Avocado growers have been ecstatic at fruit prices and are walking their groves more avidly, checking things out and seeing lots of things they don't normally see. A recent grower find has been a blob of Fulgio septica - ‘Dog Vomit' or ‘Dog Fungus'. It's not vomit, it's not a fungus, but a slime mold that lives off the organic matter littering orchards and in mulched gardens. After the rains and when it starts to warm up, the spores of these non-animal, non-plants germinate and start moving around. They aggregate into a mass, called a plasmodium, a super individual that starts out as a yellowish, spongy mass that can move in a slow, amoeboid-like fashion. It gradually hardens and can take on the brownish-tan coloring seen in the image below. As it dries, it breaks up and blows away. It won't do harm to living plants, simply feeding on dead material. It will gradually disappear. So, as you walk your orchard or your backyard, enjoy the unusual appearance of a rainy year member of the web of nature.
There are 4,000 species of earthworms grouped into five families and distributed all over the world. Some grow uo to 3 feet long, while others are only a few tenths of inches. We call them nightcrawlers, field worms, manure worms, red worms and some people call them little diggers.
In California, we have some native species of earthworms, but in many cases non-native introduced species have come to dominate. The predominant native species belong to the Argilophilus and Diplocardia while many of the non-native are of European in origin in the Lumbricidae family. Many of these non-natives were probably introduced by settlers bringing plants from home, which had soil containing the worms. A survey of California earthworms by the US Forest Service can be found at:
This is a wonderful description of earthworm biology and their occurrence in the landscape.
When digging in citrus orchards, it is common to find earthworms in the wetted mulch under tree canopies. Many of our citrus orchards were initially established by “balled and burlap” nursery trees that brought worms along with the soil. In the case of many avocado orchards, on the other hand, it can be rare to find earthworms in orchards. Most avocado orchards have been established since the 1970s when potting mixes and plastic liners were the standard practice and worms were not part of the planting media. Even though there is a thick leaf mulch in avocado orchards, the worms have not been introduced, and it is rare to find them.
Numerous investigators have pointed out the beneficial effects of earthworms on soil properties. One of the first of these observers was Charles Darwin who published Earthworms and Vegetable Mould in 1881. He remarked on the great quantity of soil the worms can move in a year. He estimated that the earthworms in some of his pastures could form a new layer of soil 7 inches thick in thirty years, or that they brought up about 20 tons of soil per acre, enough to form a layer 0.2-inch-deep each year.
Earthworms, where they flourish, are important agents in mixing the dead surface litter with the main body of the soil. They drag the leaves and other litter down into their burrows where soil microorganisms also begin digesting the material. Some earthworms can burrow as deeply as 5 to 6 feet, but most concentrate in the top 6 to 8 inches of soil.
The worm subsists on organic matter such as leaves and dead roots near the soil surface. The earthworm ingests soil particles along with the organic matter and grinds up the organic matter in a gizzard just as a chicken does. This is excreted in what we call worm casts. The castings differ chemically from the rest of the soil, as they are richer in nitrogen, potassium and other mineral constituents.
Castings are a natural by-product of worms. When added to normal soils in gardens or lawns, they provide the same kinds of benefits as other bulky organic fertilizers. Castings today are not commonly used as fertilizer by commercial plant growers because of their cost relative to other fertilizers. However, castings are used by some organic growers and are sold commercially as a soil amendment or planting medium for ornamental plants grown in pots.
The physical soil churning process also has several important effects:
-Organic residues are more rapidly degraded with the release of elements such as nitrogen, sulfur and other nutrients.
-Some of the inorganic soil minerals tend to be solubilized by the digestive process.
-Extensive burrowing improves soil aeration.
-Burrowing can improve water penetration into soils
-The earthworm carries surface nutrients from the soil surface and imports them into the root zone of the plant.
Although earthworms are considered beneficial to soil productivity, few valid studies have been made to determine whether their presence will significantly improve plant growth. This may seem odd since many of us have learned from childhood that worms are good. It is something like the chicken and the egg analogy. The conditions that are conducive to earthworms are also ideal for plants. Both plants and worms need temperatures between 60 and 100 degrees F for good growth; both need water, but not too much or little; they both require oxygen for respiration; and they do not like soils that are too acid or basic or too salty. By correcting soil conditions that are unfavorable for one will also improve the outlook for the other. The earthworm is a natural component of the soil population. If the soil is properly managed this natural population will thrive. In this sense, the presence or absence or earthworms can be an indicator of the "fertility" of one's soil.
