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Microbes – Mycorrhizal Fungi – Helping Your Garden Succeed

Over the past few years I’ve noticed more and more articles about microbes (a/k/a soil life).

With the increased knowledge of microbes will come increased promotion of products advertised as being beneficial to your soil life. And in some cases where the soil has been abused maybe they’d be helpful.

Chemicals, over tilling, compacting soil, using fungicides, etc. All cause a decline in soil life and prevent the development of all those beneficial microbes. But if you’re following nature’s principles you already have an active soil life.

The Most Written About Fungi – What They Do

The Mycorrhizal fungi is particularly popular and for good reason.

Attached to and feeding off the sugars produced by a plant, Mycorrhizal fungi grow into a mass that acts as a supplemental root system.

As they spread from the plant roots through the soil, they reach a volume of soil several hundred to 2,500 times greater than the plant roots could reach by themselves. This enables them to excavate many more essential nutrients located at distances too far away for just the roots to reach. They then deliver the nutrients back to the plant.

Since these fungi are the principal structure for most nutrient uptake (rather than the plants roots), you can see why it would be important to have these fungi in your garden.

Learning New Facts

(You’ll recall I first wrote about Mycorrhizal fungi in June of 2013.)

Pat, friend and reader in Tennessee, sent me an article from Mother Earth News entitled Mycorrhizal fungi: The Amazing Underground Secret to a Better Garden.

I learned a few helpful tidbits from that article that I wanted to pass along.

  • #1. 90% of all plant families are known to partner with Mycorrhizal fungi!

(The article also stated that among the relatively few plants that get along fine without fungi for partners are beets, spinach, most members of the mustard family which includes broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, collar greens, kale, and radishes.)

  • #2. Without their plant partners certain Mycorrhizal fungi that support many of our garden crops are not capable of living and reproducing without a plant partner. They need living roots to colonize (multiply).

Sure made me glad that I had nature to guide me on this long before I ever heard of Mycorrhizal fungi.

Here’s how I keep living roots in my bed during early, mid and late summer:

  • When lettuce starts stalking I leave the ones I want for seed and cut the other stalks off at ground level, leaving the still-living roots for the microbes.
  • Whatever radishes aren’t  harvested are allowed to stay in the ground and flower. Then I cut the stalks off at ground level.
  • All kinds of herbs: arugula, basil, parsley, oregano, borage, thyme
  • Various perennials (Usually placed at the ends of beds.)
  • Mid to late summer annuals that have extensive root systems. (Mid to late summer, after early crops are harvested is when I need this cover in the beds the most.
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The bare spots to the right have snap beans just breaking through the straw.  This picture shows anthemis, basil, borage, producing beans and young beans, tomatoes, arugula, late summer annuals, perennials, opal basil, squash, peppers, kale, and a few strawberry plants.

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This is what I see as I enter my garden.  You can see sedum and daylily (perennials) at the begining of the row to the right and left.  Also in the picture are oats, late summer annuals, parsley, Blueberries covered to the far right, lettuce going to seed, peppers, eggplant, asparagus, squash, tomatoes.

  • Now is about the time I’m starting to plant buckwheat, oats and field peas, yellow blossom clover, phacelia, and a few other cover crops into beds that are available. (Most have just germinated.)

This next piece of information was the one that made the article definitely worth reading for me.

  • #3 Mycorrhizal fungi won’t survive the winter unless they have living roots.

Here’s what I’m doing that will accomplish that for me:

  • I have perennials at the ends of almost every bed which serve to keep these important fungi alive during the winter. I also have perennial herbs that winter over.
  • The strawberries that I have throughout the garden, as well as the clumps of bunching onions (perennials), will also harbor the fungi.
  • Cover crops of rye, oats and a legume blend like field peas, alfalfa, and yellow blossom clover will do the job on a larger scale.

I don’t always have a living cover in every bed during the winter.  It’s something I’ll have to work towards.

