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Lots of gardeners seem to dislike finding mushrooms growing in their beds or on their lawns, but spotting a mushrooms isn’t a bad thing—it’s actually a sign the soil is healthy.

Although there are fungal diseases that harm plants, from powdery mildew to blackspot on roses, mushrooms and most other fungi are typically far from harmful to plants. In fact, plants rely on them in more than one way. Here’s how you can improve your soil health by intentionally growing mushrooms.

How fungi help the soil

According to research from the Journal of Plant Science, fungi improve the structure of soil and break down organic matter, making more nutrients available for plants. But they also make up a sort of network that plants can use to talk to each other about growing conditions and hazards, called the mycelium.

That’s right: It sounds wild, but fungi act as communications pathway for plants, and the symbiotic relationship can improve the overall health of the plants in your garden. In the wild, plants naturally form these relationships with fungi, but in the garden, the balance can be disrupted by tilling of the soil, the use of pesticides and herbicides, and other interventions from humans.

How fungi remediate soil contamination

Mushrooms also do another pretty amazing thing: They can remediate pollution in soil. If you have problems with soil contamination from motor oil, gasoline, and other common contaminants found in urban and suburban yards, mushrooms may be the answer to your problem. They’re super decomposers, breaking down substances that can otherwise persist in soil or water for decades. In fact, fungi have been used to remediate pollution from wildfires, farms, and industrial contamination. Your yard can benefit too.

Mushrooms are a lot bigger than you think

When you spot the cap of a mushroom poking up out of the ground, you’re only seeing about a tenth of what exists. Fungi mycelium permeate a large part of the soil, keeping it firm while doing the decomposition work unseen; the part you see above the ground is actually the reproductive organs of the fungi. The mushroom part of a fungus carries the spores, which like seeds will reproduce the fungus.

You can cultivate mushrooms in your garden

Cultivating mushrooms in your garden involves using a mushroom kit or a hardwood log, some hardwood chips or sawdust for food, spores, and some straw. Choose a shaded area, as it will likely be easier to keep damp. Put down your food base, seed with your spores, then cover with straw. Then alternate with food, seed, and straw for two to three more layers.

Water the spores in well, and keep them moist. You can also choose to use leaves or grass clippings to cover the spores. The key is make sure the spores stay damp, so adding a layer of some type of mulch will help the seeded area stay wet long enough for the spores to germinate.

You can also encourage natural growth of fungi in your garden

You don’t need to cultivate mushrooms to encourage their natural growth in your garden. Leaving a few fallen branches with some leaf or straw cover will allow naturally occurring mushrooms to flourish. You can also encourage fungi growth by using hardwood chips or sawdust in a damp, shaded area of the garden to provide lots of nutrients for mushrooms and other fungi to grow. You likely already have some fungi growing in your yard that you just haven’t spotted, so providing a welcoming habitat will allow it to thrive.

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