Gardeners tend to be preoccupied – and rightfully so – with the above-ground fruits of our labor. We’ve got our eyes on the prize – those ripe, red tomatoes, aromatic herbs and beautiful blooms we spend so much time tending. But gardens couldn’t grow without some support from behind the scenes in the unseen soil ecosystem living right beneath our feet.
Garden soil is more than the sum of the inert clay, sand, silt and organic matter that make it up – it’s a dynamic, living ecosystem. It’s actually thought to be one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth, with only around 1 percent of its organisms identified. Connective bacteria, fungus and root systems create nutrient and water superhighways for plants, not unlike the Internet transferring data around the world, every second of every day. This network of living organisms is essential for creating an environment where nutrients and water are available for plants.
The garden nutrient system works largely due to a natural symbiotic (mutually beneficial) partnership between soil fungi and plant roots. Mycorrhizal fungi colonize in the root systems of specific garden plants, absorbing important sugars (food and fuel) from plant photosynthesis in exchange for “soil glues” that hold microscopic clumps of soil together and allow oxygen and water to reach plant roots throughout the garden. This interaction is one of the most important bonds in the soil world.
Benefits of mycorrhizae in the garden
Mycorrhizae enlarge the surface area and absorption of root systems, increasing their sponge-like capacity and boosting their capability to soak up water. This extension of the root system makes your veggies more drought-resistant and resilient. Stronger root systems lead to adaptive plants that produce higher yielding vegetables – and all gardeners can appreciate more productive plants.
Similar to our digestive system, which contains enzymes, bacteria, and yeast that help our bodies break down food and absorb essential nutrients, branches of mycorrhizal fungal networks allow plants to absorb nutrients that are vital for healthy growth.
Encourage beneficial soil ecosystems
Creating favorable environments for healthy soil ecosystems helps your plants grow faster and reduces long hours spent maintaining your garden.
- Add organic matter to the soil. Organic matter is simply plant and animal waste that is decomposing in the environment. Compost, crop residues, dried leaves and other mulches provide a food source for soil organisms that improve your garden health.
- Water deeply and infrequently. This may sound like a simplified statement, but healthy soil environments require soils that are damp. Your soil should have the consistency and feel of a damp (not dripping) sponge. Waterlogged and dry soils will put many organisms into dormancy until ideal conditions return.
- Use quality mulch. The right mulch balances soil moisture and temperature, which is a main concern during summer months. Components that work great for garden mulches include dried grass or leaves and weed-free straw.
- Get a good start. Have you ever noticed white, fuzzy hairs at the ends of the roots in potted seedlings at your local garden center? You’re seeing mycorrhizae. It’s a great sign of plant health that indicates roots have started to interact with beneficial fungi in the soil.
- Fertilize sparingly. Avoid synthetic fertilizers when possible to keep your soil communities healthy. Heavy fertilizer use adds high levels of salts into your garden that benefit short-term growth but hinder long-term soil health.
As seasoned farmers and gardeners like to say: “Build soil, not just plants.” Over time, you can create your own healthy soil ecosystems. Your veggies will thank you for it later