During my school days in the 1970s, while traipsing through the pastures of southwest Florida looking for shrooms sprouting from cow pies, I became enamored with the beauty of the Great Cypress Swamp. Although we charitably described this soggy slough as our forest playground, the moist dispositions of these environments form much of the foundation for our existence. Understanding the rotting cycle of these ecosystems set my life’s path on the course I am still following today. Luckily, the “magic” mushrooms of our quests were discernible from the dozens of other fungal fruiting bodies frequenting this primordial landscape. (Note: Eating wild mushrooms can be extremely risky!)
Anyone’s natural reaction to quantities of refuse in full decomposition elicits a valuable repulsion. Knowing that decay always surrounds us makes it easier to wrap our arms around this occasionally unpleasant branch of botany. Of the many unseen organisms in our soils, selfishly decomposing fallen biomass, the mycorrhiza (mi-cor-ri-zie) fungus, work best with our growing crops in productive alliances. We can even encourage this symbiotic relationship in our landscapes and gardens to work to our advantage.
As our soils mature, a series of composting species evolve populations. Many agricultural practices can destroy this progression: excessive tilling, applications of caustic chemical herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and long periods of fallow exposure to the sun. New housing on cleared and graded subsoil (sand) may be every builder’s dream but is a growing plant’s worst nightmare. What we can do to promote various soil life forms most simply can be described as organic gardening methods.
We need to recognize the important difference between parasitic and symbiotic relationships. Mycorrhiza fungus under a microscope appears as fine, hair-like strands surrounding the large tubes of plant roots. These strands even penetrate the root cell walls, extending the uptake functions normally reserved to only the extreme root tip. The plant feeds photosynthetic sugars to the fungus and in trade, the mycorrhiza hairs supply mineral and synthesized nutrients. Many vitamins and enzymes are first created in the fungus and then delivered to our diet by way of our crops. Phosphorous from composting sources is obtained primarily from these fungal hairs.
We can assure better plant life energy and nutrition by simply encouraging healthy soil practices. When I hear excuses that plants take up fertilizers, whether chemical salts or natural minerals and compost, the same defense of this web of soil life is the first debate position I choose. The shortsighted chemical route may elicit a harvest this season, but next year, deserted soil may be awaiting our seed.