The Fungi Factor: The Importance of Minimizing Tilling to Protect Soil Health
Posted on January 16 2023
You might think of soil as just dirt, but it's actually a bustling underground metropolis filled with all sorts of microorganisms, including the mighty fungi. These fungi form a super important network called the "fungal web" that connects plants and other organisms in the soil, making sure they get the nutrients they need to thrive.
Gardens both big and small hold unimaginable complexity just below the soil surface. It is imperative to protect our soils by adopting no-till practices.
But here's the thing - modern farming and gardening practices like tilling, really mess up this delicate ecosystem. Tilling cuts and destroys the fungal filaments, making it harder for plants to get the nutrients they need. Something not often explained is that the fungal network actually feeds our plants. The fungal networks develop symbiotic relationships with the plants through their root systems. They have developed a trade system that allows the fungi to trade sugars for nutrients with the plants. This trade system is how plants ate before the almighty human came up with tilling as an expected part of growing food. When the plants wouldn't grow very well, (because we killed the fungal networks) we had to create artificial fertilizer to get our plants to grow. This essentially cut out the pesky fungal middle man entirely but also killed off entire soil ecosystems.
When we till the soil, we're essentially cutting and destroying the fungal filaments. This makes it very hard for plants to get the nutrients they need, and can have a detrimental effect on the soil ecosystem as a whole. Tilling causes the soil to lose its structure and ability to retain water and carbon. With out the carbon and fungal webs in the soil system, we are left with tiny particles of soil that compact very easily, blow away with even the slightest wind, and wash away with the first rainfall.
And that's not all - tilling also kills off beneficial microorganisms and exposes them to air and sunlight, which can cause them to die off. This can lead to an increase in pathogenic organisms and a decline in soil health. In fact, through the proliferation of tilling our fields and gardens over the past 100 years, we've been forced to create herbicides and pesticides to deal with the problems caused by tilling.
So what can we do to protect the fungal web and maintain the health of the soil ecosystem? The answer is simple - minimize the use of tillage and use gardening and farming practices like no-till. We understand that sometimes tilling is necessary, but it should be used sparingly and only when absolutely necessary.
Symbiotic relationships between fungi networks and plant roots are of the utmost importance if we are going to grow our food in a holistic fashion. (https://www.ag- usa.net/Articles/WhyPasturesHayNeedMycorrhizae.pdf)
We've seen the difference that no-till can make in our own garden. After our first year with a no-till garden, we ran into some major water infiltration problems. We were left with no choice but to till our garden and start over. But this time, we added 16 cubic yards of compost and another 16 cubic yards of finished sheep manure compost. From there, we built layered beds on top. The addition of the compost and organic matter to the garden (and a promise to never till again) allowed us to have incredible water infiltration rates, increased microbial activity, and strong fungal networks throughout our soil system. Most importantly, we grew the best tasting food we could ever imagine.
The bottom line is this - the tilling of our soils is causing a major disturbance to our planet. If we continue to degrade our soils, we could be left in a dire situation where we run out of usable topsoil. So let's take action now to protect the soils and keep our soil healthy for generations to come.