Fungi Products Help Plants, Trees, Grass Grow

Mycorrhizal fungi is a little-known but remarkably effective biological fertilizer.

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When Michael Kernan cleans his refrigerator, he throws away the food and keeps the mold.

That's because the fridge in his laboratory is home to mycorrhizal fungi, a little-known but remarkably effective biological fertilizer.

Kernan, a pioneer in the field of fungal research, is the head of technical services for Plant Health Care, a Harmarville, Pa.-based company that produces the fungi.

Gardeners often assume fungi are bad for plants, but this naturally occurring organism is anything but. In nature, these fungi form a symbiotic relationship with plants and help them grow.

Mycorrhizal fungi are nothing new; they have been around for 425 million years and have been studied by scientists for more than a century.

What's new is that Kernan's company has figured out a way to manufacture lots of them, then keep them alive in products on shelves for months.

Kernan, who helped the company become the first to commercialize the fungi in 1995, is often asked why gardeners would buy something that already exists in their gardens.

He points out that the topsoil in many areas, especially ones with new construction, lack the fungal network in place in more established gardens. He also says this bio-fertilizer is more effective than chemical fertilizers.

"It provides fertility at low levels right where it's needed, in the root zone. It's sustainable, it's constant, and it doesn't run out."

The mycorrhizal fungi work inside tiny feeder roots that grow near the surface of the soil, usually just past the drip line of a plant's outermost leaves. The fungi form a secondary absorption system of fine strands that grow farther and farther out into the soil to collect more nutrients than the feeder roots could on their own. They can form a huge network from plant to plant. In fact, the largest living thing ever recorded on Earth is a mycorrhizal fungi network that extends across five square miles in the forest.

In this symbiotic relationship, the plants get the extra nutrients brought in by the fungi and the fungi feed on sugar from the roots.

Although the company deals mostly with commercial clients, it lists its products on its website, www.planthealthcare.com.

Separate products are made for trees and shrubs, flower beds and lawns.

Plant Health Care also has signed a long-term deal with Scotts Co., which plans to test-market its products next year and sell them nationwide in 2006.

But many professionals are already wise to the benefits of fungi. The City of Pittsburgh uses Tree Saver and other products when planting trees. In New York City, where 10,000 trees are planted each year, workers are required to use Plant Health Care's products. Losses have reportedly dropped from 11 percent to 1.5 percent.

Landscape designer Phyllis Gricus of Squirrel Hill, Pa., uses Plant Health Care's products in the gardens she creates for clients. Skeptical at first, she decided to test them on a job site that was contaminated by a diesel fuel spill.

"Within six weeks, the left side that was treated was much healthier and had much more vigorous growth than the right side," she said.

Gricus now uses the bio-fertilizer in large container plantings and with new trees and shrubs.

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