Last spring, somewhere midway through the back-breaking process of digging new garden beds, we started talking about renting a small tiller to make life easier for ourselves. We knew we really didn't want to till, and that we wanted to grow in bio-intensive raised beds, but we were thinking of just doing it once, for the first year, to make the digging less exhausting. We had pretty much decided to go ahead and compromise and till, when we had an encounter that made us swear off the tiller forever.
I was digging one day with the moral support of Mom and MT when I uncovered a huge, fat, beautiful salamander--shiny black with yellow and red spots, at least an inch wide and eight or nine inches long, and looking something like the noble creature pictured above. She was gorgeous! She scuttled under some sheet mulch after we had all had a good look at her, and we knew then that a life of no-till fundamentalism lay ahead of us. If we'd been using a tiller, that salamander would have been toast.
Last Sunday, almost a year after the first sighting, we had another spotted salamander encounter. Digging the first Three Sisters bed, I was chopping away with a hoe-like cultivator, when who should I uncover but The Spotted One. We had to move this one, to avoid injuring her with our shovels and cultivators, but I felt like seeing her was a reminder to slow down, take care, and pay attention.
It turns out that the Spotted Salamander is fairly widespread (see the map of their range above).
Googling turned up lots of information on these beautiful amphibians. It turns out that they are a type of "mole salamander," which makes sense, since they seem to burrow out mole-like tunnels.
They apparently have a "brief but intense" mating season in January and February in watery areas--creeks, ditches, or "vernal pools"--and the eggs develop in the water. We've seen eggs like these in our creeks in the winter and early spring and assumed they were frog eggs, but maybe they were salamander eggs!
In elementary school, I did a project on salamanders, and learned that there are more varieties in western North Carolina than anywhere else on the planet. We've seen quite a few different types on our land, but the Spotted is the only one who hangs out in the garden (that we know of). There's a slender silvery little one that lives down in the pipe where the well water hook-up is. I've heard that seeing a salamander is an old mountain indicator of clean water.
Salamanders are an indicator species, which is good news.
And, they eat cabbage moth larvae!!! It's clear from the tunnels throughout the ground that we were digging up that they help break up the soil, too. So I would call them beneficial amphibians.
Anyway, check out these amazing photos of the life cycle of a Spotted Salamander -- they begin as aquatic creatures that swim and live underwater and then become burrowing land lubbers, until they head back to their birthplace to make more salamanders.