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Soil Wars: The Battle Between Fungi and Bacteria – Who's Winning in Your Garden

Ever wondered why some plants thrive in specific soils while others struggle? It turns out that the balance between fungi and bacteria in the soil is a key player in determining the health and productivity of plants. This ratio shifts as ecosystems evolve, from early growth stages to mature and diverse forest environments. Understanding this ratio is essential for growers as it helps create the optimal conditions for crops to flourish.

Ecosystem Succession and the Fungal to Bacterial Ratio:

When a piece of land is disrupted, like after a fire or deforestation, the first colonizers are usually bacteria and what we commonly call "weeds." These adaptable plants have annual growth cycles, produce numerous seeds, resist droughts and floods, and have limited root systems. All these traits are vital for survival in marginal soil conditions. At this stage, the soil has a low fungal-to-bacterial ratio, typically less than 0.1, with bacteria dominating the nutrient cycle.

As time passes, and as plants nourish the soil with organic matter, the ecosystem undergoes a process known as ecosystem succession. Perennial plants and trees begin to grow, creating a more diverse and stable environment. This is when fungi come into play, with a fungal-to-bacterial ratio of around 5. Fungi possess a unique ability to form partnerships with plant roots, known as mycorrhizal associations. These partnerships enable the exchange of nutrients between fungi and plants, resulting in mutual growth and health.

At the other end of the spectrum, in permanent forests like Pine tree forests, the fungal to bacterial ratio can soar to over 10. Did you know that pine trees intentionally produce highly acidic needles as a survival strategy? These needles smother the ground cover, which typically dislikes fungal-dominated soil. Moreover, the needles create an acidic environment that promotes fungal growth.

Why Are Fungi Crucial for Plants?

Fungi provide several benefits through their partnerships with plants. Firstly, they help plants access nutrients beyond their immediate root zone. Fungi extend their fine thread networks, called hyphae, deep into the soil, gathering nutrients like phosphorus and micronutrients. In return, plants supply fungi with sugars, creating a win-win situation.

Fungi also contribute to soil structure and aggregation. Their hyphae weave a network that binds soil particles together, forming stable clumps. These clumps improve the soil's water-holding capacity and enable plant roots to penetrate deeply, leading to better plant growth and increased resistance to drought.

Moreover, fungi play a crucial role in the enzymatic digestion of complex organic compounds found in soil, such as lignin and cellulose. This process unlocks nutrients trapped in these compounds, effectively allowing fungi to mine the organic nutrient pool on behalf of plants. Remarkably, approximately 96% of nitrogen (N), 90% of potassium (K), and 70% of phosphorus (P) in the soil are in organic or inorganic forms, not available to plants, waiting to be utilized with the help of a healthy soil food web.

Why Does It Matter for Growers?

Understanding the fungal to bacterial ratio is vital for growers to tailor their soil conditions to the specific crops they are cultivating. Annual grain crops thrive in soils with higher bacterial dominance, while perennial fruit or nut trees prefer fungal-dominated soil. By knowing this, growers can create the ideal conditions for their crops, promoting healthier plants and higher yields.

This knowledge doesn't just benefit plant nutrition. By fostering a more complex and efficient ecosystem with a higher fungal to bacterial ratio, growers also experience reduced weed problems, decreased irrigation requirements, and lower fertilizer use. This results in healthier, more nutritious crops that are less prone to diseases.

It's essential to note that traditional farming practices, such as plowing or overgrazing, often disrupt the soil, pushing it back towards an early succession stage. This disruption can lead to a lack of diversity and make it easier for weeds to take over. Instead, we should aim for more resilient and diverse ecosystems by promoting fungal-dominated soils. This entails reducing soil disturbance, encouraging beneficial plant-fungi partnerships, and supporting sustainable agricultural practices.

Are you itching to know what's beneath your feet? Whether you want to test your soil's secrets or consult on how to make it thrive, we've got you covered! Book your free 30-minute consultation now.

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