So, what’s the deal with mycorrhizae? Why did I call it The Grower’s Best Friend (and in some instance, I believe it’s the Farmer’s Life Saver) in my last post? Simple.
My friend Mycorrhizae, which has been around for eons (maybe even right after the first fish found a way to live on land), is one of Mother Nature’s secret to why rainforests are lush, dense, and so full of life even in the absence of the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that modern growers have come to rely on.
As a matter of fact, mycorrhizae have become crucial to the survival of some plant species, especially those that have problems with their root systems. (Problems which may include stunted, thick or underdeveloped roots and therefore, inefficient water or nutrient uptake.)
But first, who (or what?) is this venerable Mycorrhizae?
(Warning: this is a fairly long but very helpful post so I suggest you sit back, put up your feet, and relax while you’re reading.)
Mycorrhizae, the Wonder Microbe
Mycorrhizae get its name from two borrowed words: mycos, which is Greek for “fungus”, and rhiza, which is also a Greek word that stands for “root”.
In it’s literal meaning, mycorrhizae is a root fungus, but in real life it’s more than some anonymous, insignificant microbe living in some anonymous, insignificant plant root.
Mycorrhizae is the mutually beneficial relationship between the fungi and the plant roots—one cannot live robustly well without the other.
Mycorrhizal fungi feed on the carbohydrates (or sugars) and other waste elements excreted by the plant roots. In turn, the fungi become a sort of root extension for the plant. It’s a symbiotic system that ensures vigorous plant growth.
And take this: the mycorrhizae-plant relationship is the rule in nature rather than the exception.
95% of all known plant species—trees (fruiting or otherwise), vegetables, grass, ornamentals—have at least one kind of mycorrhizal fungi colonizing its roots.
Two Types of Mycorrhizae
There are two types of common mycorrhizal fungi: endomycorrhizae and ectomycorrhizae.
Ectomycorrhizae—or ectotrophic mycorrhizae—are mycorrhizal fungi that create a mantle of hyphae around the full root. (The hyphae are the individual fingers of a fungus’ mycelium, which is what branches out into the soil.) Ectomycorrhizae are usually found encasing tree roots like oaks and willows and they’re usually the basis for growing cultured mushrooms.
On the other hand, endotrophic mycorrhizae—or endomycorrhizae, for short—are mycorrhizal fungi that actually penetrate the roots and feeds on sugars and carbohydrates provided by the plant cells.
This seemingly parasitic feeding behavior is actually beneficial to the plants because endomycorrhizae in turn, release mineral elements and nutrients that feed the plants. In most cases, endomycorrhizae act as auxiliary cells or reserve organs of the plant, storing nutrients and water for the plants to use later.
Unlike its ectotrophic siblings (which can be easily obtained from forest breeding grounds), endomycorrhizae are a bit more difficult to get a hold of. Endomycorrhizae reproduce with the help of a host plant so cultivating cultures can be very difficult for the ordinary gardener like you and me.
These days though, commercial availability of mycorrhizal root inoculants like those by AgVerra make professional-grade endomycorrhizae inoculums available not only to large-scale farms, nurseries and greenhouses but also to the average backyard gardener.
Benefits of Using Mycorrhizae
The use of mycorrhizal root inoculums in commercial growing and backyard gardening is fairly new, but some studies, like the one cited by the University of Florida’s extension service, point to the fact that mycorrhizae can yield outstanding results, particularly to fumigated soils.
Fumigated soils are treated with a variety of often-powerful chemicals to destroy particular pests. It’s been known that heavy pesticide use destroys the beneficial flora and fauna in soil that plants depend on, resulting in decreased soil productivity.
In the UF research, plants grown on fumigated soil showed an astounding 2,600% plant growth rate after it’s been inoculated with mycorrhizae. (Imagine that!)
Field experiments on non-fumigated soils, on the other hand, showed a less dramatic response (a 300% growth rate). Even in well-managed commercial environments it is not uncommon to experience 15% to 30% increase in net economic yields.
Still, it doesn’t take away the fact that under normal conditions, mycorrhizae helps your plants grow many times its maximum potential.
In itself, that’s an outstanding result to me. Enough to push me to try out a mycorrhizal input to my own garden beds this growing season.
So, what have I discovered about the benefits of using mycorrhizae in my garden?
Mycorrhizae Enhance Nutrient Recycling
Nutrient recycling is simply the high-falutin’ term that refers to the transfer of nutrients from one organism to another. In this case, from the mycorrhizae to the plants and vice versa.
It’s possible that there’s a nutrient glut in your garden soil but plants are still wilting and dying. That’s because these nutrients may be locked in the soil, unavailable for absorption by the roots. Mycorrhizal fungi help convert both macro and micronutrients so that the plants can take them up.
Soil microbes thrive on the carbohydrates and other exudates excreted by the roots. In return, mycorrhizae feed the plants with essential elements obtained from the soil. Because mycorrhizae mycelia (or the network of hyphae) act as root extenders, plants can explore and rummage for food much, much farther afield than if it relied on the reach of its roots alone.
