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Illinois Country Living

David Robson Extension Educator, Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois

Yard & Garden

Down-to-earth gardening lessons
A walk in the cow pasture yields more than morels

Years ago when I first started working, an elderly couple, Edith and Joe, took me under their tutelage and provided some of the down-to-earth practical gardening lessons they don’t teach you in college – but you think you know after four years of studying.

One day, Edith grabbed two garbage bags and said, “Let’s go for a walk in the woods.” It was late April, and I knew her woods had been home to morels. She offered me a walking stick, but being young, energetic and a male, I politely declined. She said “Are you sure?” and left it at that when I again demurred.

She also grabbed a pair of gloves. Having been mushroom hunting before I didn’t see the need for gloves. Again, the “male” thing.

Over the previous summer and winter, I had come to view Edith and her husband as a substitute set of grandparents. Edith had shown me the back roads to her secret stash of bittersweet vines and we had carefully picked the prized berries, leaving some for the birds and more vines.

A garbage sack full of morels was beyond my wildest dreams. Images of morels sizzling in skillets of butter kept me wiping my mouth to cover the saliva building up.

We opened the gate, re-latched it securely, climbed over a fence and then under a wire, and started trekking through the wooded hills after crossing a little bridge.

The gate was to keep the cows from roaming and therein lay the real mission. The plastic bags weren’t for morels, which amounted to just seven scrawny morels later that spring, but to something less appealing — cow chips.

How do you go from the euphoria of a morel melting in your mouth to cow chips while maintaining your enthusiasm? It’s not easy but it can be done. Sadly, the Oscar® voters weren’t present.

First, you can be deceived by the freshness of a cow chip. What looks dry on the top might not be on the inside. Quickly you learn that you do not bend down and pick it up with your hand unless you are absolutely sure it’s completely dry.

That’s where the walking stick that was left at the garage comes in handy. Edith poked at various droppings with her stick, while I had to figure out my own testing method, which never became absolute. Nature can be deceptive.

If the cow chip was dry, it went into the garbage sack. If it wasn’t, it stayed there for another day and another walk in the woods. If steam was seen rising from the chip, it definitely stayed.

Ultimately, the two garbage sacks were filled, the toes of my shoes stunk as did my hands, though a good scrubbing took care of both. Outdoor faucets and garden hoses are wonderful additions for cleaning up life’s little lessons.

Later that week, the remnants of the cows’ meals were tilled into the garden and allowed the tomatoes, squashes, onions and beans to grow to beat the band.

We continued walking with garbage sacks for more than 10 years, even after I ended up with my own yard, taking some of the gathered treasures to my own yard.

There were several lessons learned 30 years ago, all of them important. Over the years, the cows left and that source of organic matter did, too.

Edith passed away this spring after spending more than 101 years on the planet. To this day, though, I wouldn’t hesitate grabbing a garbage sack and walking in a cow pasture. Of course, this time with a wooden poking stick masquerading as a trekking pole and a pair of gloves.

More Information:

David Robson is an Extension Educator, Horticulture, at the Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois Extension, P.O. Box 8199, Springfield, IL 62791. Telephone: 217-782-6515.


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