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Garden in the City: Die, Pill Bugs, Die

By Patty Wetli | June 10, 2013 11:00am
 So much for strawberry shortcake. Something's been munching on my fruit before it gets a chance to ripen.
So much for strawberry shortcake. Something's been munching on my fruit before it gets a chance to ripen.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

LINCOLN SQUARE — Something is eating my strawberries.

And they/it must pay.

The strawberries are actually a holdover from last year, when they were a major disappointment through no fault of their own. Note to self: When a plant says June-bearing and you buy it in July, Mother Nature will not change her schedule to accommodate your stupidity.

But the plants came back strong this spring, mushrooming to bush-like size with the promise of approximately a gazillion berries. Visions of strawberry shortcake and this Tarte Tropézienne have been dancing in my head since May.

So it's been sickening to discover some creature's been munching on every berry that's come close to approaching its glorious red-ripened stage.

I flipped over one of these decimated rubies and sure enough, there were the culprits. Grubs, I called them — grubs being what I call everything that isn't an ant, worm or spider. Pill bugs, aka, roly-polys, a fellow gardener corrected. Our plots, apparently, were all infested with them.

I went home and immediately googled "pill bugs are eating my strawberries," a subject I quickly learned is as hotly debated among gardeners as the authenticity of President Obama's birth certificate is among the American electorate.

In one camp: Those who insist pill bugs only eat decaying matter, and if they're spotted on your strawberries, it's because some other critter attacked the fruit first.

In the other camp: Those who think the people in the first camp are idiots.

Having caught the suspects red-handed, I went with the second group.

The question then became how to deal with the infestation. Suggestions abounded, including placing straw under the berries ("they're called 'straw' berries for a reason") and spreading something called diatomaceous earth around the seedlings.

I opted for hand-to-hand combat.

We set a couple of "traps" for the bugs — placing large pieces of bark at various points in the garden bed, hoping to attract the roly-polys with the cover of darkness. Maybe a dozen fell for this ruse, the rest we would have to hunt. My goal: total annihilation.

I'm not normally a ruthless or mean-spirited person and I definitely don't have the mindset of a killer. Once, when we were dating, my husband Dave took me to play laser tag. I spent the entire "game" cowering behind a wall.

But something about defending my strawberries against the pill bugs triggered a heretofore latent Clint "Get off my lawn" Eastwood instinct, circa "Gran Torino."

Scouring the garden bed square foot by square foot, I began squashing the bugs tentatively at first, then with increasing aggression, especially the pests I unearthed beneath innocent, unsuspecting berries.

"Die, you bastard, die," I snarled as I crunched a particularly large specimen between my fingers.

A "pow, pow, pow" with finger guns accompanied the smushing of a group hiding out near the arugula.

My kill count must have been in the dozens. Revenge, it felt so sweet.

Yet decisive victory has proven elusive.

Every return trip to the garden reveals more gnawed-on half-ripened strawberries. I'm beginning to think that short of setting up a 24/7 stakeout, not a single piece of fruit will make it to my table.

I've yet to plot my next action. Straw, assuming I can find any? That diatomaceous earth stuff, which apparently loses its potency as soon as it gets wet?

Maybe I should just concede defeat and let nature run its course.


If it kills me and a billion pill bugs, there will be shortcake.