Tree Hugging Dirt Worshiper

So the newest breed of livestock farmers are starting to refer to themselves as Grass Farmers, and many Organic Farmers are proud to claim a bio-intensive form of agriculture-farming with nature rather than fighting it. And now one of my favorite bumper stickers (the title of this post) is taking on a new meaning now that I have finished Volume 1 of David Jacke’s Edible Forest Gardens.

I know I have stated that in something like my last 3 posts, but forging through 350 pages of what is essentially an Ecology Textbook takes some doing. Don’t get me wrong-the book was incredibly enjoyable and I learned an immense amount about, well, Edible Forest Gardens. It did get rough at times, as I was looking for a “how to” for temperate permaculture, which Vol 1 is not (though it looks like Vol 2 [en route] is). Vol 1 is rather a statement of the vision and theory behind forest gardening (creating self-sustaining perennial agriculture) while giving the reader (student?) a more than cursory understanding of the principles of the science of Ecology. The book is valuable if for no other reason than their incredibly thorough appendix titled their Top 100 Useful Plants. Wow.

As I stated in my last post, the biggest take away for me was in the 100 pages or so that deal with ecology. That is a good thing, because after 100 pages on ecology you need a tid bit or two! I will try to paraphrase my aha! here. Many of us aspiring orchardists have heard that a grassy understory can be detrimental to apple trees. I have heard numerous reasons why, but the main reasons center around resource squabbling between the shallow rooted apple tree and the shallow rooted turf grasses. That kind-of made sense, but it never felt truly right to me-too simplistic. Jacke clues his readers in on a relatively new frontier of soil ecology- the ratios of bacteria to fungus in the soil horizons as another possible reason.

Without getting too technical, grass or freshly disturbed areas typically have a very high bacteria to fungus ratio-there is typically little carbon material in the soils for the fungus to feed on and bacteria are more flexible on the relatively higher nitrogen levels in the organic matter in either disturbed sites or under sod. However, trees, and even shrubs and many perennials, have evolved to live in a mutually beneficial existence with various fungus and one (mycorrhizal) in particular is turning out to be one of the absolute powerhouses of the forest. Basically the fungus lives on or near the roots of the trees and in an exchange similar to rhibosomal bacteria in legumes, gives nutrients and water to the tree for sugar intensive root secretions. Sounds neat and all but why should we care? Here is the tidbit that blew my mind: take a table spoon or two of really good old growth soil. In that dollop of soil there may be as many as 40 miles worth of mycelial “hairs” and, in the soil, nutrient uptake is all about surface area. Dang!

But here is the kicker: the fungus is sensitive-every know “-cide” has shown to be damaging to it including the more innocuous ones like Round-Up. So if you live in a new subdivision like me and have dead subsoil, or are living in virtually any other developed soil on Earth you almost certainly have a soil dead to fungus. This is essentially forcing our trees and gardens to try to soldier on alone uphill with one leg chained to a 50lb chunk of lead. Not only are we missing an essential component of the decomposer web in our soils, we have also hamstrung our gardens by taking away one of their staunchest allies.

So I will be running an experiment in my lawn and some of my gardens this year. I have ordered mycorrhizal fungus inoculants for both my veggies and my lawn from and will keep you posted on the results.

Speaking of, they offer an immense line of fungus products allowing you to grow your own edible mushrooms. Some, like the Shitake, need a log to be inoculated and then placed in contact with the soil, but several others would like nothing more to live in (and aggressively decompose) the wood chip mulch in your perennial beds. In return they will give you a harvest every year for the next several years or more. Loathe turning your compost bin and have some time on your hands? Inoculate the pile (or a round bale of straw!) with their The Garden Giant™ (Stropharia rugoso-annulata) and sit back as you harvest some utterly immense mushrooms while the fungus turns the carbon into compost. Fukuoka would be pleased!!

I plan on inoculating the mulch layers of my sheet compost with the Stropharia and perhaps some others as soon as the beds go in next week if for no other reason than to see a 3′ mushroom!



One Response

  1. A three-foot mushroom? Dang.

    Maybe it’s a normal sized mushroom that appears to be three feet across only after eating one…

    I’m going to have to go looking for that book now though.

    I like the bumper sticker too.

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