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Garden Guru: Excessive summer moisture brings a 'fungus among us'

By John Porter
John Porter
Slime mold begins producing spores in the mulch near the WVU Kanawha County Extension Office.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of preventing fungal diseases in the garden because of all of the moisture that we have been blessed with this summer. It seems that the moisture is indeed starting to take its toll on gardeners and farmers.

Reports and samples of diseased plants are coming in from all across the state. Hardest hit seems to be tomatoes, which are suffering from diseases such as Septoria leaf spot, early blight and late blight.

But plant diseases aren't the only fungi benefiting from the recent rains. Wet summers result in mushrooms and other fungi popping up in yards, and I commonly get calls about mushrooms coming up in garden mulch.

Remember, mulch is always in the active process of being composted. Fungi play a big part in the composting process, so it is only natural that they are in mulch. When moisture is abundant, they reproduce, producing mushrooms and other reproductive structures.

The actual fungal organism is made up of many (hundreds or thousands) of tiny threads called hyphae that form structures called mycelia; mushrooms are only the reproductive structures of the organisms. They are found throughout the soil, in mulch and pretty much all over the earth. In fact, the largest organism on the planet is a fungus in Oregon that inhabits more than 2,300 acres and is at least 2,400 years old.

Many people treat all mushrooms not found in a grocery store as possible deadly weapons. Some mushrooms are poisonous, but fear should really be replaced with a healthy respect for fungi. Most mushrooms that grow in this area are innocuous. It's important to know that they are an ever-present part of the natural order and are hard at work in your yard breaking down organic matter for your soil.

But if your mulch seems to be overrun with mushrooms, it is a good indicator that your mulch is too thick. Make sure your mulch is no more than 2 inches thick to reduce moisture retention and fungal growth.

While it is not a fungus, the mulch surrounding my office building has had a population boom of slime mold, which looks like what it's called. These are interesting little critters that used to be considered fungi but now have their own classification. It is more like a colony of single-celled amoebalike organisms rather than an individual organism.

The interesting thing is -- it moves! As long as it stays happy and wet, the slime mold will move around eating its favorite foods. If it becomes separated into multiple parts, it will move to rejoin. Slime molds can even, in a laboratory, go through a maze to find food. Amazingly, it always travels the shortest distance possible to find the food. I have heard of people keeping slime molds as pets (I'm sure this would make you the talk of any party).

The excess moisture also has some tasty benefits as well. Some of my mushroom-hunting friends have reported a bounty of tasty wild mushrooms in the woods. Recent rains have produced a copious amount of chanterelle mushrooms, and, thanks to friends Jessica Pollitt and Jason Young, I have had the luxury of dining on the tasty golden morsels this past week. There are other tasty mushrooms, what enthusiasts call "choice edibles," that grow in the area, including oyster, lion's mane and chicken mushrooms.

While you shouldn't be afraid of the mushrooms in your yard or in the woods, you should still be aware that some wild varieties of mushrooms can make you sick. You should never forage for wild mushrooms unless you really know what you are eating. Because several choice edible mushrooms have poisonous look-alikes, it would be most wise to learn mushroom-hunting skills from a veteran rather than relying solely on information from books.

Online I recently stumbled upon the West Virginia Mushroom Club, a group of people who enjoy hunting for mushrooms. If you are interested in learning about mushrooms and how to gather them, I suggest getting in touch with the group. They do have mushroom foraging events, which would be a good way to learn about mushrooms. You can find the club at wvmushroomclub.org.

John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at john.porter@mail.wvu.edu or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVUgardenguru.


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