fungi to improve growing conditions and begin restoring the natural soil structure that nature intended. Regular use of synthetic fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers as well as over-tillage, leaving soil bare and invasion of non-native species can cause detriment to naturally occurring soil organisms. These soil organisms will thrive when provided with organic matter and nutrients as will your plants! There is an enormous amount of information that you can learn about the science, history and future of Mycor. Now that your interests are peaked, dig in and do more research. There are millions of years of evidence of benefit to support the claims in this article. If you are interested in developing a hardy, sustainable landscape and garden, I encourage you to learn and find out how you can inoculate! Your plants will thank you.