(Warning: Nothing but creepy crawlies ahead.)
They're beginning to haunt my dreams, those lines of gray marching across the pecan shell mulch, oozing out from under the bug bath's pebbles when I replenish the water, or protesting at the sudden sunlight when I move a sheltering pot. I wouldn't call the dreams nightmares, because it's hard to be too haunted by roly-polies. (Try it sometime.) They aren't even anxiety dreams, really, just minor irritants bumbling across the fertile ground of sleep and pausing to nibble on an image here and there, in the way that real roly-polies bumble around among the growing things in the garden.
|A typical scene of late.|
Roly-polies (or pill-bugs, Armadillidium vulgare) are mostly useful, harmless creatures that munch on decaying matter. But there are so many of them this year. They're everywhere. Every time I turn over the tiniest bit of earth, there they are. When I water the new plantings, the roly-polies climb the house walls, turning them in places from terra-cotta to black. When I loosen the plastic pots from not-so-recent nursery purchases, the bottoms of the root balls are covered with roly-polies. Established plants that were sending up good spring growth have withered away, and when I dig into the soil to investigate why, all I find are roly-polies. Dozens of roly-polies. Not content with the mulch, they're beginning to feed on the roots. They're beginning to haunt my dreams. Or have I mentioned that already?
The thick layer of mulch is probably the culprit, the extra moisture and organic matter making it possible for the 'polies to breed and feed beyond what the land would normally allow. Otherwise the mulch has been good for the garden. The soil beneath the biggest sand cherries, where I've let the leaves lie every autumn (another culprit) before covering them with pecan shells in spring, has almost become "woodland" soil after four years. It's loamy, friable, and dark brown. It's a pleasure to dig. It holds moisture beautifully. The decomposers are doing their work, and even earthworms make themselves at home there.
Digging into the gravel-mulched beds, on the other hand, is like digging into brick. The soil is pale sand and clay with bits of decomposed granite, suited to the more rugged plants growing in it. It doesn't attract roly-polies, but boy, does it attract ants. They, too, are useful; their tunnels keep the soil aerated, and their appetites account for many a grub and miller moth. They push soil out onto the patio, and I sweep it back into their nest; they push it back out onto the patio, etc. We all get a little gentle exercise.
This year some of the ants have made their home in one of the big urns of licorice mint.
|"Abandon hope, all ye who enter here." Unless you're an ant.|
Very busy they are, climbing the steep outer sides of the urn and under its lip to bring their heavy loads to the top. I have a front-row view of them from the Adirondack chair, and see more of their struggles than is perhaps absolutely necessary.
|Some of the struggles are jaw-droppingly epic.|
Many a roly-poly has been carried up the side and disappeared over the rim.
But then the ants abandon them on top of the soil in the urn. Why? Why have they gone through this enormous labor, defying gravity the entire way, only to change their minds? I suspect that they do bring the pill-bugs into their nest at first, where they eat or store the tasty parts and then spit out the "bones," leaving the inedible chitin to decay elsewhere. The rounded hulks slowly fade to white among the equally hollow hulks of pecan shells. Their skeletons serve as...warning? decoration? mulch? in the ants' front garden, until the little decomposers decompose, gradually disintegrating into the soil where they feed the roots of the agastache.
In a desert garden pecan shell mulch and gravel occupy different worlds, the former belonging to (comparative) moisture, broad-leafed greenery, and partial shade; the latter to aridity, feathery gray-greens, and scorching sun. In a very small garden, I wonder sometimes whether those worlds can live side by side and be at peace. The mulch loving roly-polies concern me when they get out of hand; they're a sign that maybe I've skewed the balance too far toward moisture and greenery. But then, the gravel loving ants are still here to keep them in line, more or less. Maybe the balance is working.
Pleasant dreams, everyone.
In case you can't get enough, Donna has an entertaining post on ants over at Garden Walk, Garden Talk.