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by Garden Writer

A new post in our Guest Garden Writer Series comes from Kristin Gembara, a certified Master Gardener from Illinois (Zone 4/5). Kristin Gembara is a Wife, Mother and a Personal Gardener in Illinois for an Organic Landscape Company.  She is an Advanced Master Gardener with the University of Illinois and holds a Certification in Sustainable Landscaping from College of DuPage.  She is delighted to share lessons from the garden in sustainability and ecology particularly to everyday people, above all the next generation.  FungiA mushroom walks into a bar.  Barkeeper says, “Get out!  We don’t serve your kind!”  Mushroom says, “Why not? I’m a fun-guy.” The horticulture world pronounces the “g” in fungi a soft “g”, like in the word giraffe.  But for the most part, everyday gardeners pronounce it fun-guy. Mushrooms or toadstools, as they are called in folklore and fairy tales, tend to be an enigma. First off, fungi do not need light to endure. Second, Fungi come in many shapes and colors in nature. Surprisingly, many biologists believe fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants.   There is much debate and research happening on this subject as I write. This stalk poking out of the ground, topped with an oriental hat-like cap, is not the actual fungus, but the fruit or reproductive part.  The fruit contains spores for reproduction. I like to think of spores as the “seeds” of the fungus. The actual fungus is underground. They have long branching strands called hyphae collectively called mycelium. Mushrooms are not poisonous to touch, but can be if swallowed.  Be on the safe side and never eat mushrooms growing in the wild or on your lawn, unless instructed by a Mycologist, one who studies fungi. FungiThe photo to the left shows a fungus fruit that appeared in my aloe plant seven days after I added a spring dose of organic worm castings to freshen up the soil.  As a Personal Gardener, I am often asked, “How do I get rid of these mushrooms that are growing on my lawn?” Let’s start with understanding the actual job of fungi in nature.   According to Tom Volk, Department of Biology UW-Lacrosse, “Fungi are important scavengers in ecosystems.  Along with bacteria, fungi are important in recycling carbon, nitrogen and essential nutrients.” Internationally respected soil microbiologist Elaine Ingham arranges fungi into three general categories depending on how they get energy. This breaks down nicely for gardeners. First, we have decomposers. ”They convert dead organic material into fungal biomass, Carbon Dioxide and small molecules such as organic acids,” says Dr. Ingham.    Most of the time when mushrooms pop up on your lawn, it is because they are growing on old tree roots, most likely from years back.  A fungi party is happening under your lawn.   The Fungi are decomposers helping to break down this old wood. This is a good sign.  They are releasing nutrients back into the soil, a wonderful natural fertilizer.  Fungi are a constant in the soil.  They just need the right environmental conditions to fruit, like those extra rainy days that we love to complain about. If you have pets, or are uncomfortable with the fungi fruit in your lawn, rake them out or mow over them. The second group Dr. Ingham calls the mutualist.  The fungi mycorrhiza forms a type of support with plants and trees.  “The mycorrhizal colonize plant roots in exchange for carbon.  Mycorrhizal fungi help solubolize phosphorus and bring soil nutrients to the plant,” says Dr Ingham. These mycorrhizal branches form a beneficial relationship with the roots of plants. There are exceptions to this fun-guy story.  Harmful fungi do exist in the landscape that may cause problems. These are the third k known as pathogens and parasites ind of fungi that Dr. Ingham brings to light. They are the bad guys in the garden, also known as pathogens and parasites.  A few examples I see out in the field are powdery mildew, root rot, leaf spot and stem blight. These fungi are usually spread through environmental elements, wind, water, and soil. There are ways to avoid spreading harmful fungi and bacteria in your landscape. First, do not work in the garden while plants and soil are wet.  This is the ideal environment for spreading disease. Second, clean your garden tools properly after gardening among unhealthy plants.  Gardening tools are the perfect host for transmitting fungi and bacteria to otherwise healthy vegetation.  Mix three parts water to one part bleach in a bucket and immerse your tools, especially when working with diseased plants.  Inspect your garden regularly for signs of plant weakness. From time to time, other types of fungi make an appearance in your wood mulch during the growing season.  Puff balls, stink horns, and slime molds, are three fungi fruit that I regularly find in our backyards.  I came upon this wonderful example of slime mold or Dog Vomit while working in the field early last summer. In 2013, the Chicagoland area experienced a particularly wet spring. This set the stage for a remarkable fungus show in many yards across the south western suburbs.  Also known as Dog Vomit Fungus, it was growing over a small section of garden mulch in a yard we were working.  I showed it to our intern Tony, who was working with me that afternoon. He immediately said, “Yuck! What is that?” That is a normal response because it is quite crass, but harmless to your garden.  It may show up in an array of colors, but should turn white and fade away within a week.  If it really troubles you, scoop it up and dispose of, or grab the hose and center shoot it off.  The appearance of fungi in your mulch means aeration may be needed.  Go ahead and move the mulch around a bit to get the air circulating through. Mushrooms and toadstools along with other types of Fungi will pop up from time to time.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  If you have pets and children you need to be aware of the fruits of the fungi labor. Fungi and bacteria have significant jobs in the soil your plants are growing in.  Remembering the importance of ecology in the garden will help your plants thrive to their fullest. All gardeners should be ecologists.