This garden mystery started innocently enough. In July, I got an email from M. D. in Hall county:
“We are totally stumped by something that’s happening at our house and hope you can help us understand what’s going on.
“We have 5 acres in a heavily wooded subdivision, 3 miles south of Oakwood in Hall County. All the lots are primarily woods – hardwoods with very few pines. We have a lawn around our house with lots of trees and flowers.
“Each summer we’ve noticed small clay particles on our pool deck, driveway, walk, deck, and patio. They’re clay because when you crush them or wash them away they turn to very fine grains of red dirt.
“Since it rained here last week, there are a lot more of them than ever before. It’s almost as if these things have rained from the sky because they’re all over the place in open places that aren’t covered by trees.
“My husband even had a few fall on his truck while he was detailing it Sunday morning – in the open, not under a tree.
“What causes them and where do they come from?”
Then I got a similar one from K. E. in Marietta
“I have an odd question that is driving me mad. Recently I have noticed very small pellets of red clay sprinkled across my back deck.
“I have found them all over the deck and on the furniture, everywhere. On any given morning I can find anywhere between ten to twenty of them. The pellets vary in size from 1/16″ to 1/8″.
“This morning I went outside and found my driveway covered in them. Between fifty to one hundred little pellets. I am sure they are also in the grass and plants; I can just see them easily on the white driveway.
“I am the type of person that is very annoyed when I cannot figure out something. I am wondering if it is some strange insect infestation or what.
“We have quite a few large trees in our backyard, but no large amounts of exposed clay.”
Hmmmmm…two almost identical situations many miles apart – - and I have no idea what’s going on!
See the pictures at the bottom of the page.
I presented the puzzle to my Extension Service and Master Gardener friends. Their theories were all over the map! One friend even took the time to visit the site.
“I called the lady in Marietta who reported the “mystery particles” – and as it turns out, she lived only about 3 miles away.
“I ventured over to see what I could make out. I noticed right away that her vehicles, driveway, playground and patio items, etc. were covered.
“Upon close examination, the “particles” appeared to be very tiny dirt balls – composed of even smaller aggregates or tiny clumps of Georgia red clay. The particles were not perfectly round, but rather ‘biscuit-like’ in appearance under the magnifying glass.
“The particles were definitely composed of red clay which easily broke down or crumbled into a dusty, red residue when mashed between the fingers. Each particle (composed of 6 to 8 smaller mini-clods) was about twice the size of an air rifle BB. Some a tad bigger, some a bit smaller than a BB.
“I noted no ant mounds nearby, dirt dauber nests on the home, or other insects. “
Conclusion: very small dirt clods.
Appropriate tune to hum while reading this message: Twightlight Zone Theme Song (La-la-la la, La-la-la-la, …).
“Would any ground nesting insect like yellow jackets excavate and fly the crumbs out of the nest?” Wade Hutcheson
“I have seen the same thing and I’d suspect potter wasps or dirt daubers are dropping the balls as they build their nests.” Krissy Slagle
“Perhaps they are particles dropped by mud dobbers while they are building their nests. I’ve seen the robins in my front lawn pulling up worms, taking flight, and dirt falling off of the worms. Several years ago lightning struck one of our trees. Later I noticed where the lightning had traveled through the lawn it kicked up bits of red clay pellets in the process.” Shannon Pable
“What about caterpillar droppings from the trees? They could be confused for small clay-like particles.” Sheldon Hammond
” If there are lots of maples around they could be releasing liquid from aphids or another cause. With a lack of rain in both of the areas nearby development could have put dust in the air that might stick to the leaves and crust up later to fall as particles. Todd Hurt
“Could it be an artillery fungus of some sort?” Frank Henning
“We sometimes had mud in California when the swallows would build mud nests on the sides of houses and other structures. Very sloppy builders. However, it was never to the extent described.” Theresa Schrun
” Is there any kind of construction, land clearing or dynamite blasting in the area? Could wind have carried the particles?” Sylvia Deitze