Mycorrhizae Minimize Fertilizer Use
Since mycorrhizae extend the foraging area for nutrients, they make these same nutrients easily absorbable by plants.
More importantly, mycorrhizae and the mycorrhiza helper bacteria that are generally included in professional grade inoculants optimize the nutrient recycling process so you won’t need to fertilize as often. For example, mycorrhizae work together with the bacteria that help dissolve potassium and they’re also very well known to significantly reduce the amount of phosphate fertilizer required at all stages of growth. Both nutrients have key roles in robust plant growth and fruiting.
Some say inoculating plants with mycorrhizae is like applying a slow-release fertilizer that goes on and on and on. You won’t have to apply fertilizer regularly because the mycorrhizal fungi help plants use the nutrients in the soil better. Because plants can absorb fertilizers better, the extent of runoff is lessened, reducing fertilizer costs significantly.
Mycorrhizae Boost Resistance to Pests and Disease
Plants produce compounds that are necessary for its own defense, known as metabolites, which include terpenes, alkaloids and phenol. To make these substances, they need micronutrients.
Mycorrhizal fungi, as we’ve seen, make micronutrients available to the plants through the host roots. With this steady food supply, plants can produce and secrete the “antibiotics” they need to help suppress disease and tolerate pests better.
Mycorrhizae Influence Plant-Pathogen Interaction
The change in plant-pathogen relationship, on the other hand, is simply a matter of denying bad microbes the fuel that drives their survival: food.
Mycorrhizal microbes have a stake in the robust survival of its plant host. Without the plant, the mycorrhizae won’t exist.
What mycorrhizae do is to colonize plant roots as rapidly as possible, and they win the competition for food against bad microbes simply by dominating the available space and capturing the available food first.
Mycorrhizae Reduce Vulnerability to Environmental Stress
Drought and metals in the soil are just two of the stressors that plague plant survival and growth.
We know that mycorrhizal mycelia extend the plant’s forage area. What you might not be aware of is that they also improve the overall ability of the soil to retain moisture as well as help roots dig deeper into the soil (where water is more available) so that plants have ready access to water.
The secret? The vast network of hyphae—the mycorrhizae mycelia—actually stores water and nutrients. In extreme conditions, like drought for example, the plant survives because it has access to this food reserve. That means lesser worry when you accidentally forget to water your garden beds when you need to.
On the other hand, mycorrhizal root inoculants control the nutrient uptake of plants—what it should and shouldn’t feed on—to ensure that plants don’t take up harmful elements like metals that may threaten their survival. (An extension of protecting the host that ensures their own continued existence.) This ability to block toxins boosts the plant’s health, which provides better tolerance and resistance to pests and diseases.
Mycorrhizae Improve Soil Structure
The burrowing activity of the mycelia-enhanced roots as well as the production of a glycoprotein that form the fine particles of clay into aggregates vastly improves soil friability (or crumbliness).
Better aeration leads to better oxygen circulation in the soil. Oxygen flowing freely in the soil help small and large soil life (fungi and earthworms, to name a few) thrive freely and reproduce quickly. Such rapid colonization triggers, maintains and sustains the soil life that plants depend on for robust growth.
A Safer Earth with Mycorrhizae
What everything that we’ve seen about mycorrhizae so far boils down to a safer Earth…which is why some conventional farmers are already turning to more earth-friendly methods like inoculating their plants with mycorrhizal root inoculants in growing their crops.
Mycorrhizae promote sustainable practices and don’t contribute to pollution. Mycorrhizae are also a natural CO2 sink so sequestering green house gasses is part and parcel of mycorrhizal functions. Conventional farming methods like the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides could lower the long term productivity of the soil and leach harmful chemicals into our water tables.
Mycorrhizal fungi are a boon to both plants and people, no doubt about it. More significant, mycorrhizae works with and for the soil to achieve plant health and hardiness. It assures soil health without harming the environment and without sacrificing the level of growth and productivity that growers and gardeners alike are looking for.
Questions About Mycorrhizae?
If the idea of mycorrhizae is entirely new to you…if you’ve heard about it and want to know more…or if you simply want to know how to inoculate your plants with mycorrhizae, we can help answer your questions. Email us your questions and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or use our contact form, and we’ll try to address your concerns quickly.
Alternatively, you can try using one of our mycorrhizal root inoculant products in your plots and gardens today to see how mycorrhizae would help your plants.
If you’re going to use only one mycorrhizal product though, I recommend the SRT Advanced Mycorrhizal Inoculum as it has both ecto and endomycorrhizae, eliminating the need for you to determine which type of mycorrhizae would work for the plant varieties in your garden.
It’s a customer favorite, definitely one of our bestsellers, and if you visit our online store now, you’ll also find testimonials from happy farmers who’ve received tremendous help from our specially-selected mycorrhizal fungi.
Once you’ve tried our mycorrhizae in your plots and gardens, share with us your experiences so our readers may also learn how they can benefit from using mycorrhizal root inoculants in their gardens. Thank you!