It's good to grow mushrooms: Zev Friedman dishes the dirt on myco-forestry and explains why it's a great idea.

AuthorFriedman, Zev
PositionDIGGING IN

Myco-forestry is the cultivation of fungi as part of forest agriculture. People mean different things when they use the term "forest agriculture." My intended meaning is closest to that of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the founders of permaculture. In the early sixties, they asked a big question: in places where durable human cultures have existed for many centuries with relative stability and without undermining the ecosystems that supported them, how did they do it? They found some commonalities, the most prominent of which was a reliance on perennial trees and shrubs for food instead of annual crops. These forest crops only have to be planted once (if at all), and they don't require tilling. Forests build their own topsoil, fix carbon, absorb stormwater runoff, maintain high levels of biodiversity, provide resilience during famine, provide a diversity of crops in a small area, and feel wonderful to spend time in. Convinced yet to bring the forest to your backyard?

It's not quite that easy, though. Successful forest agriculture requires a deep understanding of natural ecosystems so that we can imitate their most productive facets. Biologists now classify life into around six kingdoms, and in healthy ecosystems all six are represented. Each kingdom has a different role in the food chain, and all these roles mesh intricately to make the whole thing work.

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Mushrooms are in the Kingdom of Fungi. Over millennia, they've evolved a unique repertoire of enzymes that allow them to chew up dead animals, trees and even bedrock, converting these substances into forms that can be used by the rest of the ecosystem.

There are two main types of complex fungi: saprobes and mycorrhizae. If we didn't have saprobic fungi, Earth would be buried in hundreds of feet of accumulated plants that can only be broken down by these fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi, on the other hand, use their enzymes to digest particles of rock and organic matter in the soil, trading the resulting minerals with their plant partners for photosynthetic sugars. Plants with mycorrhizal partners grow faster, have fewer disease problems, and are more resilient in the face of rapid change than plants that go it alone. In fact, healthy forests simply cannot exist without mycorrhizal fungi.

Myco-forestry deliberately uses these amazing fungi in forest management. The practice is especially desirable in the wake of some kind of disturbance (logging, development or a...

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