Wednesday, December 11, 2013

December dig

Well, that was a short winter. Or maybe not; maybe it's just a practice run and the next edition will be the real thing.

A week ago, I was still seeing moths on the wall by our door, sometimes half a dozen at a time. The weather was mild, and garden plants were putting out spring buds. My lobelia and bacopa were still flowering cheerfully; there was even one pallid nasturtium in the few inches of garden where the sun still hits occasionally.

The first of December, the average temperature on the beach at White Rock was 9.3 degrees Celsius, almost 50 Fahrenheit, with a high of 11.2 in the afternoon. A week later, it was -4, dropping to -8; over 19 degrees difference. (Or a drop of about 34 degrees Fahrenheit.) And with the windstorm, the wind chill brought it down to -15 on the beach, -20 inland (like where we live.)

Our southern BC gardens aren't prepared for that kind of a shock. The rhododendrons curled up their leaves into tight tacos, the winter-hardy hellebores drooped and shrivelled, the evergreen bergenia gave up and lies dying, even though I covered it against the cold. Even the sausage vine up against the wall, well wrapped up in six layers of heavy paper, became instead a taco vine. And there are no more moths.

And today, it was over. Monday, it snowed, just a fine dusting, but the temperature climbed to zero. This afternoon, it was raining. Back to normal. I watered the hellebores with warm water to thaw their soil, and they rewarded me by poking a new shoot an inch into the air. The old leaves won't recover, but the plants still live.

I started to wonder how the residents of my soil handled the sudden drop. This afternoon, I brought in three full flowerpots. I couldn't get any garden soil; it was still frozen too hard, too deep, to break off even a chunk.

In the first two pots, all I found alive was a tiny, tightly coiled cyanide millipede. As soon as I removed it from the pot, it unwound itself and started to explore.

Just under an inch long. Doesn't really mind the cold.

And that was it. There were no snails, no slugs, no woodbugs, no beetles, no worms. Not even their frozen dead bodies. No tiny mites, no springtails, no spiders to prey on them. Nothing alive.

Except. All through the soil frozen yellow balls were scattered. Dozens of them, maybe hundreds, in sizes varying from a pinhead to a small pea, the colour of grapefruits. A solid yellow while still cold, they quickly became translucent when I exposed them to room temperature air.

They rolled into the channel around the rim of my tray.

I accidentally squashed a few; they were liquid inside. I found a few empty ones. These had a yellow skin on the outside, and a chalky coating inside.

I don't know if they're slug eggs or snail eggs. All the slug eggs I've seen around here have been colourless and transparent. I'm keeping a couple of dozen inside, in potting soil, to see what emerges, thinking it's spring.

The third pot has a bulb in it, and was protected on a base of leaves inside a bucket, and under one of those paper garden bags half full of leaves, and stashed in a corner of the wall. This soil was frozen, too, but the bucket held two tiny running critters, one lively small wasp, and one springtail. A handful of old moss harboured one aphid. Still no mites or spiders or woodbugs, dead or alive.

I wonder where they went? Did they know in advance that the weather would turn? Are they smarter about the weather than us? (Probably.)


  1. There are big introduced snails, Patera apressa, Arianta arbustorum, with colonies in Ontario where we've never found a living snail. I think soil invertebrates (and Salamanders) are pretty adept at getting down when things get cold. On our land here, with only 15-30cm of soil above flat limestone, we do see depleted under-board fauna after a hard winter, but this is because, I think, the soil froze to bedrock.

  2. I will be interested in finding out if anything hatches from your eggs. I can only hope that the frozen soil will kill some of my pests in the garden, but I'm not too hopeful. They are pretty resilient critters. - Margy

  3. Fred, we have hard-pan clay under our garden; we've had to build up the soil on top where we want plants with deep roots. So our local critters may be prevented from going deep enough to protect them in a harsh winter. Luckily for them, we rarely have one here on the south coast.

    Margy, I've been thinking about those eggs; if they are slugs, that explains the never-ending supply of babies come spring. Half the soil may be eggs! (Slight exaggeration.)


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