The Fuss About Fungi

Friends. The time has come. Let’s talk about fungi.

You see the mushrooms all over your yard, especially this time of year. You’re wondering if that one is poisonous, if you should pull the other one, if you should be worried about their gooey, decomposing remains.

Long story short, don’t worry.

Mushrooms indicate a healthy soil; They’re a sign of decomposition and proper nutrient cycling. Mushrooms and the fungal organism they’re a part of have been doing their ecological job before plants could even reach a meter tall, approximately 450 million years ago. The claim of fungi to the soil is ancient, their presence is necessary. As the caretaker of your land, here are 10 things you should consider before you spray.

1) You are wasting money fighting mushrooms because the mushrooms you see are literally just the tip of the iceberg. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the fungal organism located under the soil, called mycelium (mY - seal - lee - um),  (Ingham, Soil Fungi). When the fungal organism, or mycelium, is ready to reproduce, up pops the mushroom poofing countless spores into the air. You’re outnumbered by fungi.

2)  9 out of 10 plants in your garden are currently working in a mutually beneficial partnership with various kinds of fungal organisms, (Hoorman, 2016). Your plants are exchanging photosynthetic sugars for hard to find nutrients in a symbiotic relationship with a specific category of fungi called mycorrhizae, which literally translates from Latin as “fungi - root”. Together plant and fungi do what neither can do on its own.  

3) Fungi holds soil together in ways plants simply cannot. For any one patch of mushrooms you stand next to and consider spraying, there are miles and miles of mycelium under your foot, criss - crossing over and through itself. Imagine you have some construction paper and you’ve used liquid glue to draw plant on the paper. You sprinkle glitter on the paper, lift the paper up, and only the glitter sticking to the glue remains on the paper while the rest falls to the table ; The glue is the mycelium and the glitter is soil. The less glue you have, the less glitter you have, and where’s the fun in that?

4) In its thorough netting of the soil, mycelium are able uptake the maximum amount of soil nutrients. In fact, fungi are sooooo good at mining the soil for nutrients that familiar names, like our local Paul Stamets, have been working on inoculating bags of sawdust with mushroom spawn to sponge and filter off agricultural and industrial waste streams (TED, 2008). The process of using nature to clean up nature using nature is called bioremediation, and when we use fungi, it’s called mycoremediation. Taking this a step further is the mushroom death suit designed to use mushrooms to decompose our bodies, as humans are jam-packed with harmful chemicals which either goes into the soil, are released into the atmosphere, or become preserved in embalming fluid (TED, 2008). Mycelium sponge up soil nutrients, keeping the nutrients in reach of the plants you love.

5) Have you put wood chips onto your beds? Thought the organic matter would do the soil good? Well, you’re right, and the subsequent mushrooms are part of the deal. Fungi are decomposers, that’s what they do. Decomposition time depends on the type of tree wood, the environment and weather the trees falls down into, and the ingestion rate of the decomposers who eat the wood. Trees get their hardened shape from lignin and complex sugars called cellulose - these compounds allow trees to stand tall in adverse weather. Fungi simply love the lignin and cellulose. Speaking very broadly - decomposition turns the nutrients from a wooden form to a liquid form, and plants can only take up nutrients in a liquid form.

6) There are three easy ways to take the nutrients trapped in wood and place them elsewhere : Burning, weathering, and fungi. Burning wood is sort of a loss as most of what’s in the wood is released as smoke ; Weathering helps make nutrients available, but in fits and phases ; Fungi, however, can deposit nutrients into the soil for immediate use in a more regular cycle. And, if said fungi is mycorrhizal (see point #2), then the nutrients from a decomposing tree can be put directly into the roots of the plant next door.  

7) Not all fungi are created equally.  Verticillium wilt? Phytophthora? These are two very common problem fungi which feed on many of the plants we know and love. And when our lovely tomatoes or beautiful heaths are under siege from these problem fungi, their associated mycorrhizae will send out antibodies to combat the infection ; The same way we rely on fungal based antibiotics to combat our infections, plants rely on their mycorrhizae to keep them from getting sick [TED, 2008).

8) Carbon sequestration is the process of mining carbon from the air and putting it into a fixed or stable form, either into something living, or into the soil. Trees take carbon out of the air through their leaves and fix it into their woody bodies and roots. When we burn trees we release pounds and pounds of carbon back into the air, meaning we didn’t really clean up the air at all. The long term solution to keeping the excess carbon out of the air is to store it underground via natural cycles, which fungi are a part of.

9) Decomposition is a process involving multitudes of organisms, fungi included. There comes a point, however, when chains of molecules simply cannot break down anymore, and when that happens we call the resulting material humus (hue-muhs). Humus is gold - it has a similar effect on plants as the best fertilizers money can buy, and will receive its own synopsis later. When humus is present in the soil, the soil becomes supercharged. It is nature’s fertilizer, providing hyperconcentrated amounts of nutrients. And when the soil becomes recharded with nutrient rich compounds, it becomes rejuvenated. And soil rejuvenation, AKA, soil restoration,  is what the whole “sustainable movement” is all about. It all goes back to soil health, which fungal bodies have a critical role in.

10) Fungi is being further researched for industrial applications. Everything from turning rice husks into delicious edible mushrooms in an effort to mitigate climate change (TED, 2015), to pairing the mycorrhizae which evolved in hot, desert climates to plants we all know and love as a way of climate change adaptation (TED, 2017). Paul Stamets, mentioned earlier, has reinvisioned the application of pest eating fungi to the pesticide industry ; Imagine, instead of harmful chemicals in the home and soil, we instead just feed the pests to mushrooms (Ted, 2008).  Everything from the domestic to the industrial, fungi is proving more and more important to the survival of our species.

So what do you think? Is it worth it to yank the mushroom out of the ground? Do you still want to spray pesticides? The science is very clear : mushrooms are integral to proper soil functioning and good soil health. They perform more for the soil than money can put a price on. More importantly, fungi is here to stay. So why not work with fungi to grow healthier, hardier plants, and restore some soil health while you’re at it? The results could be delicious, especially with the addition of some edible mushroom logs to supply you year after year with yummy goodness.

We at E-Z BioFriendly Gardens and Landscapes help fellow humans work with nature by educating our clients so that they can live in an affordable harmony with the landscapes they exist in. We are on a rescue mission to save our clients, and the world, from the dangers of and expensive mistakes of ignorance because we believe that knowledge belongs to the commons and together we can make this world a little bit greener, one yard at a time.

BIBLIOGRAPHY :

Eng, Karen Frances. “Straw into Gold: A TED Fellow Cultivates Mushrooms to Fight Climate Change.” TED Blog, TED, 24 Apr. 2015, blog.ted.com/straw-into-gold-a-ted-fellow-cultivates-mushrooms-to-fight-climate-change/.

Hoorman, James J. “Ohioline.” Role of Soil Fungus, 7 June 2016, ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/anr-37.

Ingham, Eliane R. “ Soil Fungi - The Living Soil.” NRCS, Oregon State University, 2014, extension.illinois.edu/soil/SoilBiology/fungi.htm.

Schenkman, Lauren. “The Surprising Plant-Fungi Relationship That Could Help Feed Us, Even as the World Heats Up.” Ideas.ted.com, TED, 9 Aug. 2017, ideas.ted.com/the-surprising-plant-fungi-relationship-that-could-help-feed-us-even-as-the-world-heats-up/.

Stamets, Paul. 6 Ways Mushrooms Can Change the World. TED, 2008.