A NOTE OF CAUTION about using Hairy Vetch

Hairy vetch has received a lot of press lately. Many recommend planting it as a cover crop in the fall, cutting it in the spring, and then planting tomatoes and other warm weather crops into the stubble. (In short, using it just like I use the rye stubble or the stubble of field peas.)

At least the author of this article (Douglas H. Chadwick, a wildlife biologist) warns that if you cut it too soon it’ll resprout as a weed, and if you cut it after it seeds it can be problematic.

Even that might be understated.

I sowed hairy vetch in my garden 30 years ago at our previous location. We’ve been at our current residence for almost 16 years. I have hairy vetch come up every spring throughout my borders that surround our little-more-than-an-acre property. (It came with me when I moved my plants.) I go around at least 3 times every spring, trying to pulling it all out before it seeds. Obviously, I’ve not been successful.

One popular “educator” recommended hairy vetch in articles on cover crops. Several years later (after having obviously grown it) he/she changed their recommendation to field peas, saying that perhaps hairy vetch was not the best choice.

As with anything, there are always those who won’t have problems. I would think that farmers and gardeners who are not worried about vetch spreading or reseeding in flower borders and who know when to cut it, would do just fine.

Final Thoughts

If you’re gardening as Nature’s apprentice, then you’re already doing what is recommended to promote plant/mycorrhizae partnerships:

  • Avoid pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
  • Minimal soil disturbance
  • Living plants in the soil as much as possible, even during the winter.
  • Diversify in all things (for example:crop rotation, varieties of crops, varieties of cover crops)
  • Mulch
  • Don’t walk on your beds

What a great and easy way to get all the help we need for healthy and productive crops.

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Related Posts:

Organic Gardening – Using Practices that Enhance Natures Systems

Mulch – Feeding Your Soil Life

Cover Crops and Diversity – Need More Proof they Work?

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3 comments to Microbes – Mycorrhizal Fungi – Helping Your Garden Succeed

  • RAY KENT

    SPACE IS A PROBLEM FOR ME WITH MY GARDEN SO ROTATION IS NEXT TO IMPOSSIBLE SO WHERE DO I PUT GROUND COVER. I HOPE I’VE GOT A PARTIAL SOLUTION. I’VE PLANTED BUCKWHEAT WITH MY SQUASH AND THEY SEEM HAPPY TOGETHER. I’M WONDERING ABOUT LETTING THEM GO TO SEED AND THEN CUTTING LATER. MIGHT RESEED THEMSELVES? ALSO I’VE FOUND FIELD PEAS ARE VERY HAPPY SPOTTED AMOUNG MY VEGGIES. I’VE BEEN SHIFTING THEM AROUND AS SPACE BECOMES AVAILABLE. WHEN I WAS SHORT OF TIME FOR MY GARDEN, THEY GREW UP OVER EVERYTHING BUT NOTHING SEEMED TO CARE. I GAVE THEN A HAIRCUT AND PUT CUTTINGS INTO COMPOST BIN. THE PEAS ARE STILL GROWING HAPPILY WITHOUT BUDDING. WHY NOT KEEP CUTTING THEM BACK SO THEY DON’T BUD INSTEAD OF RESEEDING IN DIFFERENT SPOTS? ALWAYS A GOOD DAY TO GET YOUR COMMENTS. THANKS RAY

  • Theresa

    I think your partial solution is a good one, Ray. I think both buckwheat and those field peas will do a good job for you.

    Something you might want to keep in mind:

    When any crop is allowed to seed, the most nutrient value will be in the seed rather than the biomass.
    Buckwheat is so easy to deal with that although it would not really be a problem for me if it reseeded, I don’t let it because I want as much nutrient value in the biomass as possible to return to my soil for recycling.

    I cut any “covers” and leave them right on the bed to recycle.

    Keep up the good work Ray! I always enjoy hearing what you’re doing.
    Theresa

  • Sandra

    I see hairy vetch all over along the roadsides here in MD. I can easily imagine it ‘getting away’ from me. When we were kids walking home from school, we used to pick and eat the seeds of hairy vetch as we went. It grew wild in abundance in Ireland too.

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