Category Archives: Nature

October/November 2020 garden diary

Deadly danger in the garden! I watched as an amazing crop of mushrooms and toadstools sprang up over the past couple of months. But I was shocked when I identified this specimen …

Although I’m a complete novice in the field of fungi, I remembered seeing this one illustrated as being deadly. And I believe this video on the website (a really fascinating, well-produced site, by the way) confirms my suspicion.

October can be a strange month in the garden. Some plants continue to grow full pelt and produce fruit or flowers; others quickly lose their leaves, wither and die, succumbing to the first frost; and then there are the fungi …

Fungi seem to have appeared every year, in all our previous gardens too, often arranged in a whole or part circle: both annual and annular, as it were. But this year has been different: the more I looked, the more I discovered so many individual plants, groups, pairs, rings – and so many different types.

Well okay, they’re not plants. In fact, they’re neither vegetable nor animal, the experts tell us. They form a completely different Kingdom. So what should we say they are? Planimals? Vegetals? Coincidentally, scrolling through our TV’s programme guide, I just happened to come across a discussion show on Al Jazeira, which featured a revealing interview with mycologist Paul Stamets. He confirmed that many fungi do indeed appear suddenly, in “cellular explosions”. Incidentally, Stamets is a cast member in a 2019 movie called Fantastic Fungi.

He believes that fungi are extremely under-exploited. With their largely-untapped uses in the fields of pharmacology, agriculture and environmental improvement, research into fungi should be funded as much as the computer industry, he suggests. Fungi produce water, hydrating the environment and sweating out enzymes, he says, and spores of mushrooms often become nuclei for raindrops, potentially a game-changing benefit in arid areas of the planet.

I think the unseasonably warm and moist atmosphere during this period must have been an important factor in prompting the appearance of so many. In fact, I didn’t realise quite how many were on display until I did a kind of “audit”. Searching in the grass, under trees, along the sides of concrete paths, in undergrowth, on wood piles and hidden away in crowded borders, I discovered some specimens I’d never have known were there. It all started with this lot …

I can’t say with any certainty what type of mushroom (toadstool?) these are.

Looking at my copy of The Observer’s Book of Mushrooms and Toadstools, I’m in awe of experts on fungi – mycologists – who can distinguish between the vast array of individual fungi types. It turns out that there are four main divisions in the world of fungi: Chytridiomycota (chytrids), Zygomycota (bread molds), Ascomycota (yeasts and sac fungi) and Basidiomycota (club fungi). The divisions are based on the way in which different fungi reproduce sexually.

But of course in the large majority of cases I haven’t a clue as to the names of the individual types that I came across. Having said that, realising that there are so many examples in and on our modest garden does make me want to find out more.

Ah yes, the gills. Also known as lamella, apparently, and the place where spores are formed and ejected. I wondered whether mushrooms and toadstools all had gills. Well, just hold on. I’ve searched in vain for information on the distinction between mushrooms and toadstools and it turns out there isn’t one. The Observer’s Book says: “The name commonly used for the cap fungi, other than mushrooms, is toadstools”. Elsewhere I read that they’re non-scientific terms, most often used to distinguish edible from non-edible fungi, and shorthand names for differentiating a fungus with a more ‘conventional’ shape (stalk and cap) – mushroom – from one with some other shape (toadstool). Though not always. Okay?

Anyway, back to the audit. Here are some more pics of the fungi I found.

Did you know, by the way, that for sheer size the largest living land organism is a honey fungus that makes a blue whale look like a mouse in comparison. Back to the audit …

Fungal spores are so light they are easily blown around by even the lightest of winds. The thought occurred to me that they might well fly so high that they could reach the exosphere and be conveyed to other planets – or even to other solar systems – by the effects of gravity and solar winds. Well, from what I’ve read of the weighty debate about this topic, it does seem unlikely. But the argument in favour of panspermia, in opposition to abiogenesis, is one that seems likely to run for many years to come.