Biological control of Phytophthora cinnamomi in avocadothrough the use of mulches was identified by an Australian grower and later described as the "Ashburner Method" by Broadbent and Baker. The technique uses large amounts of organic matter as a mulch along with a source of calcium. Control of avocado root rot in the Ashburner method was attributed to the presence of Pseudomonas bacteria and Actinomycetes. Multiple antagonists are more likely the cause of biological control, since no single organism has been found to be consistently associated with soils suppressive to P. cinnamomi.
The use of organic mulches has multiple effects, such as altered soil nutrient and water status and improved physical structure. Any improvements in plant status resulting from improvements in the growing environment can improve plant health. The effect of organic amendments on soil physical and chemical properties can vary considerably depending on soil texture and the environment. One of the most consistent effects of organic amendments is an increase in biological activity. Increases in organic substrate lead to increased fungal and bacterial populations. In numerous cases, this increase in biomass has been associated with disease suppression. This biological control can be ascribed to several mechanisms: competition, antibiosis, parasitism, predation and induced resistance in the plant.
The microbial biomass is responsible for release of enzyme products and polysaccharides in soils. The microbially-produced enzymes cellulase and glucanase have been demonstrated to have a significant effect on Phytophthora populations. This mechanism of antibiosis is possible because the microbes are releasing these enzymes to solubilize organic matter. Unlike other fungi, Phytophthora have cell walls that are comprised of cellulose and in the process of decomposing organic matter with enzymes, an environment is created that is also hostile to the pathogen.
In order to see if there might be potential differences in organic materials being better at combating avocado root rot, a little field trial was established with 23 different types of materials (see types on Graphs 1 and 2). The mulch materials were obtained from nearby hedges and chipped or obtained from commercial sources of mulch. Some of these materials would be difficult to get in large amounts, such as manuka (Leptospermum scoparium), but others are commercially available chipped greenwaste. The materials were then spread on the ground to a depth of five inches, in separate plots that were 36 X 36 inch squares. Decomposition was measured over a two year period and then cellulase was measured in the mulch, at the soil / mulch interface and at a two inch depth in the soil at the end of 2 years.
Since cellulase production is part of the decomposition process, the rate of decomposition should be a partial indicator of the amount of cellulase present. Graph 1 shows the depths of various materials at the site after one and two years of decomposition. After a mulch application there is generally settling due to rainfall-caused compaction, but much of the decline by the second year is due exclusively to decomposition. The more recalcitrant materials, such as bark, wood chips and sawdust have barely lost half their depth after two years, while others such as shredded eucalyptus, manuka, avocado and willow are less than 20% of their initial depth. Much of the shredded/chipped material, such as eucalyptus had a significant fraction of leaves in the mulch. The wool disappeared a little after one year. The greenwaste + chicken manure compost is nearly the same depth as the wood chips, since it is a material that had gone through a decomposition process prior to its application and much of the easily digestible materials had already been decomposed.
The rate of decomposition has some bearing on the rate of cellulase production (Graph 2). Eucalyptus and manuka had the two greatest rates of decomposition and show the highest levels of cellulase production. The cellulase levels were consistent with all the different mulch materials. Using decomposition rate alone is not a complete indicator of cellulase production since, poplar, willow and avocado had high rates of decomposition, but their cellulase rates were half those of manuka and eucalyptus
It is clear that the cellulase effect is limited to the layer of mulch and not to depth within the soil. There is some effect at the soil surface, but at 5 cm. cellulase activity drops to background levels (Graph 2). There is earthworm activity at the test sites and one idea was that earthworm incorporation of organic matter would move the cellulase production into the soil. Maybe with further time this would occur. As it is, when mulches are applied to avocado, the roots tend to proliferate in the mulch, out of the soil where the cellulase activity is the least.
Something to keep in mind is that we do not know what levels of cellulase are necessary to control the root rot fungus. It may be that levels seen with pine bark are more than adequate. Also we have measured cellulase production at only one time in a two-year period and it is quite likely that this is not the best snapshot of what is happening before and after. A further reminder is that cellulase is only one of the many by-products associated with decomposition and many of the antagonistic properties that are associated with the microbial biomass are not being measured in this trial. Having developed this screening procedure what needs to be done next is to take high, medium and low cellulase producing mulches and challenge the fungus to verify that this is a good way to evaluate mulches.
