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Creatures of the Compost – Fungi

Written by Tumbleweed Admin

Fabulous fungi! Definitely beneficial but can also be harmful to your health without precautions. Their contribution to the composting environment is perhaps the greatest of any the compost creatures you will encounter on your organic gardening journey. In particular, the ability of fungi to break down woody material (as well as all the softer stuff) is what makes fungi so important to the process. Apart from termites (which we definitely don’t want in our compost), there are very few other organisms that can feed on and break down woody materials. Therefore, it is vital we understand this vital group of microbes and how we can not only encourage them in our composting, but also to be aware that they can, under certain circumstances, create health risks that we can overcome with some simple precautions.


Fungi are rather like animals in that they depend on plants for their nutrition, unlike plants which are totally self-sufficient in providing their nutritional needs via the process of photosynthesis. However, fungi are able to digest organic materials that most other organisms cannot break down. In particular, cellulose and lignin, the very durable molecules that create woody plant structures such as twigs and trunks, are the staple food for fungi.


Whilst fungi are not mobile, they can colonise whole tree trunks by the growth of thread-like structures called hyphae that penetrate through cells of the woody materials the fungus is growing on. Like an iceberg with most of it invisible below the sea, fungi also fly somewhat under our radar, with most of the growth unseen inside the material being broken down. However, under the right conditions, they will produce their fruiting bodies, such as mushrooms, toadstools and bracket fungi, which in turn produce microscopic spores that are able to blow around on the wind. Millions of spores can be potentially produced and these spores can withstand lots of environmental stress and can lie dormant for long periods of time waiting for their next meal.


bracket fungi growing on a tree trunk

(Bracket Fungi - Pictured above)


Fungi can also add some spectacular effects and colour to your compost as an added bonus, especially when they produce their fruiting bodies, such as red toadstools with white spots. Sometimes the toadstools and mushrooms are delicate and dainty, other times they can be look like a modern art work such as some of the bracket fungi that are often found on dead fallen tree trunks.


(Toadstools -  Pictured above)


Not all fungi are friendly to gardens, and we will all be familiar with the experience of a plant suddenly dying in the garden. Often, this sudden death is caused by root rotting fungi which are attacking the living woody tissue of a tree or shrub. Other fungi such as grey mould (Botrytis cinerea) can attack soft tissues such as petals, especially when humidity is high and there is little air movement. These types of fungi that are plant pathogens are best put into your green waste bin where they will be able to be composted at high temperatures that will kill these disease-causing fungi.


It is also very important to understand that some fungi can pose health risks, with the biggest problem coming from the microscopic spores that are released into the air when you are turning or harvesting your compost. Some spores contain toxins, while others can trigger asthma if you suffer that condition. Either wet the compost down to stop the spores becoming air-borne, or wear a suitable dust mask.


In summary, the many species of fungi that colonise dead organic materials are absolutely vital to a successful composting process. By ensuring that you have plenty of woody materials in your compost you will be doing all that is needed to encourage them.

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