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Soil mysteriously reveals stones, oddities

“[In July], the gardener finds that he ought again to loosen the baked and compact soil in the beds ... , and invariably he throws out of the ground an incredible amount of stones and other rubbish. Apparently stones grow from some kind of seeds or eggs, or continually rise out of the mysterious interior of the earth ...”

– Karel Capek, “The Gardener’s Year,” 1931

When I read this part of “The Gardener’s Year,” I had to laugh because Jerry and I have been finding rubbish rising mysteriously out of the ground ever since we bought our woodland property in Bandon five years ago. No one had lived there for decades, and apparently the woods had become a local partying place.

Beer cans were strewn all over and, even more curiously, we unearthed dozens of partially buried golf balls that poked out of the ground like some weird fungus.

As we cleared away the underbrush that first year, we collected all of the trash and thought that would be the end of it. However, every spring we find more beer cans and golf balls lying on the ground that seemed to have emerged as companions to the herbaceous perennials.

Last week was the strangest discovery yet. One afternoon, my horse suddenly became extremely agitated, so Jerry went out to investigate. There, lying on top of a sandy patch of ground close by, was a large pink pig (I guess he was technically a hog since he looked like he weighed more than 120 pounds). Undisturbed by my horse’s snorting and fretting, or Jerry’s attempts to shoo him away, the pig merely continued to serenely survey his surroundings.

When he finally decided to get up and amble off through the bushes, the pig left behind a golf ball lying on the ground like he had just laid an egg. We added it to our growing collection.

In comparison, finding stones in the ground where none were there before seems rather mundane. Of course, stones don’t really grow from subterranean eggs as Capek jokingly reported, but it’s fascinating that many cultures have developed creation myths that involve a “cosmic egg.”

For example, a Slavic creation myth Capek might have known told that Rod, the supreme being, created a divine egg from the void, inside of which rested Svarog, god of fire. As Svarog’s life force grew, the egg cracked in half. The lower part of the shell became the earth and sea, and the upper half of the shell became the sky. Surprisingly similar creation myths have developed all over the world.

A couple of hundred years ago, folklore explained the sudden appearance of rocks in the fields as the work of mischievous fairies. Another theory had it that stones were the offspring of larger rocks, and they would eventually grow up to be as big as their mother rock.

In fact, stones appear at the surface of our garden soil due to frost heave. Particularly in places with freezing and extremely fluctuating temperatures, frost heave occurs when water in the soil freezes and thaws. This process creates pressure that squeezes the soil, causing objects in the soil to move upward to the surface. “New England potatoes” is the locals’ name for stones that seem to spontaneously appear in the garden.

Frost heave also can cause plants in our garden to lift out of the ground, particularly in early spring. Although heaving can occur in any type of soil, it’s particularly common in soils with a lot of clay because these soils retain more moisture.

An interesting online article called “Frost Heave and the Surface Emergence of Rocks” describes why frost heave can move rocks up to the surface so quickly. I should mention that soil erosion from winter rains, and not frost heave, is why Jerry and I keep coming across “new” beer cans and golf balls on the ground in Bandon every spring.

On the other hand, Capek’s outlandish claim about stones growing from seeds has some merit. Lithops, or living stones, are stemless succulent plants that are native to dry regions of South Africa. Depending on the species, lithops produce daisylike yellow or white flowers in the summer, fall or early winter. Because they require little water or care, lithops make good houseplants for neglectful gardeners.

Lithops can be purchased as seeds or bare-root plants and should be grown in groups. They need a gravelly, well-draining growing medium (little to no soil and no compost) and lots of indirect sunlight. Propagate lithops by collecting the seeds from pods that are left after the flowers are spent.

Tongue-in-cheek, Capek writes that garden soil is made up of many special ingredients: “ ... earth, manure, leaf mold, peat, stones, pieces of glass, mugs, broken dishes, nails, wire, bones, Hussite arrows, silver paper from slabs of chocolate, bricks, old coins, old pipes, plate-glass, tiny mirrors, old labels, tins, bits of string, buttons, soles, dog droppings, coal, pot-handles, washbasins, dishcloths, bottles, sleepers, milk cans, buckles, horseshoes, jam tins, insulating material and scraps of newspapers.”

To that, I would add beer cans, golf balls and the sweat from an occasional visiting pig.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. See literarygardener.com or email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com.