Today I noticed a second, astonishing wonder in my garden this year. The first wonder I noticed several weeks ago–I had a globe artichoke overwinter. If you are not familiar with the ways of the globe artichoke, allow me to elaborate briefly. Where I live in Montana, we are a Zone 4. That means, on average, our lowest winter temperature drops no lower than -30 degrees F. This year we bottomed out our thermometer at -21.8 degrees F, so I have no idea how cold it really got this year (I think I saw -26 reported for the airport, which is a few hundred feel lower than where I sit). However, despite the bitter cold (and we had a lot of it this year), we also had a really good snow year. For about 3 continuous months we had snow on the ground, and a lot of it. Snow is an excellent insulator, so things that would normally die in the cold can be protected enough with a snow blanket to coax them through a long, bitterly cold winter. Enter the globe artichoke. Last fall I dug up several plants, potted them, and tucked them in a corner in the basement. By overwintering my little babies, I wouldn’t have to start seed in January in order to plant them out in early spring to ‘trick’ them into thinking they had lived through a winter and thus flower (i.e., produce those luscious artichokes) during their first year of life. For the record, artichokes are perennial plants in warm climates (no colder than Zone 7, which is about 0 degrees F as the average coldest winter temperatures) and they usually do not flower until their second year. Well, I missed digging up a plant last fall and earlier this spring while removing mulch from the garden beds, I noticed a queer-looking little leaf sticking out of the soil. “That’s weird,” I thought, “it looks like an artichoke. Maybe it’s a thistle?” But it sure didn’t look like a thistle, it looked like an artichoke. And it was in the bed I had planted artichokes in last year. Hmmmm……
I watched the strange leaf for a week or so and when new leaves began to appear, it became obvious to me that this was, in fact, an artichoke that survived a bitter cold Montana winter. HOW COOL IS THAT?! I yelled to everyone who would listen. Other garden nerds thought that, indeed, it was pretty cool. I thought this was the coolest thing in my garden…until today.
Today I was weeding a bed with a bunch of spinach and garlic and I saw this:
Now I’m no mushroom expert, but my first thought was, “Those look like morels.” And then, “That’s crazy talk.” Fortunately my neighbors, who I know are wild mushroom hunters, were outside in their garden. I walked across the street.
Me: Hey guys, do you know your mushrooms pretty well?
Neighbor: Well, we know a few edible ones that we hunt for, and a few that you shouldn’t eat.
Me: I have some mushrooms popping up in my garden box and [I was almost too embarrassed to say this] they sort of look like morels.
Neighbor: Well…probably not, but we’ll come take a look.
At this point I am 1) curious as hell to know what these mushrooms are and 2) a little embarrassed to think that I might actually have morels in my garden box. I mean, c’mon! I think of them growing in the forest–particularly forests that have recently burned. Not in a cultivated garden box that housed tomato plants last summer. Did I confuse them with another mushroom? Was I a complete and total idiot? We arrive at the garden box.
Me: See all these coming up around my spinach?
Neighbor: Well I’ll be darned, those are morels!
He plucks a mushroom and turns it over.
Neighbor: There’s another mushroom that looks similar, but that one is detached here at the base (he points to the stem). These are definitely morels. Wow! Where did you get your mulch?
Me: Someone at the gym had some pine needles he was going to set out by the curb and I just happened to overhear him talking about them with another person at the gym. I asked him if I could have them to use for mulch in the garden.
Neighbor: Wow! That’s pretty unusual. Amazing!
Me: Schew! I thought I was crazy for thinking that they were morels. Please take as many as you want!
Neighbor: Wow! Thanks! What an unexpected surprise! You probably shouldn’t tell any mushroom hunters about these…
Me: Yeah, no kidding! Some people search high and low for these gems!
My neighbor came back over a few minutes later with a paper bag and cut some mushrooms. She showed me which ones were the prime ones for eating and which ones were probably too dried out and past their prime. I am sooooo grateful for them! I learned something new today about mushrooms! These neighbors have shared their hard-sought Chanterelles with me in the past, they share garden plants, and garden mulch/compost/soil. I provide them with eggs, garlic, and now, morels! We have a pretty nice arrangement, but I always feel like I get the better end of the deal. I know I shouldn’t feel that way–it’s just farmgal kindness between garden nerds–and gardeners love to share (especially that zucchini)!
I’m not 100% sure the pine needles were the source of the morels. I have other boxes with the pine mulch and they do not appear to have any mushrooms in them. I don’t think it was the soil, which is a sheep manure-compost mix I get from a local garden shop. I don’t think it was the soil the tomatoes were grown in last year–though I should ask the gifter where they got their potting soil, just to be sure. The pine needles seem the most likely source. Many of the mushrooms were past their prime, but that means they have already set spores–so I am hoping for more morels to show up next spring!
I can’t help but think over and over how special my garden is. Nature is a wonderful, mysterious force, that’s for sure. What a neat gift to have these much sought-after mushrooms appear in my garden!! Secret: I have never eaten morels. Which makes this all the more special. I am beyond giddy for tonight’s dinner: morels and fresh asparagus. I’ve got plenty of spinach in the garden and eggs, so I’m sure I’ll be able to find a scrumptious way to prepare these ingredients. I’m going to eat like a queen!