Saturday 21 April 2018

If you go down to the woods today...

In the garden

The very picture of a fairy toadstool, fly agaric is associated with birch trees
The very picture of a fairy toadstool, fly agaric is associated with birch trees

Gerry Daly

It is now high season for mushrooms and toadstools.

When they suddenly appear in the garden, mushrooms and toadstools cause a lot of curiosity and even concern for many people. Perhaps this dates back to warnings from parents or maybe it's due to an innate unease about fungi.

There's no difference between the two - they're both fruiting bodies of a fungus. But the word 'mushroom' is used for the harmless-looking and edible kinds, while 'toadstool' is applied to the more dangerous-looking kinds. However, some benign-looking fungi can be poisonous, at least to some degree, so it is not a clear-cut division.

Fungi that live in the soil find sources of food in one of three ways. They rot and break down dead plant material, such as dead roots and fallen leaves. Or they work in symbiosis with living plants, especially trees - the fungus gathering water and nutrients with their tiny mycorrhizae and supplying the plant in return with some sugars and other substances created by means of photosynthesis. Or, they attack living plants and kill them, breaking down the dead tissue for food.

When a fungus has fed adequately from one of these sources, it sets about reproducing by making fruiting bodies called mushrooms or toadstools, and others, such as bracket-fungi on trees.

The fungal fruiting body is the only part of a fungal mass raised above ground. It produces millions of tiny spores, so small they are dust-like, and releases them on to the breeze to travel hundreds of kilometres.

The 'fruiting' of soil fungi in autumn is the culmination of a year's feeding. Whether any mushrooms or toadstools are produced depends on how much food was available and if conditions were suitable.

Feeding is most active when the soil is reasonably moist, warm and aerated. The sunshine, showers and warm weather this summer were ideal for fruiting.

Fungi in a lawn are often associated with nearby trees, or have rotted old roots, but, in general, aren't a threat to garden plants. Edible mushrooms can appear in gardens, but it is crucial to know which types are safe before trying them. The fly agaric is associated with birch.

If there are concerns about mushrooms and toadstools in your garden, and if children or pets are present, they can be picked off or trampled down.

This year's crop will soon fade away, their job done. But, in the meantime, they are part of the natural autumn scene.

Why is my laurel turning yellow?

Q My spring-planted Portuguese laurel is showing slight yellowing on some plants. Bonemeal was added at time of planting. Can you suggest a cause and remedy or is it a seasonal thing? S McNamara, Dublin

A Some yellowing of leaves is normal and is due to their adapting to their new location. They probably haven't rooted out much into the soil yet and are shedding leaves to lighten their load. Give them tree and shrub fertiliser in spring and water during any significant dry spell until there is active growth.

Send your questions to gerrydaly@independent.ie. Questions can only be answered on this page.

Sunday Independent

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