Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Going Ballistic in the Garden

At our health club the other day my personal trainer Kristi told me that she had artillery fungus.

I politely backed away and hurriedly began making plans to avoid her touch during the remainder of the session. Then I realized that she was just talking about a problem in her flowerbed, in an effort to take my mind off of the inherent physical pain involved in the task at hand.

I was totally unfamiliar with this apparently evil organism. But I was aware of other unpleasant plant-versus-human interactions such as poison ivy. And years ago I read the Michael Crichton novel, "The Andromeda Strain" which, as I remember it, was about the destruction of the human race by an mutant virus from an evergreen shrub of the heath family, possibly a Japanese Andromeda bush. We have a Japanese Spirea in our side yard. That's close enough for paranoia.

So, just to be safe I looked up "artillery fungus" on the Internet and found this alarming Google headline:

"Artillery Fungus Threatens Homeowners, Mulch Industry - Penn State..."

"OMG!" I thought. "Coach Joe Paterno has it too. This is much, much worse than I realized."

"Q: So, what exactly is the artillery fungus?
A: ...a white-rotting, wood-decay fungus that likes to live on moist landscape mulch.
Q: I can't see it in the mulch -- just how big is the artillery fungus?
A: ...quite small...1/10 of an inch across and are very hard to see in the mulch.
Q: Why is it called the "artillery" fungus? Is it also called the "shotgun fungus"?
A: [It]...shoots its spore masses, sort of like a cannon or howitzer...The spores are usually shot only a short distance, several feet, but the wind can carry them for longer distances and up to the second story of a house." (www.personal.psu.edu)

OMG! OMG! We have mulch. We have moisture. We have a second story. I even spread the stuff by hand and then get down on the ground and play in it every day of the gardening season.

The more I learn, the worse it gets.

No form of mulch, other than white stones and plastic, is immune to this fungus. If it sits on the ground for more than a year it is a likely breeding ground. Therefore the answer, for those of us who like the look and feel of an organic weed suppresser and soil improver, is "out with the old, in with the new" on an annual basis.

But what actual damage does artillery fungus do? It makes whatever surface it lands on -- plant leaves, house siding, lawn furniture, white sports cars, slow-moving gardeners -- look really icky and gross, as if it was covered with little black specks of fungal spore tar. Which it is. Yet it apparently does no real harm at all. It is classified as a "nuisance" fungus.

But that is more than enough for some of us. Particularly someone who, several times a year, has to crouch down in a severely twisted posture and hand-spread layers of mulch around his possibly potent perennials. Maybe if I just think about the inherent physical pain involved in the task at hand it will take my mind off the potential danger in my flowerbed.

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