by Holly Steinfeld

Mycorrhizae among us

Don’t you love that gardeners can talk mycorrhizae with the best and nobody but other gardeners understand what we’re saying?

While it’s fun speaking a secret language with words like Greggii (and some of us even know who plant explorer Josiah Gregg was), most of us are not so sure we should be serious about mycorrhizae. 

Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano inoculates its more than 500 varieties of native plants.STEVE ZYLIUS, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Mycorrhiza is a living organism that thrives below the soil surface. While plant roots can stretch only so far and at a fairly fixed rate, mycorrhizae take up where roots leave off.

Mycorrhizae are tiny fungal filaments that attach themselves to roots, spread out farther into the soil and gather nutrients and moisture in places that plants can’t go. The small threads return these nutrients to the plant in a sort of symbiotic relationship.

Plants benefit from the additional goodies that mycorrhizae get, and mycorrhizae benefit from the sugars passed down by the plant.

What we’re not sure about is whether we have these fungal threads naturally occurring in our soils or whether we should add them from mycorrhizae inoculants available in nurseries and online.

The no-dig community of gardeners says if you cultivate or till your soil, chances are you have chopped up your mycorrhizae. It can take two years to recover.

Soil sterilization with plastics kills weeds and also effectively kills off the filaments. Fungicides destroy mycorrhizae.

Other experts say don’t be duped into inoculating your soil because chances are you have a healthy community of mycorrhizae to begin with. Maybe.

Dan Songster, director of the native plant garden at Golden West College says, “It’s not standard use for most gardeners, but native plant enthusiasts who are ‘in-the-know’ either inoculate their soils or buy plants with inoculated soils.”

Songster said mycorrhizae are especially helpful to native plants because they can reach out for moisture in places the plant can’t.

Texas A & M University Agriculture Department has seen strong results from not only garden plants, but seedlings, cuttings and transplants inoculated with mycorrhizae.

One of the best arguments for inoculation is to consider that the bulk of the plants in our landscapes aren’t living in their natural environment and were probably raised on chemicals.

Mycorrhizae can help them settle in and call our garden home. And it can’t hurt.

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