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In the Garden

Hunting for Roly-Polies



I LAY FLAT ON MY BELLY PULLING UP WEEDS along a brick walkway in front of the house, I found a lively colony of sowbugs, hundreds of them teeming with scampering feet and twitching feelers. With the sun warming my back, I remembered childhood days when my siblings and I would spend a summer afternoon looking for roly-polies, the steely blue sowbugs you could roll up into a ball. We would poke along cracks where the sidewalk met the grass and find a herd of sowbugs. If they rolled into balls when tampered with, they were fair game for play. If they simply folded in half with a crunch, the unfortunate beasts were tossed aside.

Sowbugs and the roly-poly pillbugs are sometimes called wood lice. These irritating pests do little harm in the garden. One thing that sets these creatures apart from other garden pests is that they are neither bugs nor insects. They are crustaceans, cousins of crabs, lobsters and crawdads. The only crustaceans that have adapted to living an entire life on land, these critters breathe through gills and are dependent on a moist, humid environment. That's why one finds them hiding beneath flower pots, along the foundation of a house and in piles of wood. But just because sowbugs are related to lobsters does not mean they are tasty. One noted British isopodologist, Paul Harding, said they taste of strong urine.

Sowbugs may not taste good to the adventurous who dare sample them, but these industrious creatures do like tasty garden waste. While sowbugs will nibble on young seedlings and roots, they prefer decayed matter, moist wood, moist decaying vegetation, fallen fruit, manure, carrion, other sowbugs and their own feces. Their coprophagous habits are due in part for a need to extract extra nutrients from their food and to recapture copper, a much-needed metal that is used to carry oxygen in their blood. For the most part sowbugs are beneficials that break down organic matter much like earthworms. These harmless scavengers do not bite, sting, transmit disease nor do they bother clothing or food.

Sowbugs and pillbugs are quite similar. The differences are the sowbug cannot roll into a ball when disturbed and it has two wiggly tail-like appendages poking out of its rear end. These can be used to absorb moisture if necessary. Sowbugs are flat and grey, while steely blue pillbugs are more armadillo-like with their convex bodies. (Had these facts of life been explained to 8-year-olds looking for pillbugs, a lot of innocent sowbugs would have been spared an untimely death.) Both average 1/4 to 1/2-inch in length with bodies that consist of a head with a pair of antennae and a body covered with a hard shell that is made up of a series of segmented plates. They have eyes and seven pairs of legs.

Upon disturbing a colony of sowbugs an observant gardener may notice they can come in several different colors like tan, pale orange, light gray and even purple or lavender. That is due to molting, but they soon turn dark as their new shell hardens.

While molting is vital in the growing process of all crustaceans, with sowbugs it is also plays an important role in mating. They molt from back to front. When a female sheds and reveals her oviducts a waiting male seizes the opportunity.

Because our winters are mild, mating occurs all year round. The female carries her eggs in a special brood pouch on the underside of her body. A single female can produce up to 200 offspring up to three times a year. Eggs hatch within three to seven weeks after mating but the young remain in the pouch for another six weeks. Upon leaving the pouch the young, smaller and lighter in color than adults with fewer legs, begin feeding and maturing. Sowbugs are full grown and ready to mate in a year. They can live up to three years under ideal conditions.

Due to their sheer multitude sow bugs can become a bit pesky in the garden. Since sowbugs breathe through gills, they must have moisture to survive. Eliminating dark moist places will cure a sowbug problem. Containerized plants sitting on concrete or wood create ideal conditions for sowbugs. They will crawl up into the drainage holes and feed on roots and decaying material in the potting soil.

The best way to solve the problem is to place wooden spacers made of 1 by 2's under pots to create an air space. This keeps the area between pot and ground surface dry and lighted. (Sow bugs do not like light). To prevent sowbugs from congregating around foundations, keep weeds and organic mulches 6 to 8 inches away. Finding colonies of sowbugs indoors, especially in bathroom and kitchen areas, means they are feeding on wet decaying material near by. Could be a water leak somewhere.


PINCH AND PRUNE Tip-pinching new spring growth is the easiest way to control growth on many perennials, shrubs and even young trees. Remove spent blossoms from camellias and rhododendrons. Prune after bloom is the rule of thumb for ornamental flowering trees and shrubs like crabapple, plum, cherry, quince, forsythia, lilac, saucer and star magnolia.

PATROL Trap or bait for hungry slugs and snails emerging from winter hibernation. Look for aphids on the buds of roses. Greenhouse gardeners should be on alert for both aphids and whitefly. Spray with neem at first sign of infestation. Trap earwigs and sowbugs by placing an old piece of lumber on wet soil or grass. Check daily and dispose of the critters as you wish. Inspect oak and fruit trees for leafrollers and caterpillars. Spray with Bacillus thuringiensis, an excellent organic control, at first sign.

PLANT PLANT PLANT April is prime planting time when just about anything, except tomatoes and peppers, can go into the ground. Plant lettuce, mixed salad greens, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and herbs this month. Sow seeds of beets, carrots, chard and peas. Start a herb garden. Plant geraniums, perennials and warm season annuals like marigolds, snapdragons, lobelia, dianthus, nicotiana. Wait until May to plant impatiens, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, corn and summer squash, however.

FEED `EM AND REAP roses, lawn, perennials, groundcovers, fruit trees and fall-planted shrubs and trees. Japanese maples and clematis need feeding, too. Use a balanced fertilizer mixed with a bit of iron for best results. Every four weeks liquid feed flowers and vegetables growing in containers. Feed rhododendrons as flowers buds swell. Feed the lawn.

DON'T WEED If you are planning to grow in new ground, try smothering the area with a layer of compost mixed with weed-free manure. Lay on top of this some newspaper and then cover with composted chipper mulch.

GROOM Remove spent blooms on spring flowering bulbs like daffodils and tulips. Do NOT cut back foliage, however. Remaining leaves are necessary for rebuilding the bulbs for next spring's flowers. Rake and reseed bare spots in the lawn. Clean up any old flowers that have dropped from camellias and azaleas to reduce chance of petal blight.

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