I didn’t used to like mushrooms but as I got older, they grew on me. (Mary Lowther photo)

I didn’t used to like mushrooms but as I got older, they grew on me. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther column: The world of mushrooms and benefits of no-till agriculture

Plant roots can pull up water and some nutrients but it’s the fungi that provide most nutrients

By Mary Lowther

The Oxford English Dictionary defines fungi as “spore producing organisms feeding on organic matter, including molds, yeast, mushrooms, and toadstools.”

The study of fungi is called mycology. According to recent studies, most plants require fungi to survive. In her book Mycophilia, author Eugena Bone says “90 per cent of natural land plants are thought to have fungi partners that break down nutrients like phosphorus, carbon, water, and nitrogen into a readily assimilative form and deliver them to the plant in return for sugar produced by the plants via photosynthesis.” Plant roots can pull up water and some nutrients but it’s the fungi growing within and without the roots that provide most nutrients to the plants. Fungi grow thread-like structures called mycelium that spread though the soil. Some grow inside plants and connect with those in the soil, receiving sugars from the plants and donating nutrients in a solution plants can absorb. When plant roots connect with soil mycelium, this effectively extends the roots to areas the fungus reaches, so in times of drought, this connection with mycelium allows plants to access water that isn’t available nearby.

Eighty years ago, Masanobu Fukuoka gardened this way and wrote about it in his book One Straw Revolution, in which he acknowledges that growing crops in an unplowed field might seem a regression to primitive agriculture, but it has been proven to be “the most simple, efficient, and up to date method of all.” Indeed, the US Department of Agriculture recommends no-till agriculture over conventional plow tillage systems.

Fukuoka left plant stubble in the bed after harvesting the crop, then tossed seeds into this stubble without digging anything under. He first coated the seeds with clay to stop birds from eating the seeds, making a thick slurry of clay and water then rolling the seeds in this and allowing them to dry before strewing them onto the stubble. I’ve never tried it, but visitors have attested to how well this method works.

To avoid breaking the underground fungi, I hoe only the top couple of inches of the soil and, when I transplant seedlings, I only dig the hole into which the seedling will sit. When I had my allotment garden, I eschewed the community rototiller, preferring to hand dig, and I noticed that I had significantly fewer weed infestations than neighbouring gardeners who used the rototiller. Fukuoka says that when he transitioned to no till gardening, difficult to eradicate weeds became a thing of the past. Jillions of weed seeds remain viable underground, just awaiting the turning of the soil to feel the sun’s warmth and germinate, but if we just leave them be, they’ll never grow.

When David cleared and rototilled our acreage for farming our first crop was a field of Scotch broom. Local farmer Keith Christie explained that broom seeds can survive buried for decades, and then burst into growth when exposed to sunlight! Rototilling (and clear cutting) obviously create the ideal conditions for this. Sadly, nobody has discovered any use for this plant beyond the exercise one gets using a Puller Bear.

The lasagna gardening method, where one merely puts layers of newspaper or hay, compost and soil right on top of the ground and plants the vegetable patch there, incorporates the no till practice.

Given the number of mushrooms that grow hereabouts, and the number of mushroom pickers, I was surprised that there is no local mycological society closer than the South Vancouver Island group operating in Greater Victoria. Ingeborg Woodworth is an acknowledged expert, and explained that people had asked her to start one in Lake Cowichan but she was always too busy with other things. She has since moved away. If other enthusiasts have more time I, for one, would love to learn more. For example, what kind of mushrooms are these in the picture?

Please contact mary_lowther@yahoo.ca with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.