Gardening 101

Fairy Rings: Facts and Fiction

fairy ring

When the sizzle of the summer settles in, and as is typical in the Triangle, occasionally yards will be drenched by passing rain showers. After such soakings, the grass turns greener and plants usually look healthier, but in some landscapes, sometimes something weird happens.

When it rains after a long dry spell, mushrooms seem to pop up everywhere in the yard. Big mushrooms, little mushrooms, orange mushrooms, yellow mushrooms, white mushrooms—everywhere mushrooms. Occasionally though, a group of mushrooms will form either a horseshoe pattern or a complete circle on the lawn. Odd, very odd. It almost seems like someone, or something, has placed them in the round shape.

The ring or curve can also be formed not by mushrooms but a band of grass that is greener and taller than the surrounding grass. Again, the circular pattern suggests a creator, but by who or what?

The name of this oddity on the lawn only adds more mystery to the phenomenon though. These curved curiosities are called fairy rings. Now, do you still want to know what causes them?

Well, if you believe in fairies, wood nymphs, hoodoos, will-o-wisps and elves, you have found the culprits. Legends have it that fairy rings are created by the “wee people” dancing in circles in the dead of night—and their enchanted toes constantly trotting on the same section of grass cause the paths to turn lush green.

And the mushrooms? When these woodland spirits get tired of dancing, they like to conjure up a good seat so they can rest a spell and watch the ongoing festivities.

If fairies, elves and other such spirits are involved, they must have really dirty feet because scientists have discovered that soil-borne fungi are responsible for the rings. In the case of the mushrooms, it is simply a matter of the fungi feeding on organic matter and developing fruiting bodies as a result.

The curved strips of invigorated grass are also caused by fungus. Again, the fungi feed on an organic source and, in the process of breaking it down, release nutrients, particularly nitrogen, into the soil. This rush of natural fertilizer stimulates the grass, causing it to grow quickly and turn a deep green.

What to do about a fairy ring in your yard is up to you. If you don’t mind a little bit of spirited dancing on your lawn, leave it alone—mystically speaking, it is considered to be a sign of good luck.

However, if you are a stickler for well-groomed grass, such a curved curiosity has to go because the fungi could begin to form a barrier of mycelium just below the soil surface that not only steals soil nutrients, but becomes almost impervious to water. This can cause the grass on the affected paths to die due to the lack of water in even the wettest of conditions.

In addition, whether in the form of mushrooms or green curves of grass, these fairy rings get bigger every year. If unchecked, they might typically stretch 15 to 20 feet in diameter, and then there is the case of the 700-year-old fairy ring in France that is now almost a half-mile in diameter!

The organic source that helps start a fairy ring is usually underground. Many times it is something like a buried board, dead tree root or decaying stump, so keeping your yard free of such debris will go a long way towards preventing fairy rings from getting a grip on the lawn in the first place.

There are fungicides that will help—Bayleton and ProStar are the two common picks, but they aren’t cheap. However, a simple, inexpensive treatment could cure the problem. Take a crowbar or pitchfork and poke holes about 6 to 8 inches deep in and around the curved track. These holes not only break up the fungal barrier below the soil, but they also help to aerate the ground for a better stand of grass. To be even more effective, water the holes once a day for at least a couple of weeks. Like the hole-jabbing, this flash flooding will help break up the ring.

If the ring still doesn’t go away (some can be pretty tough), you have two options left: (1) Dig up the entire infected area of topsoil and dispose of the bad soil; or (2) somehow, someway convince the magical midnight merrymakers to take their haunted hoe-down some place else.

Featured photo – Fairy ring / L.A. Jackson

Byline:

L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener Magazine. If you would like to ask L.A. a question about your garden, contact him at: [email protected]