The Coastal Gardener: Can we appreciate the fungus among us?

January 21, 2011|By Ron Vanderhoff
  • Mushrooms, like these, are common sights following wet, rainy periods. They are the fruiting portions of generally harmless underground organisms living on decaying organic material, such as dead roots and old compost. Some, like the bottom picture, sprout from the decaying wood of dead or dying tree trunks.
Mushrooms, like these, are common sights following wet,… (Daily Pilot )

For sure, if there's one thing a purist doesn't want to see in their garden, it's mushrooms! Why does the sight of mushrooms popping up in a lawn or flower bed cause such annoyance?

Mushrooms are a fungus, not a true plant. The fact that all mushrooms are fungi is probably the root of the issue. The term "fungus" has about as much charm as a hangnail. Humans don't like fungus; we treat fungus, we apply ointment for fungus, we see doctors and specialists for fungus. We live our lives with a goal of "fungus avoidance."

Mushrooms thrive in warm, damp, organic areas of gardens, forests and woodlands. The actual fungus is a threadlike organism in the earth and is usually unseen. The mushroom is the reproductive structure or "flower" or "fruit" of a certain family of fungus. The mushroom is usually comprised of a flattened cap attached to a stalk. Underneath the cap are rows of gills that house reproductive cells called spores. These spores are released by wind to produce more fungus.


Mushrooms live on organic matter. The more decaying organic matter your soil contains, the healthier it is, the more fungus it will support and the more mushrooms it will grow. These fungi and the mushrooms they produce live on dead or dying plant roots, old decomposing mulch, rotting wood, construction debris buried in the soil, decomposing thatch and decaying animal waste. Large amounts of fungus are alive and well in healthy soils and are a part of the basic soil food web that gardens and plants depend upon.

There are many different types of soil fungus. No matter what type they are, the majority doesn't cause any serious damage to plants, but in most cases, gardeners view them as unsightly and unwanted.

Of the three classes of mushrooms, most if not all are crucial to healthy garden ecology. Most soil fungi are saprophytic, meaning they help decompose dead leaves and other organic debris, turning it into humus, a vital component of healthy soil.

Some soil fungi are mycorrhizal, meaning they form a mutual relationship with various garden and forest plants. The plants' roots and the mycorrhizal fungi form a relationship in which both benefit. This web of interaction in the soil is crucial to keeping water and minerals available to each participant, the plant and the fungus. In fact, the best organic fertilizers, like Dr. Earth, and some soil amendments actually contain thousands of spores of these beneficial types of fungi as a useful ingredient.

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