Garden update: trapping pillbugs for fun & profit ~ Ham Pie Sandwiches

05 June 2012

Garden update: trapping pillbugs for fun & profit

I bet you guys are wondering what's going on in my garden, huh? Well.

This year's garden has actually been a source of constant frustration. I started all kinds of vegetables in my homemade pots--and 3/4 of them died, mostly from one four-hour episode in which I moved them out into the sun--wet--and they fried before I came back. The only survivors were the super hot-weather plants: tomatoes and bell peppers. In the meantime, something was eating the vast majority of plants I put in the actual garden, and I couldn't figure out whether it was bugs or the neighborhood cats or what. Four or five bean plants died, leaving only three viable. Three out of four potato plants withered to nothing. The only things actually growing were green onions and garlic. Then one exciting day I came home to discover a team from PG&E trimming branches from the yard behind our house--and dropping the resulting half a tree right on top of a good third of said green onions. That was pretty awesome.

But the biggest problem is definitely these guys.

pillbug sowbug roly-poly wood louse

Pillbugs--also known as sowbugs, roly-polys, wood lice, or the colloquial "those fuckers"--have been eating all my seedlings. Pillbugs mostly eat decaying or dead plants, including wood. This makes sense; there are certainly several in our compost pile. However, they also eat tiny delicate baby seedlings. They ate the new potato vines, and cut off the bean stems just below the soil. They ate the tiny baby sprouts of tomato and bell peppers. They mowed down a full three-inch jalapeño seedling I got from the farmer's market--it was completely gone overnight.

So I had to start catching them. Instead of relying on additives like diatomaceous earth--which I'd wash away while watering the plants anyway--I read around until I discovered a deceptively simple trap: the tube of damp paper.

To trap pillbugs, roll up a piece of newspaper and get it damp under the tap. Stick the roll in your garden overnight. Early in the morning, before the sun has a chance to dry things out, go out to the garden and peek inside the tube. Behold! Pillbugs galore! Now you can just pick up your tube and remove the pillbugs from your garden entirely.

We didn't have any newspaper at home, so I used a couple toilet paper tubes. These worked as long as they stayed intact, but they didn't stay intact for long--the dampness totally released the glue. Actual paper would be better.

This method worked admirably, especially when it was particularly damp, dank, and grey outside. My best attempt caught about fifty pillbugs at once. Needless to say, I didn't stop to take pictures of the ravening hordes; I just chucked them far away as swiftly as possible.

I don't have any illusions that I'm going to be able to catch the entire pillbug population, though. So, to ensure that I actually get a decent vegetable harvest, I'm also trying to grow my seedlings big enough that a little gnawing won't kill them before I put them in the ground. Right now I have another tomato plant and jalapeño pepper in medium-sized pots on the back step. I think the tomato is pretty close to ground-ready, actually. So I'll probably put it in the bed next week or so--and then we'll see who's boss for real.


Jes said...

Hooray for getting rid of pillbugs! I haven't had to deal with them yet--I'm hoping the raised beds keep them at bay. Fingers crossed for your plants to grow healthy & strong!

Deanna said...

Our poor collard greens get attacked by tomato worms. We've never had a problem with pill bugs. We used to have a cat that loved catching the damn tomato worms but she's gone now and I'm not nearly as good at it.

Catherine said...

oooooooo! Bad bugs. Bad, bad bugs!

Eileen said...

I got a couple tomato worms right at the end of the season last year, but I just picked them straight off the vines. Can't do that with a horde of tiny little pillbugs, though.

I think my main bed's proximity to our compost heap has caused the pillbug explosion. Note to self: when you finally buy a house with a yard, make sure the compost heap is NOT in the same enclosure as the garden!