Fungus Among Us

by Ken Muellers

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When you are enjoying a beautiful day outside relaxing in the garden, fungus all around you is probably not what you are thinking about. Yet fungi (the plural of fungus) are all around you, and they are key elements of your landscape.

Many fungi are integral to a healthy ecosystem. If not for fungi our forests would be piles of dead trees with nowhere to go. Fungi (and time) are the essential destroyer of all living things. They breakdown organic material for recycling in the environment. Fortunately, most fungi only decompose dead material, leaving healthy plants to grow.

The most obvious sign of fungi in the landscape are mushrooms. Mushrooms are the reproductive part of the life cycle of fungi that distribute spores that spread the fungus. Seeing mushrooms in your garden are often, but not always, an indication of something going awry. Mushrooms commonly show up in the lawn when the lawn is overwatered. This is because fungi typically thrive in moist conditions, making mushrooms a good indicator of too much water. And while we are on the subject of mushrooms, keep in mind that while some mushrooms are edible ­– like a nice portobello – others are toxic. Unless you are an expert, it is very hard to tell the difference so don’t pick your own for snacking.

Aside from being a sign of too much moisture, another landscape problem fungus can indicate is rot in trees and root systems. As mentioned, most fungi attack dead wood, so if you have a tree conk (that thing that looks like a dinner plate stuck in the tree) growing on the side of a tree or some funky looking growth at the base of the trunk, this is usually a sign of internal decay. If you notice these you may want to have a professional arborist take a look at the tree to see if it poses a hazard.

Some fungi manifest themselves as diseases that can damage and even kill plants. Leaf rusts, powdery mildew, black spot and anthracnose are just a few problems caused by fungi. Since moisture is a key component in the spread of fungi, it is important to avoid overwatering and unnecessarily wetting the leaves of plants to avoid fungal problems.

One of the most important beneficial fungal relationships in the landscape is one you don’t see that takes place below ground. The roots of most plants have a symbiotic relationship with a special type of fungus called mycorrhizal fungi which are critical to a healthy landscape. This alliance, which has been going on for millions of years, is just starting to be fully appreciated by gardeners. These fungi grow on and in the roots of 90% of all plants. The fungus receives nutrition from the plant and in exchange, the plant gets greatly increased root capacity to absorb water and minerals. Horticulturalists have realized the importance of these fungi and often will introduce the mycorrhizae into the soil with inoculates to help plants get going. Without these mycorrhizae, many plants simply cannot survive. So be thankful for these fungus among us.

One Hundred Times, Yes!

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By Ken Muellers

This is officially the one hundredth article I have written for HOUSE® magazine. One hundred times I have stared at the blank computer screen and debated what to write. Sometimes it’s taken days and much ringing of hands to produce an article, other times the words have spilled out effortlessly. I have worried I would run out of article topics, but over the course of more than 16 years there always seems to be another garden subject to delve into.

I haven’t had to go back to the same well twice. Sure, if you have read many of my “Garden Spots,” you would have noticed some recurring themes such as the omnipresent “Right plant, Right place” concept. If I didn’t push the doctrine of matching your plant choice with the planting site conditions (light, soil, water, exposure and space available) I wouldn’t be doing my civic duty. (There,
I did it again!).

Frequent readers also probably noticed the reoccurring themes of plant diversity and the desire to share the myriad of new and interesting plants with readers. You may have perceived my passion for the subject of gardening and the enjoyment of the environment around us. I would not have been able to write 100 times about something I did not enjoy. Hopefully some of my enthusiasm has rubbed off and I was able to impart some garden knowledge along the way.

I know in doing my research for articles on various topics, I personally have learned a few things. (Who knew moss didn’t have seeds?) Although humans have been gardening for millennia, there are new plants introduced every day and new gardens to be seen everywhere. My career and my life have taken a few twists and turns over the years, as life has a way of doing, but the natural landscape and gardens around me have been a constant source of pleasure.

Fortunately, HOUSE® has been gracious and given me the liberty to choose my topic as long as it had something to do with gardens and landscapes – with the one exception of my foray into travel writing when I visited Iceland. I would like to thank the publisher and editors at HOUSE® for allowing me to wax poetic about various plants from mighty oak trees to tiny spring bulbs and to write about such riveting topics as drainage and compost without questioning my motives. I would also like to express my gratitude to the readers of the articles for putting up with my attempts at humor. (I was telling “dad jokes” before “dad jokes” were even a thing!) If you can’t have a little fun along the way, what’s the point?

So, if the questions are, do I like writing the “Garden Spot” and will I be writing more, the answer is yes, yes, one hundred times, yes! Let’s just see if I can find another hundred topics to write about. Mushrooms anyone?