Rain putting a damper on gardening activities except mushroom hunting

It has been raining almost every day for the past two weeks, which has certainly put a damper on most gardening activities. I have recorded more than 7 inches of rain in a little over 10 days at my house and a stream has now appeared, bisecting my vegetable garden. It is probably not a bad idea to take some supplemental Vitamin D on these dark days!

Fortunately, I have not noticed any serious damage to rapidly growing crops, but the weeds are growing even more vigorously than the veggies. This is when we see the benefit of raised beds, especially if your soil texture is heavy with lots of clay. The main threat to your crops is root rot, which initially will be evidenced by stunted growth and yellow leaves. Eventually the plants will wilt, as though lacking moisture. Root rot, caused by the fungus Phytophthora, will sometimes give off a really foul smell as another symptom. Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do to make it not rain so we need to learn how to cope as best as 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 to get my lawn mowed in between the rain showers a few days ago. Mowing wet grass is tough on lawn mowers and clippings may form mats that can suffocate the grass beneath them. It is probably best to just wait until the grass dries and set your mower as high as possible. Most people cut their grass too short anyway, three to three and half inches is optimal. If you would like to increase the number of pollinating insects on your property, consider leaving a section of lawn, un-mowed for the rest of the season. You will be surprised to see what grass plants look like as they produce flower stalks and these grass flowers will also attract pollinating insects. You don’t need to plant wildflower seeds in these areas since nature hates a vacuum and the grassy area will soon feature native wildflowers on its own. Some suburban communities may require residents to keep their grass mowed, but creating a “wildflower” garden on a small portion of the lawn, say 10 foot by 10 foot, will usually be tolerated.

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

The truth is that most species of wild fungi are not poisonous, but the few poisonous species are really quite common in occurrence, including some that are deadly. It is also true that some common, tasty species, such as chanterelles, have poisonous look a likes. In the case of chanterelles, the poisonous look alike is usually a mushroom that is called “jack of lantern”. These are both bright yellow, to orange colored mushrooms with gills that extend a bit down the stalk and they both sometimes occur in clusters that are fused at their base. Chanterelles grow out of the soil, whereas Jacks grow out of wood, but sometimes the wood substrate is buried beneath the ground and not seen. You really need to be able to positively distinguish these two species, since 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 pre-determine any mushroom’s toxicity. Generalizations such as observing wildlife feeding on any given species as a sign of edibility, or thinking that mushrooms growing on logs are not poisonous, or that mushrooms with pores instead of gills are rarely toxic, are flat out wrong! Beware of social media as well! I belong to several mushroom groups on Facebook and it seems that half the posted IDs 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 having good color pictures and it is relatively user friendly. Don’t ever rely on “book identification” however. The best way to learn is to join a local mushroom group, such as the Mid-Hudson Mycological Society or the NY Mycological Society and go out with experienced foragers. Only after learning the many different tactics used by experienced foragers will you be safe to actually eat some of these tasty fungi.

Reach Bob Beyfuss at rlb14@cornell.edu.

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