David Steinbrunner remembers the exact moment he decided to go organic. The Texas A&M University football quarterback and horticulture major and a fellow student were tasked with tending the campus pecan orchard in 1979. Their assignment: spray the trees for pecan weevils.
Steinbrunner and his partner gathered their large scale sprayer, filled it with zolone, a pesticide no longer sold in the United States, and made their way to the orchard. They dutifully spritzed the limbs and leaves of the pecan trees. Afterward, they removed their protective gear and washed off.
Soon they began to hear strange thuds. Steinbrunner thought maybe some pecans were dropping. Slowly, steadily, birds, insects and other former living creatures dropped from the trees to the ground. “Every crow, every bird, every lizard….Every living thing in that orchard was killed,” the 60-old horticulturist told a crowd of about 50 Bexar County Master Gardeners at the recent monthly meeting in San Antonio.
The Silent Spring moment moved Steinbrunner to swear off dousing chemicals on the earth and embrace organic approaches to landscaping and gardening. Since 1982, he and his wife Teresa have operated Steinbrunner Landscaping. After working closely with mycorrhizal fungi in his landscaping business and seeing dramatic success, Steinbrunner worked with Dr. Michael Amaranthus, a pioneer in mycorrhizal fungi research to develop a premium, proprietary concentrate of the fungi. In 2014, the couple launched Wildroot Organic, Inc. a local producer and supplier of the natural treatment, as well as an organic fertilizer.
The agriculture and gardening community’s warm reception of their organic concentrates has led them to become especially particular about which landscaping jobs they accept. The fungi business takes up all their time.
Mycorrhizal fungi has gained attention lately as part of the organic and sustainable agriculture movement. The word comes from the Greek mykos, “fungus,” and rhiza, “root” and represents the symbiotic relationship between a specific kind of fungus and the roots of a vascular host plant. More than 90% of plants on earth use or need mycorrhizal fungus to thrive. Mycorrhizae exist naturally in healthy soils, but drought, development, overgrazing, compacting, pollutants, and other detriments can kill the living organisms. Wildroot aims to replenish what would normally occur in a healthy situation–kind of like using probiotics for indigestion.
The product consists of a grayish, powdered dust that includes millions of live microbes, spores and bacteria. Mix a small scoop with water and put the solution in contact with a plant’s roots. Then wait for the “friendly fungi” solution to go to work on behalf of the plant.
The mycorrhizae will establish an underground spore colony that works unseen and overtime transporting nutrients and moisture to the roots, says Steinbrunner. In exchange, the plant sends carbohydrates to the mycorrhizae, fueling its growth and expansion. Steinbrunner says that mycorrhizae have been known to extend their colonies more than a mile from their host plant.
Other ways for gardeners to use the mix is to dip potted plants in the solution, or dig a hole to provide access to the root system, says Steinbrenner. Wild root also provides spray mixes and capsules. What’s most important is to make sure the roots have contact with the mycorrhizae. Then watch your plants thrive despite less water, less fertilizer and without chemicals as the fungi builds colonies around the roots, increases soil health and humidity, and even grows straw-like vessels to help move the food and moisture to and from the plant.
“Mycorrhizae spores need a root to survive within about 10 days of germination,” says David Vaughan, a certified arborist with Etter Tree Service in San Antonio who often uses the treatment in tree restorations. “So best way to get them started is putting the spores with the root.”
If you’ve ever seen thin, white spiderweb like matter on a plant’s roots or in the compost pile–those are mycorrhizae. I confess to having trashed such matter in ignorance. Never again.
Steinbrunner says we just have to take a cue from Nature. “Just look at a huge oak tree growing by itself in a field. These huge plants. No water, no fertilizer.” The trick is the mycorrhizal fungi, he says.
Steinbrunner shares success stories of turning fallow fields into lush prairies and converting a failing pecan orchard into a premier organic nut producer. He also shares photos of two potted plants, side by side, one treated with mycorrhizal fungus, the other not. The mycorrhizae treated plant has a more robust root system, lusher blooms and greater stem mass.
It’s not a silver bullet that will cure every landscaping ailment, he says. “But it’s a big bullet.”
Have you ever gardened with mycorrhizal fungus? Leave a comment below and let us know.
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