Smart gardeners embrace fungi

Jeff Lowenfels

I spend an awful lot of time on the road during the non-gardening season promoting "Teaming With Microbes" and trying to convince gardeners not to use chemicals. As a result, I get to meet (and re-meet) lots of really interesting, knowledgeable people.

So it was that I found myself listening to Dr. Michael Amaranthus, a scientist who studies and develops mycorrhizal fungi and is president of Mycorrhizal Applications, Inc. He is a leader in researching and producing mycorrhizal fungi spores and propagules.

The regular reader knows that 90 to 96 percent of all plants form a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. The plant provides the fungi with carbon compounds dripped from its roots. In return, the fungi goes out and gets water, nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients for the plant. These fungi and the relationships they enter into are hugely important to growing healthy plants. Every plant in the Chugach, for example, has them.

Unfortunately, gardeners have been ignorant of the importance of these fungi and use fertilizers that diminish their presence and destroy their network by rototilling. And early products were often not viable for one reason or another. However, as a consequence of developing technology in the field, great improvements have been made in the deliverability of mycorrhizal fungi as well as product shelf life and product viability. Gardeners are getting better and better results from applications of mycorrhizal fungi. Dr. Mike and his associates are a large part of why these fungi are becoming standard fare for those who are in the know.

Many of the crops we grow here are in the cabbage family and these plants are some of the few that do not form a mycorrhizal association. However, lawn grasses, tomatoes, squashes, potatoes (and, dare I suggest, yacons and dahlias, which are related tubers) as well as most of the other crops that survive our climate, definitely do. So do the perennials in our gardens and our trees and shrubs.

If your growing starts indoors this spring, you would be foolish not to use them. Either roll seeds in the appropriate formula of mycorrhizal fungi or apply it to the roots of plants as you transplant your starts into larger containers or, with less results but still impressive, when you transplant outdoors. Of course, you need to make sure you are not killing them off with chemical fertilizers. If you use good compost, you probably won't need to feed your plants at all. The fungi will do that work for you. If you fertilize, then use very low NPK numbers, well below 10-10-10.

Dr. Mike's products (and others) are extremely effective in making plants bigger, better and healthier. We used to think mycorrhizal fungi primarily impacted the phosphorus uptake by unlocking it from the soil and bringing it to plants. It turns out they also provide phosphorus to nitrogen fixing bacteria and increase their numbers and effectiveness. They are also good at picking up nitrogen made by the nitrogen-fixing bacteria and delivering it to plants.

What I am talking about here is free fertilizer, help in getting water to plants, protection from diseases and animal attacks and dramatically better plants. These things work. They are what nature developed, so she could pay attention to other things.

I am particularly excited about the new, liquid formulation of mycorrhizal fungi that Dr. Mike's company developed called MycoApply. Mycorrhizal fungal spores and propagules must touch the roots in order to germinate and survive and help the plant. That means they have to get right to the roots before applying it. Now you can infect plant roots by applying the fungi in a soil drench. It can be applied to lawns. This results in better lawns and fewer weeds.

If you want to delve further into the subject of the importance of forming mycorrhizae and gardening, the first place to start is, the website for Dr. Amaranthus' company. This is one of those websites you should explore. There is a college course of information on it.

I know for a fact, based on my own testing, that mycorrhizal fungi are an unbelievable addition to the organic gardening toolbox. The bottom line: All gardeners should be using mycorrhizal fungi. This is especially true for container plants and plants that are started in containers before they are transplanted. Be smart. This year, when planting seeds, roll them in fungal spores. And add it to root systems when you transplant up. Don't take my word for it, take Dr. Mike's.

Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at

Garden calendar

Garden Party Radio Restarts this Saturday: Join the fun on Alaska’s only call in radio show. KBYR AM 700 from 10 a.m. to noon. I would love to hear from you.

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Flowers to start: Gladiola corms, hollyhock, digitalis, rhodochitin, begonias, dahlias from seed.

Veggies to start: celery, leeks