The Hidden Waxcap Grasslands; a Rare Habitat for your Garden

Grasslands and Meadows support a wide array of wildlife & plant-life, and in the UK the priority for habitat conservation attention is associated more with grasslands than with any other UK habitat type.

Waxcap fungi, alongside some Pinkgills, Club, & Coral fungi, and Earth-tongue fungi, form a group of mushrooms that thrive merrily within types of unimproved or semi-improved grassland, forming the waxcap-grassland.

The semi-improved term refers to a grassland’s treatment with fertilisers either in the past or at a low level. We refer to this land as “semi-improved” as it is a term that is derived from previous land-management systems that focus on making land more productive for crop growth; a naming that is a keepsake from arable ownership. Any land that has been partially nutritionally “improved” to a certain degree, or at least was at one point, alongside any form of land management practices (i.e ploughing or reseeding) is often referred to in this way. Semi-improved is a very common condition for a lot of our grasslands, being arable, pastural, or in a garden setting. However there exists both Improved Grasslands (highly/currently modified by fertiliser & management) and Unimproved Grasslands (non-modified by fertiliser & management) which are at either side of semi-improved grasslands, and represents the entire range of low-to-high nutrition.

Unimproved & Semi-improved grassland typically offer a higher number of species compared to Improved, as species who thrive in areas of dense nutrition regularly outcompete other species due to the fact that most species have evolved to cope within low nutrition environments and therefore cannot make use of all the available nutrients even if they are abundant. By retaining a lower nutrition and level of soil disturbance, other species can settle into the grassland, such as these colourful fungi to provide autumnal bouquets.

Many of these delicate fungi are widely threatened due a loss in suitable habitat as many habitats are improved due to agriculture, management practices, and nutrient run-off. Either this, or the opposite occurs when a grassland is left for too long with a lack of herbivore grazing or mowing, allowing scrub & shrubs to encroach and turn the land into a woody thicket.

Especially valuable Waxcap-Grasslands can still be found for people to view, often managed as parks, cemeteries, or even home-lawns.

So, if you think your garden lawn fits the bill for unimproved or semi-improved grassland, then this is a perfect chance to encourage some fungi in your garden!

The Garden Management Approach

Any actions you take to maintain & enhance your garden towards a wax-cap grassland habitat will result in a positive contribution towards these species, so feel free to be bold in your approach. Often, this style of management will benefit many other species as well.

  • Regularly mow your grass to a short length ensures that the grass doesn’t out-compete it’s neighbouring waxcaps
  • Remove the grass clippings, this will lower nutrient levels over time as the grass clippings won’t decompose back into the soil.
  • Avoid using fertilisers and lime to avoid the same issue of nutrition, but also to make sure the soil PH & chemistry remains unchanged.
  • If possible avoid pesticides & fungicides. In a homestead this may be an unreasonable request compared to a wild grassland, so just minimise usage or avoid spreading widely.
  • Moss is often present in the best waxcap grassland sites, though many don’t feel the urge to welcome moss. If you find yourself open-minded to the idea, I have a post about moss that may be worth the read.
  • Two issues faced in wild grasslands may not apply to your garden, but it’s worthwhile to know & interesting to boot; Avoid soil damage in the form of compaction via vehicle, as this affect drainage to form water-logged soils that provide poor growing conditions for mycelia, and similarly root spreading capability due to the newfound toughness of the soil.
  • Also look to ensure scrub doesn’t encroach – though again, these are less likely in your garden due to how well maintained gardens are kept.

A Final Note

Don’t be alarmed if it takes a while to recreate, restore, or improve your grass patch into a waxcap grassland as it takes time for fungi to inoculate onto a new patch – their spores spread on the wind and take time to establish in soils, having to grow throughout the soil before producing their fruit (the above surface mushroom), even under suitable management.

It is worth it though, as grassland fungi can be an important component to grasslands as a decomposer community, of similar importance to the plants that also reside there, quickly recycling the nutrition in the soil and spreading it evenly to maintain a balanced soil mat. In a sense they are important for soil conservation, assisting in building up soils, soil health, and preventing soil erosion. The combination of grass roots and mycelium root systems in this unique habitat stabilises the soil in many aspects. It is similarly that this array of grasses, fungi, and often wildflowers & herbaceous species is an important habitat for a wider array of both plants and animal species, even supporting those that are both rare and/or threatened – there are some species associated with waxcap grassland that are found nowhere else in the world.

So, if you decide to try for a colourful garden display I hope you find yourself with an additional option this year. This practice isn’t wholly dissimilar to wildflower meadow management, so perhaps you can look at wiggling in some additional late bloomers!

See you next time!

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