Gardening tips: Rain hinders gardening activities, except mushroom hunting | Columnists


It has been raining almost every day for the past two weeks, which has certainly dampened most gardening activities. I’ve recorded over 7 inches of rain in just over 10 days at my house and a stream has now appeared splitting my vegetable patch in half. It’s probably not a bad idea to take a vitamin D supplement in these dark days!

Luckily, I didn’t notice any serious damage to the fast-growing crops, but the weeds grow even more vigorously than the vegetables. This is when we see the advantage of raised beds, especially if your soil texture is heavy with lots of clay. The main threat to your crops is root rot, which will initially manifest as stunted growth and yellow leaves. Plants will eventually wilt, as if lacking in moisture. Root rot, caused by the fungus Phytophthora, sometimes gives off a really foul smell as another symptom. Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do to prevent it from raining, so we have to learn to cope as best we can. Stay out of the garden when the soil is soggy to avoid compaction and stock up on mulch to apply after the rains end. Weeds are easy to pull when the soil is saturated.

I was lucky enough to have my lawn mowed between showers a few days ago. Mowing wet grass is difficult for lawn mowers and the cuts can form mats which can choke the grass below. It’s probably best to wait for the grass to dry and set your mower as high as possible. Most people cut their grass too short anyway, three to three and a half inches is optimal. If you want to increase the number of pollinating insects on your property, consider leaving a section of lawn unmowed for the rest of the season. You will be surprised at how herbaceous plants look when they produce flower stalks and these grass flowers will also attract pollinating insects. You don’t need to plant wildflower seeds in these areas because nature hates a vacuum and the grassy area will soon feature native wildflowers. Some suburban communities may require residents to keep their lawns mowed, but creating a “wildflower” garden on a small portion of the lawn, say 10 feet by 10 feet, will generally be tolerated.

One positive thing about all this rain is that we are enjoying a bonanza of beautiful mushrooms growing in our forests, including some very tasty edible species. Never eat a wild mushroom unless you are absolutely sure of its identity. I have hunted and eaten wild mushrooms for almost 50 years now and very much enjoy the foraging experience, but I adhere to the old adage. “There are old mushroom hunters and there are daring mushroom hunters, but there are no old daring mushroom hunters.”

The truth is that most species of wild mushrooms aren’t poisonous, but the few poisonous species are really quite common, including some that are deadly. It is also true that some common and tasty species, such as chanterelles, have poisonous appearances. In the case of chanterelles, the poisonous look-alike is usually a mushroom called a “jack of lantern”. They are both bright yellow to orange colored mushrooms with gills that extend a little along the stem and they sometimes both occur in clusters fused together at their base. Chanterelles grow out of the ground, while jacks grow out of wood, but sometimes the wood substrate is buried under the ground and invisible. You really need to be able to positively tell these two species apart, as both are now fruiting at the same time.

The most important rule to follow is to realize that there are no tricks or techniques that can predetermine the toxicity of a mushroom. Generalizations such as observing wildlife feeding on a given species as a sign of edibility, or the thought that mushrooms growing on logs are not poisonous, or that mushrooms with pores instead of gills are rarely toxic, are downright false! Also beware of social media! I belong to several mushroom groups on Facebook and it seems half of the IDs shown are incorrect.

My favorite field guide is the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. It lists poisonous “look a likes” for many common species as well as good color images and it is relatively user friendly. Never rely on “book recognition” though. The best way to learn is to join a local mushroom group, like the Mid-Hudson Mycological Society or the NY Mycological Society, and hang out with experienced foragers. Only after learning the many different tactics used by experienced foragers can you safely eat some of these tasty mushrooms.

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