Backyard Nature Wednesday: Winter kill, summer life

Our winter 2013-14, like much of the rest of the country, had some very cold spells. Throughout January, February, and even into March, there were numerous periods of several days in which nighttime temperatures fell to 20 degrees F. or even lower. This caused the loss of a few plants in my garden, although many fewer than I would have expected. Most of them, even the ones that retreated to their roots, have come back with flying colors. There were other effects of the cold, not immediately obvious, that have continued to reveal themselves months later.

One prime example is something called the citrus leaf miner. For the past couple of years, this tiny insect has been a real pest on my citrus trees. They cause the new leaves to twist and curl and look extremely deformed and ugly. During this past winter, all of my citrus trees suffered severe die-back from the cold. Some of them died all the way back to the ground. With spring, they all came back - but the leaf miner didn't. This summer the new citrus leaves are smooth and green and beautiful.

Likewise, in the vegetable garden, during the past few years, we have had a plague of leaf-footed bugs. They have been a serious pest on ripening fruit, especially tomatoes, sometimes rendering them unusable. This year, right up until the middle of June, I had not seen a leaf-footed bug in the garden. Unfortunately, recently, they have begun to show up, but at least we had a wide window of opportunity during which we were able to harvest perfect vegetables with none of that telltale damage.

Some of the other effects of the winter cold have been less welcome.

During most summers and autumns, we are host to large numbers of Mediterranean geckos which scurry around on the ceilings of our porches at night chasing insects. They are charming little critters and we enjoy watching them.

Mediterranean gecko

This summer the numbers of the little reptiles have been considerably reduced. They are still around but there are many fewer than in recent years. I can only surmise that perhaps many of them succumbed to the cold during the winter.

The same thing seems to have happened to one of my favorite gardening buddies, the green anole.

Green anole displaying his throat pouch.

Last year the little anoles were everywhere in my garden - literally hundreds of them. I could hardly take a step in the garden without disturbing one. This summer, they are rare. I might go an entire day in the garden without encountering one. That makes me sad.

I'm also concerned about another of my backyard favorites, the box turtle that we named Sammy.

Sammy the box turtle in summer, 2013.

Last year, Sammy, like the anoles, was ubiquitous. I saw him most days during the summer. He had been here for the previous two summers as well, but so far this year I haven't seen him at all. Did the winter cold get him? I may never know, but I'll keep hoping that he might still show up.

Global climate change is a strange phenomenon. While the planet as a whole is getting hotter, the physics of climate change can cause extreme weather in many places, and that includes extreme winters in areas that are not used to them. Last winter qualified as an extremely cold winter for us, even while the southern hemisphere was suffering through a record hot summer.

The lesson of such weather seems to be that there will be winners and losers. My citrus trees are definite winners, although they suffered short-term damage. I can only hope that the little critters that I love which apparently suffered setbacks in their populations will be able to make a comeback. In fact, I have every confidence that they will.


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