Gardening Tips: November 16, 2011

Just about everyone who writes a newspaper column aspires to be a popular writer and perhaps someday have the chance to appear in major media, reading our brilliant thoughts to a huge audience. Few columnists have been as successful or as famous as was Andy Rooney. He was also almost universally loved, despite his reputation as an old curmudgeon.

Some of you may know that Mr. Rooney lived in Rensselaerville, in Albany County, during the summer. He was very much a reluctant, local celebrity who did not like to be recognized in public but his eccentricities made that impossible. He was famous for absent minded things such as leaving his car doors open when he went shopping or forgetting some of his groceries or getting lost in parking lots.

I had the pleasure of meeting him on a couple of occasions in the late 1980s at his home and he certainly lived up to his reputation and then some! The reason I met him was because he had lost a few oak trees that lined his driveway and he contacted Cornell Cooperative Extension of Albany County to find out what was going on. At that time I was the local tree expert for the Capital District region and they referred him to me. When he asked me to make a site visit, I happily agreed.

I rode my motorcycle to his house and was able to quickly diagnose the problem before I even got off the bike. This was in September and many of the oak trees along his driveway sported a bumper crop of honey mushrooms at their base. Honey mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of a fungus called Armillaria mellea.

Tough on trees
This fungus is a major tree killer and the presence of the mushrooms was instantly diagnostic of the problem. He met me outside and as I got off the motorcycle, I told him that I knew what was killing his trees before I even got my helmet off. He was, at first, highly skeptical of such a quick diagnosis, but once I explained to him in detail what led to the fungal infection, he quickly accepted my explanation. He was not thrilled to learn that many of the other oaks would also succumb but he seemed pleased to at last have a reason. Apparently, he had hired at least two arborists to look at the trees previously that summer and they failed to come up with the cause. I am sure that had they seen the mushrooms they would have diagnosed it as easily as I did, but these mushrooms do not appear usually until September. When he asked how much he owed me and I told him there was no charge, he smiled broadly, obviously he was not accustomed to getting service for free.

I must have impressed him with my knowledge because he immediately switched from the curmudgeon demeanor, which was partly affected, to the sweet, but eccentric old man that he was. He asked if I was interested in wood since I knew so much about trees and when I told him I was, he insisted on showing me his collection of wood. He had a garage that was almost completely filled with pieces of wood. Not lumber, not even finished wood or carved wood, but just pieces of wood that he had collected over the years. He gleefully climbed up ladders in the garage to fetch various types of wood and showed them to me. We had a very pleasant visit and discussion of wood for over an hour.

When I was getting ready to leave he asked if he could go for a ride on my motorcycle. I will continue this story next week.