Fungus Among Us

I went to a very cool workday in Madison yesterday at Edgewood College – we had everyone from arboritsts to Biology Professors to certified Permaculturists to co-op living, bike trailer building 20 somethings.  GREAT sidebar discussion and I am trading 50#’s of potatoes for a custom co-op built cargo bike trailer!  The purpose of the event was to install a mycoremediation bed to filter some of the runoff from their parking lots that drains almost directly into Lake Wingra. The thought behind mycoremediation is that fungus is really good at breaking down tough strings of carbon (cellulose and lignin in nature) – and most petro chemical pollutants – even chlorine- have similar properties so fungus breaks them down to.  We built a series of three swales on contour in the runoff gulley and then layered oyster mushroom spawn in 8″ deep beds of chip mulch and sawdust.  The hope is that the 1000 sq ft of mushroom bed will filter some of the water (most in a light rain) that runs down the gulley and bio-remediate the oil slicks into smaller, non-toxic carbon molecules.  Part of the project was to add a small holding pond for water testing, which the Prof of Biology will take samples from.  Very cool way to spend a morning!


Looking upstream at our handy-work. Burlap is covering a grass mix to anchor the berms.

In preparation for the event, I did a bit of research on fungus in general and mycoremediation in particular.  From reading the Permaculture Canon and especially from Edible Forest Gardening I had certainly picked up that fungus cultures were important for a healthy soil, but somehow had either missed or the authors didn’t tell, the “Why’s”.  I still feel that most organic and permaculture gardening texts spend most of their sections on soil healthy detailing the ecology that is found in compost bins – heavy on bacteria and micro organisms, and really skip through the importance of fungus.  The long and short of it was that in 30 minutes of Google Research I had an epiphany.

Here is my sophomoric understanding of how it works.   Fungus produces extracellular enzymes to break down the lignin and cellulose (or oil drippings by the way).  Once the enzymes have broken down the carbon chains into something more palatable, the fungus then absorbs them through their mycelial net.  Some – like mycorrhizal fungus then share the nutrients with plants for sugar in a rather direct symbiosis.  But what I suspect, and will read Stament’s Mycelium Running to determine, is that as the enzyme work is done in the soil, the carbon chains are broken down enough that perhaps many plant roots can absorb them directly providing immediate boosts to their nutrient uptake.  

This would explain why trees and other large perennials  prefer to live in “carbonaceous” soils under a thick leaf / chip mulch.  A thick carbon intensive mulch often becomes colonized by fungus which ties it into a thick mat of mycelium.   In the past I had thought that this would only be directly beneficial to the plants if the funugs was mycorrhizal or after the fungus began to itself decay.  Now, with my glimpse into the enzyme secretions of  fungus, I think that it may have much more immediate and far reaching effects -placing them in far more important place in the soil ecosystem that fungus typically gets credit for.  I am beginning to understand how people become fungus fundamentalists (fungamentalists?).

When I discovered this Saturday night I was became animated and was talking gibberish so fast that my wife thought I was joking.  Epiphanies are like that.  Looking forward to getting to Mycelium Running in my queue, but I also scored 3 bags of oyster mushroom spawn (we had 150) from the workshop so I can begin expirements here as well.  Woo-Hoo!

Be the Change.


6 Responses

  1. I think of fungus as providing slow fertility: it holds nutrients in place and transports them long distances across the mycelluim. The compost you’ve been adding to your soil feeds fungus. They chew on it for years after the initial explosion of bacteria.

    The oyster spawn is a huge score. I have Stamet’s “Growing Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms”, if you need a recipe for how to use it I could post one here. I think that if you can get some relatively fresh coffee grounds from a coffee shop without too many other food scraps in it, that would be ideal. Log culture is a lot of work; I tried it once.

  2. I found a small mat of mushrooms of an indeterminant variety growing in the chip mulch in my front yard garden/orchard…just last night. I’m considering seeding the whole thing with some edible variety, but I am curious to know what strain of fungus is already present.

    Another vote for both mycellium running and “Growing Edible and medicinal mushrooms.” Stamets is a visionary.

    I am really interested in the concept of fungus in “companion planting” but I haven’t found much more info beyond what is mentioned in “Mycellium running”

    I’ve got a few logs of shitake and reishi seeded under my deck, no sign of fungus yet.

  3. Mycelium Running totally rocks. It will blow your mind. And then it will blow it again. And again. I probably need to read it again. It’s been a few years, and it’s that kind of book. You’ll love it.

  4. Thanks everyone. Apparently the entire text is online, but I can’t seem to learn to “curl up with a good laptop”. I threw out a request to borrow the book to my local net, if no one bites, and the local libraries don’t have it I will buy it and then donate it back to the library – I did that with about everything Eliot Coleman has written and it is cool to see all the other people checking it out every year – beats me hoarding it on my bookshelf to re-read once a year!

    Unfortunately the place I had intended to inoculate is currently buried in 10 bales of loose straw which I do not want to decompose. I plant on moving that as sheet mulch, and getting another trailer load of chips to start a few patched.

    This will be fun!

  5. Mycellium Running is very cool. You may want to get The Complete Compost Gardening Guide if you are trying to grow in your compost heap with polyculture mushroom companions in your garden. In my garden/compost I use Garden Giant (white rot primary decomposer), Shaggy Mane (white rot secondary decomposer), and Hypsizygus ulmarius (brown rot primary decomposer) and have increased yields as a result.

    The one thing mycoremediation and “living machine” (bacteria permaculture) lacks is a good mechanism for dealing with accumulation of heavy metals in closed cycles.

    Maybe harvesting hyperaccumulator plants?

  6. Great, another blog at which I will spend far too much time!!

    Jes’ joking, I think it will be time well spent. I’m glad I was brought here.

    I have been hearing about fungal soil remediation here and there. Good to see people really putting it to work. I have been wondering if our Alberta Tarsands tailing ponds people have been looking into scaling potential.

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