I used to think that you could not add enough mulch into an orchard and cause any harm. Well, I've been proved wrong a number of times. Some people have gone overboard and put on three to five feet for some reason and it causes all manner of problems, the least of which is usually just getting around in the orchard. But organic matter is the energy source that drives a lot of positive good in an orchard. It provides nutrients for the plants, as well as the microbes that protect plant health, keeps weeds down and maintains an even soil moisture content.
In agriculture, mulch has been viewed as an important input to maintain good tree health, especially in avocado orchards. That has been true up until the introduction of Asian Citrus Psyllid (ACP) and Polyphagous Shot Hole Borer (PSHB, and a close relative Kuroshio Shot Hole Borer ((KSHB))) into California. These are insects that carry disease that are lethal to trees. The ACP can carry a bacteria that causes the death of citrus trees. It has been a major cause of tree death in Florida, as well as other parts of the world. It is severely threatening the industry in that State as it does in California. It also threatens all backyard citrus wherever they are found. PSHB, on the other hand, is another insect that carries a fungal disease that threatens not just one species of tree, such as avocado, but many native trees, such as coast live oak, sycamore, willow and many other native tree species.
Initially these pests were pretty much confined to the Los Angeles Basin and south, but ACP has moved into the Central Valley, and through Ventura up the coast. Its progress has been monitored by traps. PSHB has been found in parts of Ventura County, but it is not widespread, as far as we know at this point. Both insects can be easily moved by contaminated plant material. ACP can be found in infested leaves and on fruit. Moving that material increases the likelihood of spread. PSHB can be moved in wood where it makes its galleries. Moving wood and chips, can spread this pest/disease complex.
The way to help control the spread of these two pest and their disease causing organisms is to stop the spread of materials. This means don't move material from known infested areas, such as the LA Basin into Ventura. It means know where your mulch is sourced. Ideally, if you mulch, it should be with material found onsite. Chip the trees on your property and use it there. This is a threat not only to you, but your neighbors, as well. Be a good neighbor.
For more on ACP and PSHB/KSHB see:
Photos: ACP and PSHB
The first email has come in. Every winter when it rains, we get calls about these weird gelatinous blobs in orchards and garden beds. They can look like vomit, be yellow, green, red, or blue colors and they can actually move. A rich forest floor or an avocado orchard with its thick mulch or a lemon orchard with piles of chipped prunings or a yard with mulched beds make for a great environment for slime molds to start moving with rainy weather, or when there has been significant irrigation.
Slime mold is an informal name given to several kinds of unrelated organisms that can live freely as single cells, but aggregate together to form multicellular reproductive structures. Slime molds were formerly classified as fungi but are no longer considered part of that kingdom. Although not related to one another, they are still sometimes grouped for convenience within the kingdom of Protista.
More than 900 species of slime mold occur all over the world. Their common name refers to part of some of these organisms' life cycles where they can appear as gelatinous "slime". Most slime molds are smaller than a few centimeters, but some species may reach sizes of up to several square meters and masses of up to 30 grams.
Many slime molds, namely the "cellular" slime molds, actually do not spend most of their time in this state. As long as food is abundant, these slime molds exist as single-celled organisms. When food is in short supply, many of these single-celled organisms will congregate and start moving as a single body. In this state they are sensitive to airborne chemicals and can detect food sources. They can readily change the shape and function of parts and may form stalks that produce fruiting bodies, releasing countless spores, light enough to be carried on the wind or hitch a ride on passing animals.
They feed on microorganisms that live in any type of dead plant material. They contribute to the decomposition of dead vegetation, and feed on bacteria, yeasts, and fungi. For this reason, slime molds are usually found in soil, lawns and on the forest floor, commonly on logs. However, in tropical areas they are also common on flowers, fruits and leaves. In urban areas, they are found on mulch or even in the leaf litter in gutters, and also grow in air conditioners, especially when the drain is blocked. One of the most commonly encountered slime molds is the wonderfully described yellow "Dog Vomit" slime mold Fulgio septica, found both in nature in forests, as well as mulched orchards.