Do not eat! Little brown mushrooms can be poisonous…
and extremely whimsical.
Wood chips make a good mulch for woody plants. To go a step further,
you want to use ramial wood chips, which are wood chips made from the
outer reaches of a deciduous tree. That means the smaller branches,
including the leaves if possible, and not so much the trunk and thicker
branches (the rule of thumb is nothing more than 2.5 inches thick).
Why do we want ramial wood chips?
It’s because we want a fungal dominant soil. We want a soil that’s
full of the beneficial fungi that help woody plants grow vibrantly and
The term ramial is based on a french word, rameal, which
means ‘related to the small branch’. It was coined by the French
Canadian, Prof. Gilles Lemieux, who pioneered the research.
The ideal soil for woody plants contains beneficial fungi and these
‘fun guys’ thrive with the addition of ramial wood chip mulches. This
type of mulch has the optimum balance of carbon to nitrogen and higher
nutrient content than other wood chips. This optimum balance is due in
large part to the greater ratio of cambium and recently living cells vs.
old dead wood cells. It makes sense that using wood chips made with
more live tissue or recently-living tissue will have more nutrient value
than chips made from older wood, which is mostly carbon.
It’s like if we were to eat an animal, we’d want to eat the meaty
areas and organs for the nutrients. We don’t want to eat hair, bones,
So for feeding fungi, the ideal wood chips should be obtained from
freshly cut smaller branches with the leaves still on them. That’s where
the most nutrients reside and the good fungi love that.
What do the Fungi do?
Beneficial fungi are certain species of fungi that protect our plants from disease by:
- Out-competing disease organisms
- Creating a healthy soil biology
- Offering direct protection to our plants by producing anti-pathogens
- Providing nutrients and water directly to the plants for better plant health
What we call mushrooms are the fruiting or reproductive spore-producing structures of
the fungi. The actual ‘body’ of the fungi live within the soil and consist of string-like hyphae
that form interwoven string networks. These networks have a massive surface area and
are very effective at extracting nutrients and water from the soil and mulch.
One type of fungi, called mycorrhizal fungi, physically attaches to
the roots of woody plants and extend the ‘reach’ of the plant’s roots,
mining for water and nutrients in the soil that plants have a hard time
accessing with their own roots alone.
The body of fungi, called mycelium, consists of strands that form
massive ‘string networks’ within the soil and have tremendous surface
area contact with the soil. This fungi network is more efficient at
gathering water and nutrients than a plant’s roots are.
The fungi feed the woody plants with the nutrients and water that it
has extracted from the soil, and the woody plants feed the fungi food
sugars it has produced via photosynthesis, which the fungi cannot
produce itself. Fungi do not photosynthesize, this is one of the major
characteristics that distinguish fungi from plants.
The connection between the fungi and the plant’s roots is
intracellular. There is chemical communication going on along with the
nutrient exchange. The relationship is symbiotic and has evolved over
thousands of years. It has been shown that it goes further than one
fungus and one plant; that the fungi connect nearby plants to each other
as well. The chemical communication goes on between multiple plants via
The forest is one
In forests, it has also been shown that when trees die, they channel
their remaining nutrients out into the fungi web to feed other trees. Or
a sick tree may receive nutrients from healthier trees. The term
‘mother tree’ has been applied to the largest trees in a forest as these
matriarchs actually preside over the health and well being of all the
The forest is one.
Okay, that might be an exaggeration, perpetrated for dramatic
reasons, but many trees are connected together and it’s hard to tell how
far it extends. So, in an old growth forest, perhaps it is possible.
The point is that, at the very least, it is a network. Who knew the very
first Internet was invented by fungi.
It’s interesting that we did not discover this fact until very
recently. We divided the plants into the plant kingdom and the fungi
into the fungal kingdom and assumed these two abided by our abstract
separation; rival factions following the ‘laws of the jungle’, doomed to
compete for the same resources ’til the end of time, an adversarial
We were wrong.
You could say we couldn’t see the forest for the trees. We were
reductionist instead of holistic. It seems to be a common human flaw.
Luckily, we know better now. Now it is our duty to restore and
encourage these systems, for greater ecosystem health and benefit. That
An interesting parallel in human health
We are now discovering that our own health depends on the health of
the microbes in our gut. Just like mycorrhizal fungi have a symbiotic
relationship with plants — helping the plants by increasing nutrient
uptake and offering disease protection in exchange for food — the
bacteria in our gut, in a similar role, offer our bodies nutrients and
protection in exchange for comfortable living quarters within us (all
the meals you can eat and a cozy 37°C all the time!)
