This article is designed to be a primer centered around the topic of Mycorrhizae and their interactions with plants.
The question and answer format will help you learn how life in the soil benefits your plants health and how to increase the presence of mycorrhizae and other beneficial life in your soil. This will allow you to harvest the best possible crops whether it be in your home garden or on a larger scale such as an orchard or field.
In modern society we are generally taught to stay away from bacteria, fungi and other microbes and tend towards sterile environments or ones with little diversity. In reality these little creatures are an essential part of any natural ecosystem and are necessary to grow the best plants. The most abundant and resilient farming systems have soil health at their core, a large component of which is soil life. The important types of soil life are almost too numerous to count but a certain group of fungi, the Mycorrhizae, have been well studied and linked to increased plan growth, vigour and health.
What are Mycorrhizae?
Mycorrhizae are types of soil fungi that live in a mutually beneficial symbiosis with plants. They grow in, on and around the roots of plants helping the plant to get more out of the soil. They help make the root zone of the plant as beneficial as possible.
How does it Help?
Mycorrhizae essentially increase the surface area available to the plants roots, acting as little networks of root extensions. This allows for the plant to be able to reach more nutrients and minerals more efficiently than it could on its own. The plant feeds the mycorrhizae extra sugars it produces and in turn the mycorrhizae brings in water, nutrients and minerals the plant needs. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement that has had hundreds of millions of years in the making. Many plants still grow without mycorrhizae but not as well or as quickly as they would with it.
On top of being able to grow faster and larger with an extended and enhanced root system, there are many other benefits to mycorrhizae in the soil. Having a healthy population of good microfauna can help ward off certain diseases like ones caused by unwanted fungi or bacteria. The enhanced root system can also grow deeper and hold more water within itself, making any crop more drought tolerant. There is also a measurable benefit to larger root systems aerating and putting more carbon into the soil, help to build it up and make it more suitable for life of all sorts. Unfortunately many soils are depleted of mycorrhizae and other life for various reasons.
What can cause a loss of Mycorrhizae?
The leading causes of loss of mycorrhizae are harsh agricultural practices. Certain crop sprays like pesticides and fungicides can kill mycorrhizae or prevent them from growing back properly. Other disruptive practices like deep tilling, burning, and leaving soil bare can also greatly affect the life in soil, including the mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi normally exist in undisturbed and naturally mulched soils so when they are churned or baked in the sun, they do not fair well. Mimicking the best conditions is the easiest way to promote healthy mycorrhizal fungi populations.
Building Mycorrhizal populations
While properly managed soils should in theory recolonize with microfauna over time, the turn-around time is on the scale of years if not decades. One of the best, and quickest, ways to jump start your soils health and biodiversity, especially if it is degraded or damaged, is to add an inoculant like MycoGold by Biostim ( https://biostim.com.au/shop/myco-gold/) . Inoculants contain beneficial types of Mycorrhizal fungi and some of the best, like MycoGold, contain other beneficial microorganisms too. Inoculants are an easy and cost effective way to make sure your plants or crop are starting out with the microbiome they need to flourish.
Other Factors affecting Soil Health
Soils of all types can support healthy life of some sort but certain factors affect how well microbes and mycorrhizal fungi can grow and support your plants. Below are some other factors to consider in building and maintaining healthy soil microfauna.
Moisture/Sun Exposure- While dry soils can have lots of dormant microbes in them that will spring to life when water comes, a steady source moisture is required to keep them active and thriving. Making sure your soil doesn’t bake in the sun or dry out for prolonged periods of time can help keep it healthy. A great way to do this is to never leave the soil bare, whether it is seeded with a cover crop or mulched heavily, shading the soil and preventing it from drying is essential to healthy soil life.
Drainage/Aeration-While moisture is important it is also important that the soil does not become waterlogged or compacted. The best way to ensure this is to have an inorganic component like sand in your soil.
Organic Matter- Organic matter acts like a sponge, helping hold moisture in the soil near to the surface where the soil life can get it. As discussed above, having moisture readily available has a large impact on soil life.
Mineral Content-While organic matter is great, soils that are completely organic matter, such as pure black top soil, can sometimes be mineral deficient. This can not only affect the health of your plants directly but also through the soil life. Little microbes and fungi need minerals too! They can be the first one to feel deficiencies as they are competing with the plants for them in a way. This is why adding things like rock dust, crushed shale, or even sand can help boost the life in your soil. These soil additives will give back two-fold. Indirectly though better capacity for soil life and directly through uptake into the plants.
A Cyclical System
Having healthy soil life, like a strong mycorrhizae population, not only helps with your current growing but for several crops or plantings to come. When the soil is alive and healthy, it is essentially growing, getting better and more plant friendly as time goes on. The actual lifetime of the full effect of an application of a soil inoculant may vary based on several of the factors discussed above. However, meeting the guidelines for health soil and promoting healthy soil life can help the effect last for years, theoretically forever in a cyclical process of regenerating the soil.