When I first saw the circles of tiny toadstools in my lawn, I thought they were cute. "Oh, you have fairy ring!" one of my friends exclaimed. What a pretty name, I thought, imagining wee fairies dancing hand in hand in circles late at night in my yard. And the grass around the ring was so lush and green, greener than any of the surrounding turf.
That was before I knew what it was.
When I was finally able to go outside and survey my kingdom without wearing a parka, I noticed that the fairy rings were bigger and not half as green as they had been. They were spreading! And their centers had turned into brown patches where it seemed even the little toadstools I had stupidly admired had trouble growing.
They definitely weren't cute.
One of the things I enjoy about gardening is the (often mistaken) sense of control it provides. When I seed or weed or scuplt a border, I have the enjoyment of creating beauty out of something that would be far less beautiful but for my attentions.
So like many other gardeners, I patrol constantly, on the watch for any infestation or potential disaster. Whatever action is necessary to ward off the impending evil, I will take, within reason (and sometimes beyond reason). A goodly portion of my gardening months each year are spent battling whitefly, aphids, caterpillars, leaf miner, slugs, white spot and wilt. Now I had a new enemy - fairy ring! How could I allow my beautiful borders to be surrounded by huge brown patches of dead soil? It was time for action!
First, I armed myself with information. A quick check with my neighboring gardeners confirmed my suspicion; it was a disease and it was definitely killing my lawn. But my neighbours were not encouraging when I asked them what could be done about it. "Nothing," Charlie, my neighbour across the street said, shrugging. "Once you've got it, it spreads faster than a wildfire." He added confidentially that you don't notice it much in the winter because of the snow though, which I did not consider a very helpful tip.
Even our resident neighbourhood expert, a woman with a degree in horticulture, was not very useful. She was able to tell me that the cause of fairy ring is uncertain, but that it is often caused by a fungus which starts from decaying matter under the surface of the soil. But she was unable to give me any encouraging words about its treatment. "The only way I know to get rid of it is to dig it out," she said.
I was aghast. "But if I do that it will leave huge holes in my lawn!"
"No," she said, as gently as she could. "Not just the rings. You dig out the whole thing down to at least twelve inches, dispose of the soil off-site, put in new topsoil and reseed. That might work."
After I got up from her own beautifully manicured lawn, I staggered back to my place and woefully examined the rings. No more visions of dancing fairies; this was a war! I imagined, as I stood there swaying, that I could see the rings spreading. How much grass would I have left? Three patches? Two? And how far was I prepared to go? Was it time to call in the earthmovers? Would I enjoy my yard much while the bulldozers dug it out? Did RentTown even have such equipment?
Desperately clinging to the notion that people outside the immediate vicinity might know more, I wielded my telephone. First I called THE expert, Alice, writer of our local gardening column and a person who has worked with plants for more than forty years. Alice was perfectly willing to discuss my problem. Unfortunately, that was all she could do for me; I had a big problem. Because the fungus roots form a felty layer under the grass, the grass itself can't get the moisture it needs and the grass in the rings dies. She was also able to tell me that poor watering and feeding practices are big contributors to the spread of fairy ring. The best way to avoid it, she assured me, was to always water and fertilize your lawn well; a lush, healthy lawn wasn't plagued by such things. The only cure was to dig it out.
Now I was not only distressed by the terrible cure but feeling guilty about how poorly I had treated my lawn these past years. I mowed it and watered it but had I ever really fed it or lavished any attention on it? Humbly, I dialed the local Plantland. They had whole aisles of pesticides and fungicides there; surely if there was some other solution they would know about it. What I really, really wanted was something that I could just sprinkle or spray on; I didn't even care how long it took. I was prepared to spend my entire summer doctoring the rings if necessary.
It took most of it. Plantland did have a chemical cure, a fungicide that "might" work, although the accompanying brochure stressed that eradicating fairy ring was tricky work. It was also, I quickly discovered, hard work.
Before I could apply the fungicide, I had to prepare the lawn by punching holes eight inches deep throughout the ring mass and out to twelve inches all around it. Even though I chose a nice sunny day, this was not pleasant work and more than once I regretted not having some big strong teenage children to do it for me. None of my ordinary garden tools worked sufficiently well; they either required so much force that I almost dislocated my shoulder or they were so wide that I might as well be digging out all the soil. I finally hit on the idea of using a file and hammer to punch the holes, which worked but was still arduous.
Next came the easy part, soaking the sites with water until the lawn felt soggy underfoot. I started to even feel optimistic; perhaps I could win this battle after all without heavy equipment! But my euphoria disentegrated when it came time to actually apply the treatment.
One problem was the directions. They advised me to mix a "radio" of 3 teaspoons of the fungicide to 2 and 1/2 litres of water. Try as I might, I could not think how to do this. Assuming this was a typo, I bravely attempted to mix a "ratio" instead. This mixture turned out to be a gooey bright blue mass with the consistency of Polyfiller, which led to the next problem.
Believe it or not, although I have gardened for years on a property that contains plants from fruit trees through small alpines, I do not own a pressure sprayer. None of the sprayers I do own were very effective; time after time the fungicide clumped and clogged the head. Desperate, I finally resorted to pouring the fungicide down the hardwon holes by pail.
Then it was waiting time. For four days I anxiously scanned the sky and all possible weather stations on T.V.; if it rained, it would dilute the solution. Fortunately, mother nature cooperated to an unprecedented degree and no rain fell.
This meant it was time to fertilize (with 30-10-10) "on a regular basis". Once again I was at a loss. Did this mean I should fertilize the diseased areas once a day or every Tuesday? Because the directions also called for watering the patches every fourth day for a month, I'm afraid my fertilizing schedule was not as regular as it should have been.
But I did do it, of course, being determined to wage the war through to the end. So what if I missed the annual back-to-school sales? Didn't the kids still have supplies left over from last year?
It was a long month. "Mushrooms and fairy ring should disappear", the instructions sheet blithely announced. I waited and watched. I scrutinized each problematical patch at least eighteen times a day. Would it come back?
So far it hasn't. But neither has the lawn. Now instead of toadstool rings, it's crowned with bare brown patches. I've called out the reseeding troops and am busily engaged on yet another stage of the war.
The grass might grow yet this fall, and it might not. But I refuse to despair. One of the major advantages of gardening in the Canadian North is coming: winter. It gives us strong luscious lilacs... and a respite from plagues such as fairy ring. As my neighbour suggested, I'm going to cosy up to my fire and my catalogues, dream of lush green carpets and enjoy.
About the Author Susan Ward is an ex-English Teacher who now earns her living by writing. She is author of the column "Gardening in B.C." at Suite 101.