By conservative estimate, in a healthy human, there are more
beneficial bacterial cells in our body than there are human cells in our
body. It is also evidenced that if we lose or kill off these beneficial
organisms in our gut, we can become sick very quickly, even exposing us
to the possibility of death.
This reframes everything. A classic paradigm shift. We can now think outside the box that we made for ourselves.
We as individual humans are not an organism. We are ‘we’. We are a super-organism.
Who are we really! More ‘germ’ than human?
Fungi comes in fun colors and shapes! Wait, is that poisonous?
Back to the wood chips….
What about coniferous wood chips?
When sourcing wood chips, not only is ramial chips what you’re
looking for but it’s also preferable to avoid coniferous wood chips as
they tend to have naturally produced compounds that inhibit beneficial
fungal growth. Coniferous wood chips actually feed a different sort of
fungi that produces allelopathic compounds that inhibit beneficial fungi
However, coniferous wood chips are still better than bare soil. Keep
that in mind if that’s all you have available. In that case, if you
think your plants are being stunted by the coniferous wood chips, you
could consider top-dressing the wood chips with compost or manure to
help overcome the anti-good-fungus properties of conifer wood chips.
Both compost and manure bring a litany of microbial ‘helpers’ to assist
with the breakdown of the unwanted compounds as well as providing
nutrients directly to plants.
These ‘Ink Cap’ mushrooms metamorphose from soft fuzzy domed caps, opening delicate
translucent parasols, and finally melting into a inky black globs like something out of
a horror movie.
So, how can you tell you have a fungal soil?
One way, the crude method, is to dig into your mulch/soil interface
and see if it’s populated by white strands. These are the hyphae
strands, the mycelium, or ‘body’ of the fungi. Although, I wouldn’t
recommend digging stuff up if you don’t have to. It disturbs and kills
the fungi to expose it and breaks its hyphae connections. Don’t worry
though, if the conditions are right and the soil is well populated, it
will undoubtedly recover.
Do you see the mycelium in this recently overturned wood chip mulch? The white patches
and strands are the body of the fungus. Notice how it is in close contact with the chips
and how it binds loose chips together in clumps.
A less intrusive method is to simply watch after the first soaking
rain following a warm dry spell. If the soil is colonized with fungi you
can expect mushrooms to sprout everywhere. It’s a wonderful sight to
see and an indicator of healthy, fungal dominant soil.
Inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is often attributed to his alleged use
of LSD, another product of a fungus. On the contrary, I can see where mushrooms, in and of
themselves, with their whimsical shapes, ‘magical’ overnight appearance, and metamorphosis,
could be an inspiration for a fantastical forest world in miniature.
And down the mythical rabbit hole… all of these pictures came from our garden, mostly the
front yard orchard. Also, it bears repeating: Do not eat. Keep away from young children —
especially little brown mushrooms.
What about mushrooms coming out of the stems or trunk of your plant?
Mushrooms coming up out of the ground are a good sign. On the other
hand, mushrooms sprouting from the trunk of a tree or from the stems of
your plant is a bad sign, indicating that rot is pretty extensive within
the plant. It’s not necessarily the fungus that has caused the plant to
be infected, but it is a visual indicator that rot is extensive enough
that the fungus has reached a point where it feels “comfortable” enough
to start reproducing. At this point, the prognosis is not good for your
plant, or at least the section of plant that is infected.
Uh oh. Mushrooms growing out of the soil is a good sign signaling fungal dominant soil, but
fungus growing out of the stems or trunk of your plant is a bad thing. The plant is infected with
a fungus. In this case, the rose was long dead from other reasons and the fungus is just doing
a good job of recycling a resource.
This is fine in the bigger picture of Nature reclaiming a sick and
weakened plant, but you might not feel fine if it’s one of your favorite
plants dying. There are anti-fungal pesticides out there. I’m not
recommending them, quite the opposite. But, if it’s a really valuable
plant, I would be remiss to not mention they do exist.
For my own plan of action, and what I do recommend, is to concentrate
on creating healthy plants and soil conditions. If some plants do
succumb to a disease, even with good growing conditions, then perhaps
they are not the right plants for my garden. Our goal is resilience and
there are plenty of other plants that can thrive in our setting, even
with climatic challenges. Plants that need undue attention do not fit
our goal for resilience.
In summary, one of the keys to healthy soils is good microbial
activity. Fungal soils have a symbiotic relationship with woody plants
which creates a system of better health for both organisms. We should
follow this example. We should do what we can to encourage soil health
and it’s just as important to avoid actions that harm it. What we give
to the ecosystem will be returned in kind.
Source: Permaculture.com (posted 7/05/2014) Visit Link For More Info