Jeff Lowenfels is a writer, national lecturer, and a fellow, hall of fame member, and former president of the Garden Writers of America. He is the author of two popular books on soil and cultivation, “Teaming with Fungi: The Organic Grower’s Guide to Mycorrhizae” and “Teaming with Nutrients: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition.” He is also the co-author of the award-winning “Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web.”
Your garden’s MVP
Jeff has been educating the public on the best practices for growing for most of his adult life. Chief among his passions is the necessity for a partnership with the earth. He has written much on the soil food web and in his most recent book turns his spotlight on fungi, in particular, mycorrhizal fungi. An integral part of the plant food network, mycorrhizal fungi are everywhere and form an incredible symbiotic relationship with the plant. As Jeff discusses in his book, “Teaming with Microbes,” see our article here, plants produce carbon-rich exudates, much like human sweat, to attract beneficial microbes for nutrition purposes. Mycorrhizal fungi are also attracted by these exudates, but work even harder for the plant, traveling deep into the soil “in search of phosphorous, nitrogen, copper, zinc, [and] water,” which they then bring back to the plant and trade for the carbon-laden exudates.
Mycorrhizae are everywhere, and Jeff points out the natural, beneficial exchange they provide is so common that “96% of all plants on the planet earth form this relationship.” That is a mind-boggling percentage. But the last 150 years haven’t been easy for mycorrhizae. They were discovered in the late 1800s at the same time as other plant-killing fungi. As the damaging fungi were treated with pesticides and fungicides, Jeff explains, “the chemicals won, and the mycorrhizal fungus just fell by the wayside.” It’s not just chemical killers that are detrimental to mycorrhizae, but also chemical fertilizers. Crucially, this wonderful relationship can only exist when the plant needs nutrients. Using chemical fertilizers or hydroponic foods means that the plant doesn’t need to form the mycorrhizal fungal relationship and this link in the food chain ceases to exist.
A fungus on your strawberries
It was in the 1950s and 1960s that growers finally worked out the beneficial nature of fungi and were able to identify and grow one. That fungus was grown with strawberries and named Glomus Mosseae. Today it is called Rhizophagus Intraradices, and it is the only mycorrhizal fungus that associates with cannabis. Jeff is evangelical about it, “Does it make a difference? Yes. It makes a gigantic difference…I used it and I grew the biggest cannabis plant and leaves I have ever seen in my life.” Fortunately, gardeners today don’t need to grow their own mycorrhizae, they can just be purchased and added to the soil. Jeff is a fan of Wallace Organic Wonder (WOW) mycorrhizal, made and marketed by giant pumpkin grower, Ron Wallace. Due to growing restrictions in Jeff’s home state of Alaska, he grew just one cannabis plant using WOW mycorrhizal. It was such a success that he presented it at the Emerald Cup, Northern California’s annual cannabis festival, where it drew much admiration. Jeff is blunt on the subject, “Mycorrhizal fungi work, and the reason why they work is because they go out and they get stuff that the plant needs.”
Working with Nature not against her
All of this, Jeff believes, points to the need for organic and sustainable growing. A topic he returns to again and again, “Who wants to sell or who wants to ingest something that’s got a pesticide involved with it. Nobody.” He points out that one of the issues with the way the agricultural industry grows crops, particularly in the Midwest where we destroyed the prairies, is that we destroy the fungal network that forms soil structure.
Everything ties back to the soil food web and it is a relationship that is as complex as it is crucial. When a plant dies, the goodness in the plant goes down into the mycorrhizal network, not to necessarily feed the young of that plant, but perhaps to feed the young of a totally different species of plant. Jeff says, “We know that forests operate by feeding plants of all different species using the same mycorrhizal network. It’s incredible.” It truly is, mycorrhizal fungi are an integral part of organic and regenerative farming, and it has been proven that they work.