In gardening, we try to harmonize well with the plants we choose to grow. But what about the bugs we find in our garden? Do we harmonize with them? We do—well, sort of. There are the innocuous bugs that disappear before us into the flora and soil.
Then there are the Angels that fly into our gardens on fortuitous breezes. We welcome them to our yards, decorate our homes with their images, and have moments of Zen when we see particularly colorful ones flitting by. We would never dream of capturing one firmly between our thumbs and fingers and roll it back and forth until its abdomen ruptures, and we’d never douse these angels with sprays of soapy water or oils or pesticides to reduce their numbers. They are just too precious!
But our adversaries… how can we harmonize with these that devour the plants? Without a second thought, we hone in on them and flick, crush, swat, or spray. And sometimes things may get so bad that we entertain engaging in chemical warfare on a micro scale just to give the plants we’ve tended to since they were seedlings or just tiny seeds in our hands a fighting chance.
But it seems the longer we’ve been gardening, the more we’re coming to realize that these pests, our Adversaries, are indicators of the state of our gardens and they are communicating something important to us. And if we take a moment to pay attention, we might remember that their goals and Nature’s goals do harmonize well with one another– and the more we plant and create a garden that harmonizes with Nature, the more we’ll be in harmony all the kinds of bugs it attracts. So, crazy thought…. what if by getting to know garden pests, our adversaries, they become our comrades in Nature, our partners in education, and help us toward becoming more knowledgeable growers and better skilled gardeners in the process?
This blog is new. We’re hoping it’s informative and interesting, too. We’re taking a closer look at what lies beneath our lawns and in our gardens so we learn together how to position ourselves better and align our goals to be closer with those of the plants we grow as well as with the bugs they attract–big and beautiful, small and important, microscopic and vital—so we can create a space where goodness grows, skills and knowledge coalesce, and harmony in and around our gardens and yards is more easily established and maintained.
Our first go at this task is taking a closer look at the humble pillbug, also known as the roly poly.
The pillbug is most commonly known for being that fun “bug” children collect in the palms of their hands and then gently coax into rolling up into tight gray balls. But calling pillbugs “insects” or “bugs” is a misnomer, because pillbugs are actually crustaceans, more closely related to shrimp, lobsters, and crayfish than to the many insects they live among in our gardens’ soils. Their shells (yes, shells) protect their soft and predominately water-based insides from tiny probing fingers to hungry predators, and they still breath through their gills, a remnant-organ from when they lived among their cousins in the sea.
So, these crustaceans eat a lot of things, and one of these things is the tender roots of your beloved plants. And there are an amazing amount of websites devoted to the eradication of this “bug” from gardens and potted plants for this reason. Pillbugs are typically found in soils where there’s organic material in need of composting, so where there’s soggy soil and decaying root systems, they’re probably there, too. They work along side garden soil royalty, like the amazing earthworm, digesting rotting plant material and converting them into food bits accessible to the fungi, protozoans, and bacteria in the soil, which then they convert into nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphates, and other elemental foods for your hungry plants to absorb.
And even though pillbugs are known for eating roots, they won’t eat enough to where they harm the health of the plant, as long as the plant is healthy. And frankly, I’m okay with sharing a little to keep these guys ’round. (Sorry!). Because, as scavengers and composters, they do two more remarkable things: 1) they help end the life of unhealthy plants to make more room for healthier ones and provide nutrients for them too; and 2) they decontaminate the soil. They remove toxic metals from your garden with their amazingly specialized gut that absorbs metals like lead, copper, and cadmium and render them less toxic or innert upon defecation; and because of this adaptation, they have the ability to thrive in soils that are way too toxic for most other insects and help to convert these toxic soils into habitable places where insects and earthworms can one day live, compost, and thrive.
About two years ago I took a vegetable gardening class at Leu Gardens with Robert Bowden. Robert said that bugs will eat your plants. That’s just what they do. And that’s okay. A little nibble here, a leaf or a few there. He said he doesn’t mind sharing. As long as the plants are healthy and he can harvest enough fruit for his family–that’s what matters. As so many of you know, a bug-free garden is a stagnant, sterile garden–and what good can grow there?
So next time you see a pillbug rummaging through your soil, maybe you’ll feel a surge of appreciation for the wonders it’s unwittingly doing and think, “Hey, thanks, buddy,” because this little crustacean is going about its business improving the health of your soil. And they really are fascinating little crustaceans. If you go to the article “Ten Fascinating Facts About Pillbugs,” I promise you will learn several surprising things you never knew about the humble pillbug.
Written By: Melissa Lee