Helpful fungi in the garden?
We’re all encouraged to garden for wildlife. Usually it’s in relation to wildflowers, birds, invertebrates and mammals. What about fungi though? Can wildlife gardening help provide habitat for them too? It certainly can and, indeed, if you have been gardening to promote wildflowers or any number of small creatures, chances are you’ve been helping to promote fungi as well. Here we have a closer look, using photos from one of our own gardens, at what types of fungi you might encounter.
Dead Wood is Not Dead Weight
We’ve all had the same problem: trimming back encroaching trees leaves us with a pile of dead branches and little idea of what to do with them. However, rather than dispose of them, we should place them in a quiet corner of the garden. Dead wood piles provide a wonderful habitat for any number of invertebrates, such as wood lice and millipedes. Even better, they’re also a wonderful habitat for a range of saprotrophic fungi (fungi that decompose dead things). The dead wood acts as the food source for the fungi, who cannot make their own, and in decomposing it they provide further habitats for invertebrates. Indeed, such is the magic of fungi that they are one of the very few organisms able to break down lignin, the complex chemical that gives wood its sturdiness.
A whole range of beautiful fungi can be found on dead wood including disc, crust, and jelly fungi. And it’s not just fungi! Fungal-like organisms, known as slime moulds, can also make their homes within piles of dead wood. Weird organisms, that have been able to mimic the Japanese rail system, they have a range of funky common names including wolf’s milk, moon poo, and tree hair.
Lycogala terrestre, known as wolf’s milk, on a rotting log
Keep On the Grass
If we should keep our dead sticks for our insect and fungal friends, we should make sure to remove grass clippings to help wildflowers and fungi. High nutrient levels in soils are known to discourage wildflowers and also a special group of fungi known as CHEGD species. These are waxcaps, fairy clubs, pinkgills and earthtongues, which require a special type of habitat increasingly threatened within Great Britain. For this reason, the use of fertilisers and pesticides should be avoided too. Not only would you be helping at-risk species, but they’re also beautiful. The waxcaps in particular have been described as the orchids of the fungal world due to their bright colouration.
A selection of CHEGD species. From left to right, the earthtongue (Geoglossum sp.), the parrot waxcap (Gliophorus psittacinus), and the yellow club (Clavulinopsis helvola)
Bring us a Shrubbery
Shrubs and trees provide habitat for many of the larger fungal species. Besides being great nesting sites for birds, trees and shrubs also form intimate relationships with fungi known as mycorrhizae (fungal roots). The plants trade sugars made during photosynthesis, with the fungi for water and nutrients. Spore kits (or even mature mushrooms) of mycorrhizal fungi can be added to planting holes to increase the likelihood of plants establishing themselves well and you might see toadstools popping up in time too.Scleroderma citrinum, known as the common earthball, is a frequently found ectomycorrhizal species- particularly in the north of England.
There are other gardening approaches which can benefit fungi. No dig gardening is a method of creating flower and vegetable beds that does not disturb the soil, and thus the useful fungi. Mulching can provide additional nutrients to saprotrophic fungi.
Whatever you decide to do, it’s important to remember that fungi in the garden have useful roles to play in recycling, promoting plant growth, and providing food for small mammals and invertebrates. We would encourage you to give them a little space, not least because they’re an important and beautiful part of nature that can bring a new depth to your garden. Why not have a look around your garden this autumn? It’s likely there’s more of the hidden kingdom there than you previously thought.
By Jeanette Maddy and Nathan Smith
Please note that, whilst the majority of fungi are not harmful to people and pets, an extremely small minority can cause illness and, in extreme cases, death. Thus we would emphasise that similar levels of vigilance should be applied to fungi as to other garden hazards, such as bodies of water and poisonous plants. If you, a member of your family, or a pet, do consume an unknown fungus, please seek medical help immediately. We would also advise posting on the Facebook page Poisons Help; Emergency Identification For Mushrooms & Plantshttps://www.facebook.com/groups/144798092849300 whose members can assist you in identifying the sample.