(photo above is the Shaggy Mane Mushroom (Coprinus comatus), one possible addition to our Forest Garden design)

I wrote an article yesterday outlining my proposal to add two layers to the Forest Garden. You can read that article here: Nine Layers of the Edible Forest Garden. Within just 24 hours, I have received a number of emails and comments in support. While almost everyone has agreed with my addition of the EighthLayer: Aquatic/Wetland Layer, I have a number of people questioning the details of the Ninth Layer: Mycelial/Fungus Layer. Most are asking why add Fungus but not bacteria, or worms, protozoa, etc. for that matter? Why not just call it the Underground Life Layer or Soil Layer or something else that is more inclusive?

Well, here is my response.

Let me start by restating what I wrote yesterday:
This is my second new layer to the Forest Garden. Fungal networks live in healthy soils. They will live on, and even within, the roots of plants in the Forest Garden. This underground fungal network transports nutrients and moisture from one area of the forest to another depending on the needs of the plants. It is an amazing system which we are only just beginning to comprehend. As more and more research is being conducted on how mycelium help build and maintain forests, it is shocking that this layer has not yet been added to the list. In addition to the vital work this layer contributes to developing and maintaining the forest, it will even provide mushrooms from time to time that we can utilize for food and medicine. If we are more proactive, we can cultivate this layer intentionally and dramatically increase our harvest.

Now let me elaborate a bit.

Permaculture is about design. The seven existing layers of the Forest Garden are designed by us. Nature takes what we have designed and runs with it. We just get to benefit from nature’s work. We can also design the Mycelial/Fungus Layer. We can choose to inoculate with specific fungus. We will provide specific habitats. Of course, nature will also do it’s own thing, but we can use design to influence (and experiment) with how we would like the Mycelial/Fungus Layer to be incorporated into our system. The other soil elements (worms, protozoa, bacteria) will be a natural component of our Forest Garden, but they will not be an element designed by us.

If we look at things from a broader scale, we need to consider that pastures and fields are bacteria predominant. This is strongly influenced by the ruminent animals that live in this enviroment and deposit large amounts of bacteria-laden manure on a daily basis. As a fields lays fallow and are not grazed by ruminents, the fungal population rises. The mycelium will then “select” which bacteria stay and which ones are not allowed to stay; the fungi can actually produce antibiotics to achieve this. Perennial plants and shrubs will start to take over the fields which will then allow pioneer trees and then young forest trees and finally mature forest trees. All the time this is occuring the fungal to bacteria ratio is climing, eventually reaching at least a 10:1 ratio and likely closer to a 20:1 ration (i.e there are 20 times more fungi than bacteria).

While we may occasionally use some bacterial inoculum on our legumes and other nitrogen-fixing plants at the onset of development, and this will speed the land recovery process, it is the fungi that are our primary goal. Using fungal inoculum on our shrubs and trees in the Forest Garden will give them a significant advantage, and this has been proven time and time again in well-designed research studies. You can read any of the work from Paul Stamets (my favorite is Mycelium Running) to get an overwhelming amount of references for the benefits of fungi in the forest. While bacteria and other elements play a role in healthy soils, the influence of any of these elements is nothing compared to that of fungi.

In addition, while the other elements (worms, protazoa, etc.) are very important for soil health, we can harvest almost nothing from them. Fungi will produce mushrooms which can be used in many ways. We can eat them; mushrooms are one of my favorite foods. We can use them for medicine; this has been practiced for thousands of years, and modern medicine is just finally starting to acknowledge their benefit outside of antibiotics. As a physician, I am well aware of this. We can also use them for dyes, fire starters, crafts, and even water and soil rehabilitation (mycofiltration and mycoremediation respectively). While illegal in many countries, the Psilocybin mushrooms are used for their psychoactive properties to induce a “spiritual experience”. It is very difficult to explain this (and I have not tried it), but those who have report an insight to the natural world which they cannot quite explain but they often describe as the most significant moments in their lives. It is easy to shrug this off as a form of intoxication, and maybe that is all there is to it, but researchers are now using these mushrooms to successfully treat Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Migraines. Finally, with any of these mushrooms, and I mean the legal ones now, we can also sell them for a supplementary income. The other elements of the “soil layer” don’t offer anything close to this.

Finally, and closely related to the previous point, we will do almost nothing to manage any portion of the soil elements other than the fungi. We will be “managing” the fungi if we want a reliable harvest. We will innoculate our tree roots. We will provide wood chips or straw or manure or logs which provide food for them, which will in turn provide mushrooms for us. This is exactly how we treat every other layer in the Food Forest system. We provide for their needs and then harvest the surplus. Again, the other elements in the soil do not need our managment and they provide no harvest for us.

There you have it. These are my reasons and defense for my addition of the Ninth Layer of the Edible Forest Garden: Mycelial/Fungus Layer.

 

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Photo Reference:

  • http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3241/2978383729_4f753a30eb_z.jpg?zz=1