A woman called me for some gardening advice a couple of weeks ago. She talked about various projects... fruit and vegetables, trees and shrubs... ...and then she said something so horrible I stopped in my tracks. "I have mushrooms growing all over the place," she related. "They're everywhere!" "Really?" I replied, "That's great!" "GREAT? Seriously? I hate them! I've been pulling them all and throwing them over the fence!"
Oh, the horror! The horror! I've heard this before, particularly with meticulous gardeners. Mushrooms pop up in the middle of a green lawn and they're immediately hunted down and destroyed. Does that describe you, oh enlightened reader of Mother Earth News? I hope not!
The average gardener sees mushrooms as if they were individual plants. He spots them in the yard and assumes they're simply a single organism, or a group of organisms in a ring or a cluster. Rarely does he stop and wonder how deep their mycelium run. The truth of the matter is that mushrooms are simply the fruiting bodies of a creature that may be much larger than it appears at first, second or third glance. Their deep underground network may have been around long before you arrived on the scene.
Have you ever turned over a log or some mulch and seen wispy white fibers running through the wood? That's the main body of the mushrooms, i.e. NOT the part getting thrown over the fence. In your garden, or better yet, your food forest, mushrooms and other fungi are tireless creators of soil and recyclers of hard-to-compost organic matter such as roots, logs and tough vegetable material. They digest rocks and release nutrition that plants can only dream of accessing.
Some mushrooms even have beneficial relationships with your plants. A tree can photosynthesize and create sugars mushrooms in a way mushrooms can't. They trade these sugars to mycorrhizal species of fungi and in turn are rewarded with minerals often carried to their roots from far beyond the tree's reach.
Innovators like Paul Stamets, author of Mycelium Running and other books, are now spreading the word. Entrepreneurial companies are even selling living fungal cultures you can add to the soil when you plant trees, giving them a leg up (or a "root" up) on the competition. Many of these products have been shown to help; however, you don't need to resort to buying fungi to get them running happily through your soil and enriching your homestead.
For the last few years I've been dropping tree company mulch, logs, leaves and other scrounged organic matter around my front yard food forest garden. When I go on walks I seek out mushrooms in fruit and bring them home, burying them and spreading their spores here and there.
(My wife realized how badly I had fungi fever last week on the drive home from church. In an empty field by the highway, I saw a big fairy ring of large mushrooms and pulled a U-turn to pick a few. Turns out they were the lovely [and unfortunately inedible] Chlorophyllum molybdites. To my wife's slight irritation [she was faking... I think], I pressed three good specimens into her hands and said "Don't let them get damaged! I need to spore print these!")
We've had a good wet summer this year and as fall approaches the sheer number of mushrooms in our front yard has been marvelous. We're talking at least 30+ species that I've seen thus far, all on a half-acre. I took a bunch of photos and posted them on my blog - you can see the beauty here.
Since adding wood chips and gaining the resultant fungi I've seen a lot of improvement in plant growth. Plus I get to look at beautiful mushrooms. One of these days I'll start deliberately cultivating edible varieties... but that's a topic for another day.
Now if I can just convince my lawn-loving neighbors to chuck their mushrooms over my fence, I'll be all set.
David Goodman is an avid naturalist, gardener, writer and teacher as well as being the creator of www.FloridaSurvivalGardening.com, a daily gardening resource for people serious about growing food in tough times while still taking time to enjoy creation in all its abundance.