To go further into depth from our last article on building soil, we want to get into the subject of the benefits of fungi & beneficial creatures in the garden. If you missed that previous article, you can read it here.
Fungus Among Us
We felt that that this portion of the post was worthy of it’s own explanation, simply because fungi are so important to the planet's health & especially useful to have around in the case of regenerative farming & ecological garden design. Quite often, we are asked about the mushrooms/fungi in our clients’ beds or pathways. Often, people are concerned when they see mushrooms appear in the mulch & want our opinion on what to do about it. So, if you are wondering the same… our quick answer is “DON’T DO ANYTHING. Fungi are a good indication that activity is happening & that life is present in the soil. There is a special symbiotic relationship that happens when fungi meet decomposing wood. In fact, this relationship is match made in heaven.
When you see a mushroom, you see the fruiting body that is above the surface. What you don’t see is the actual body of the organism itself below the surface - it is a highly complex biologically active network that directly connects the roots of the plants within the space to one another. This fungi organism, or mycelium, is the internet of the soil; it is responsible for sending signals to surrounding plants through chemical communication, notifying them of potential threats. If you were to pull back an area of the mulch around one of our gardens, you would see it. It’s abundant around our own Food Forests here at Sandhill Farm & when we’ve pulled weeds, we’ve found it interwoven within the roots.
(Fungal Network: Photo of mycelium threads in the mulch at Sandhill Farm)
The other important job that mycelium has is to hold water & nutrients, thereby
releasing them as needed to provide for the roots of the plants. Fungi & plants are completely interrelated. To have the healthiest, most nourishing & energetic food crops with the least amounts of imputs - having a garden that is mulched rather than tilled is essential. Tilling destroys the mycelium & disrupts the communication within the soil. The only way to incorporate fungi in the garden - wood, or as we prefer to use here in our own conditions - partially decomposed oak tree trimmings. When you are attempting to grow in tilled, void top soil or sand - you are missing this key component - you will be doomed to be constantly using irrigation & dealing with pests & disease. Invite the mycelium & let them do your work for you.
The Bug Balance
Inviting a wide variety of insects into our garden spaces has done a few things for us. First, it has ensured that we are getting adequate amounts of pollination for all of our fruit trees that need insect pollinators. It has also provided us with an infinity of breathtaking moments simply watching the bees & butterflies, but more than anything – it has given us the opportunity to grow food without the use of chemical pesticides. Throughout the years of looking for alternatives to growing food without toxins, we have found that the best defense we have is to create the kind of habitat that predator insects prefer. When conventional farms spray their crops, they are destroying the natural process that contains it’s own food chain (not to mention, they are destroying the invaluable bees). Instead of killing ALL the bugs, how about bringing the natural balance back? Within all of our food forest plantings, we have incorporated specific species that attract the right kind of predators. Lady beetles, lacewings, parasitic wasps, syrphid flies and paper wasps are also nectar lovers & are therefore attracted to many of our native flowers, especially those in the asteraceae (sunflower) or apiaceae (carrot) family. Some of our favorites to plant: Dune Sunflower, Beach Sunflower, Parsley, Cilantro, Bidens alba (Spanish needle), Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia spp.) These predator insects will quickly go to work during the time of year to feed on many of our garden threats; ants, aphids, mites, mosquitos and catterpillars.
**Photo of parasitic wasp laying eggs in caterpillar. This caterpillar will serve as the host/food source, as the eggs hatch.
It is also a great idea to offer residence options for our preferred guests: bug hotels can be purchased or created for a very minimal amounts of funds.
Attracting the Other Allies: Cold-Blooded Creatures
Reptiles & amphibians are such an integral part of a healthy ecosystem, especially here in Florida. I would imagine that everyone is familiar with the night sounds of the south. The symphony of croaks is the background of our soundtrack & we think of it as the wonderful sound of home & a good indicator that the amphibious troupe is here to help us keep our mosquitos, slugs & snails in check. We have many different sized bodies of water throughout our demonstration site at Sandhill Farm to attract as many of these guests into our spaces & we want to share the idea with you to consider in your own forest garden project.
Rumor has it that Florida has a ton of bugs hanging around, so it’s no wonder that we can’t walk 10ft without nearly stepping on a lizard during the daylight. There is plenty food source around to keep them multiplying. Around our own property, we see countless species of lizards, each of them very unique in their colorings & markings. We are ever so happy to have them these cold-blooded bug-munching residents around.
Some other methods to attract these garden allies include rock or wood piles, dense vegetation, and hollow logs all provide natural refuge for these garden creatures.
Birds in the Garden: Bug Lovers & Raptor Species
Finding the right balance of birds in the garden space can prove to be a challenge when growing fruits at times. While we certainly don’t want to attract the ones that beat us to our mulberries as soon as they ripen (true story), we are looking to bring in the birds that can control the populations of grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles & rodents around (even a surplus of squirrels is a challenge, we know.)
The best ways to invite them in is to densely plant a thicket of small trees & shrubs that provide nesting & hiding spots for the small species that are fond of insects. Bird baths are also a good idea wherever you would like their help. If your interest is more into raptor species, having the luxury of mature trees, or at least a fence post, is helpful for attracting the right kind of predators (hawks & owls.)
When you create a lush, thriving system, you will attract a wide range of garden allies. Get ready to be entertained the natural world & stand in awe when you see what she can do when you give her the right “tools”.