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The Many Roles For Fungi In Permaculture

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From top, left to right:
Pioppino (Agrocybe aegerita); Shiitake
(Lentinula edodes) on Eucalypt; Enoki
(Flammulina velutipes) and Blue Oyster
(Pleurotus pulmonarius) and Shiitake
(Lentinula edodes); Grey oyster (Pleurotus
ostreatus) and Shiitake (Lentinula edodes);
Golden Oyster (Pleurotus citrinopileatus)
Photos by Will Borowski

Over 90% of plant species have mycorrhizal relationships with fungi, via their roots. Such relationships tend to be symbiotic, to sustain the relationship: fungi obtain sugars and shelter, and help the plants to obtain minerals, nutrients and water. The mycelia are very fine and spread well beyond the root zone, sometimes several hundred metres, increasing plant access to available nutrients. A few mycorrhizal relationships are parasitic.

Fungi can grow on the inside (endomycorrhizal), or on the outside of roots (ectomycorrhizal). The ‘endos’ are a bit like our gut biome, and can help plants cope with extreme environments; ‘ectos’ are the most familiar, because we can see them without a microscope.

Fungi are at work in permaculture systems everywhere, and we can benefit from understanding the roles they play, and working with those. There are many guilds that we can create which incorporate fungi, and this area of study is evolving rapidly.

Useful Fungi

Not all mycorrhizal fungi form edible mushrooms, but some of the most recognisable and sought-after mushrooms are mycorrhizal: black P.rigord truffles Tuber melanosporum can only be grown in association with oaks and hazelnuts; pine mushrooms or matsutake Tricholoma matsutake grow in association with few tree species, including the Japanese red pine Pinus densiflora. Two of the most commonly collected ‘wild’ mushrooms in Australia, slippery Jack Suillus luteus and saffron milk cap Lactarius deliciosus, grow in association with pine trees. If you are hunting for these mushrooms, look for the trees; Monterey pine Pinus radiata plantations are a great place to go mushroom foraging in autumn. Most cultivated edible fungi are saprophytes – decomposers, primarily of dead wood and vegetation, but also of manure, dead insects and other animals. They speed up the decomposition process, turning forest litter into soil.

I have a particular fondness for the wood decomposing fungi, partly because they are so easy to grow. I have grown the following mushroom species on eucalypt sawdust and logs, as well as on wheat straw, sugarcane mulch, rice hulls and various mixtures of mainly plant based residues: shiitake Lentinula edodes; pioppino Agrocybe aegerita; coral tooth Hericium coralloides, enoki Flammulina velutipes; and the various oyster mushrooms, which can be blue, white, pink, golden or brown Pleurotus pulmonarius, P. ostreatus, P. djamor, P. citrinopileatus, P. eryngii. Apart from delicious edibles, I have also used the same substrates to grow mushrooms for tea, including the reishi Ganoderma species, and turkey tails Trametes versicolor.

We can harness manure decomposers such as shaggy mane Coprinus comatus, wine cap Stropharia rugosoannulata, and portabello Agaricus bisporus, among many others, to speed up the process of breaking down manure, thereby reducing unpleasant odours and fly-breeding habitats. The fast cycling of nitrogenous wastes back into the soil also reduces potential water pollution from runoff.

A compost pile can be viewed in a whole new way, once we begin to understand fungi. It needn’t be a smelly old pile of debris, waiting to be turned, with yet more waiting before we get a yield from it. With a basic understanding of the requirements of just a few species of fungi we can organise composting to allow for multiple yields – function and food.

If nematodes are a problem in your garden, why not allow oyster mushrooms to hunt them down and devour them? Plants which are particularly susceptible to nematodes, such as onion, lettuce and tomato, would benefit from this stealthy companion.

More Ideas For Using Fungi In Permaculture

Many organisms enjoy consuming mushrooms, and we can organise guilds that bio-diversify permaculture systems. Some example approaches include the following.

Grow worms, snails and various maggots on spent mushroom substrates, then feed them to chickens, ducks or fish.

Grow species such as wine caps to supplement the diet of bees, which have been known to feed on the sugars contained in the mycelia.

In an aquaculture system, use mushrooms as myco-filtration units, to help clean the water as it is cycled from the ponds back to the ponds. Or feed spent mushroom logs and straw directly to yabbies, which are classic decomposers and eat just about anything: place the material at the edge of their ponds, partially submerged, and allow the yabbies to decompose the pile at their own pace. Then eat the yabbies or fed them to ducks or fish, or platypus if you’re lucky.

Feed mushrooms to livestock such as pigs, which are well-known lovers of fungi, to help keep them healthy, naturally.

Some fungi contain natural antibiotics, immuno-enhancers and adaptogens. Some farmers inoculate their straw or silage with mushroom mycelia, to create a more readily digestible food, higher in protein and food value. They then feed this myceliated food to cows or pigs. Alternatively, the mushrooms can be harvested first, and the spent substrate then fed to livestock.

Observe which fungi animals seek out, and try to learn why. I feed our chickens, ducks and geese with myceliated grains, which they prefer over fresh, untreated grains; it is easy to make myceliated grains, once you understand a few basics, using nothing more than a bucket of water, some gypsum, grain, and some spawn to start the process.

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Cyttaria gunnii, the Myrtle Orange. Photo by Will Borowski

Mushrooms In The Permaculture Zones: An Example

There is a place for mushrooms in all the zones of your garden. This is how I use them, or plan to.

Zone 0. The kitchen is the starting place for making mushroom cultures, and also the destination for many home-grown mushrooms.

Zone 1. This is where I choose to incubate and fruit many of the mushrooms I grow, because I visit this zone regularly, and use a hose here. Oyster, shiitake and pioppino mushrooms enjoy the shade and humidity offered.

Zone 2.This zone is where I choose to grow my compost lovers, because it’s where the chook pen is. My pathways are made of sawdust and woodchip inoculated with wine cap mycelia. I’m also trying morels Morchella esculenta under the apples. When I pulled out some Spanish heath and piled it up I was rewarded with a crop of wood blewits Lepista nuda, already established here.

Zone 3.This is where we’re going to plant oaks and hazelnuts for truffles, plus the nuts, as well as using the prunings to grow shiitake logs. We’ll also have a small stand of pines for saffron milk caps, slippery Jacks, and if we’re lucky matsutake! We’ll also plant eucalypts, hopefully to support morels (which are both mycorrhizal and saprophytic), but also for making log stacks of shiitakes, oysters and the other wood lovers. Then there’s the birch grove for birch boletes Leccinum scabrum, and hopefully chaga Inonutus obliquus.

Zone 4. This is our existing forest, which I thin out for timber to make terraces, which I then inoculate with various wood loving mushroom mycelia. We have wild reishi, which are long lived and slow growing, and require little maintenance.

Zone 5. This is wilderness for us, complete with Tasmanian devils, quolls, bandicoots, wallabies and pademelons (truffle lovers), as well as thousands of wild fungi, including enoki (wildgrown look completely different from shop bought).

Forest Fungi run mushroom cultivation workshops across Australia, as well as correspondence courses. For more information about courses and how to grow mushrooms see forestfungi.com.au.

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