After a few weeks, most were gone, cringing and shrinking into the cold of the night air. By the time of the first November frost, they’d vanished.

Vanished but not died: what I’d seen was each fungus’s “fruiting body”. Below the surface, the mycelium lives on, often lending assistance to other plants, as I mentioned in my blog about planting bare root roses. Fungi act as an internet of the soil, allowing plants to communicate with each other. I wonder if we’ll ever be able to join in their conversations? It seems that mushrooms have a great deal to offer us.

And, of course, they do provide a key ingredient in a mushroom omelette; though make sure you choose the right variety …



Leave a comment

Filed under Cookery, Gardening, Nature, Science, space and astronomy

Recycling: the seagulls are still circling

As someone who makes frequent visits to my local council rubbish dump – sorry, recycling centre – I’m frequently reminded by the calls of the seagulls circling overhead of the crying shame of our ever-growing mountains of waste.

The problem of landfill continues to grow at a speed far too close to the rate at which we’re consuming packaged products. 23.6 million tonnes of waste were produced in the UK in 2016/17, according to Defra. In a perfectly re-cycled world, there would be no seagulls above landfill mountains.

A report issued by the UK’s National Audit Office earlier this month warned that much of the waste we put into our recycling bins doesn’t in fact get recycled. In the report, the NAO comments:

“Reducing waste and using resources more efficiently are long-standing objectives for the government, and tackling packaging waste is essential to achieving these ambitions”.

I couldn’t agree more. And neither, no doubt, would Athelstan Spilhaus, writer of an article entitled “The Shape of Things to Come”, which appeared in Reader’s Digest way back in August 1970:

” … industry so far is doing only half its job. It performs magnificent feats of scientific, technological and managerial skills, taking things from the land, refining them, and mass-manufacturing, mass-marketing and mass-distributing them. But then the same mass of material is left, after use, to the so-called public sector, to be ‘disposed of’. By and large, in our society, the private sector makes things before use, and the public sector disposes of them after use. There must be a loop back from user to factory, which industry must close. If industrial genius can mass-assemble and mass-distribute, why cannot the same genius mass-collect, mass-disassemble and massively re-use these same materials? If industry were to take upon itself this task, its original design of “things” would almost inevitably include features facilitating their return and re-making. If, on the other hand, we continue to allow the private sector to make things and the public sector to dispose of them, designs for re-use will not easily come about”.

However, here we are, nearly fifty years later and the future has arrived, without Spilhaus’s dream having anywhere near come true. Things have moved on to an extent, of course. We have regulations on the initial sorting of household waste via different coloured local authority collection bins; recycling centres and processors have made vast strides technologically; since the passing of the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 2007 act, we have had Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs), which provide evidence waste packaging material has been recycled into a new product; and, according to recent data from Defra, 46.7% of household waste is being recycled.

But a recent study suggested that in the UK packaging producers pay only 10% of the cost of recycling, much less than in many other countries. And the NAO report makes clear that too much of our waste is evading the system and being shipped abroad, with too little control on what happens next – for instance, what proportion ends up in landfill. Environmentalists are calling for PRNs to be toughened up. They want to see packaging producers and supermarkets being made to make much more use of recycled materials, with more insistence on ‘closed loop’ recycling, where packaging materials are returned to the manufacturer and re-used within a continuous loop of production, usage and recycling. And, maybe most important, they want to see the building of a whole new domestic industry, with associated employment opportunities, by keeping waste products in the country and making it cost-effective for manufacturers to use home-produced recycled materials. Experts suggest that manufacturers would absorb costs in such a system.

So, forty-eight years on, the seagulls still circle above the landfill mountains; the polluter is yet to really start paying for the huge stream of waste being dumped and pumped into the environment; and an effective solution to the recycling conundrum is still part of The Shape of Things to Come.




Picture credit: colin grice [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Leave a comment

Filed under Economics, Nature, Politics, Science, space and astronomy, Society