The earwigs are a plague on the garden.
Jonathon—a thickset man with an unruly gray beard—wanders up and down the rows of decimated bean plants searching for surviving leaves, finding none. How curious, and what a disaster for the community. He has been gardening for fifty years, since he was six years old, and he has never experienced such an infestation—nothing even close to this. Only the garlic shoots have weathered the onslaught of the ravenous bugs, and even they show signs of being nibbled.
Having tea with Malcolm, his predecessor at the helm of the abbey garden, Jonathon says, “I went out last night at midnight and there were thousands and thousands of earwigs clinging to every stem and leaf. I’ve scoured the garden for their nests, but except for one small concentration near the old greenhouse…”
Malcolm, eighty-seven, a slender man with boyish dimples, shakes his head. “You won’t find concentrations.” He swirls the tea in his cup to bring out a last burst of flavor from the leaves. “They’re everywhere in the ground.”
“But why this year?” Jonathon gazes at the slice of garden he can see through Malcolm’s open door. “There’s nothing much different about the weather this spring than last. Our methods haven’t changed.”
Malcolm settles back in his rocking chair, a smile playing at his lips. “I must tell you, I’m glad it’s not my worry now. I’d be out there all night picking the buggers off one by one.”
“But what do you think it is?” Jonathon frowns at what he can see of the ruined planting. “We’ll have to start over again. And we’ll have to buy vegetables this year. I feel like such a fool.” He turns to Malcolm. “Can you make a guess?”
“No need to guess,” says Malcolm, finishing his tea. “The same thing happened to me my third year here—forty-four, no, forty-five years ago. And ever after we always dug the compost in deep and never top dressed with young compost that had any wood chips or sawdust in it. That’s just elixir to an earwig.”
“Oh my God,” says Jonathon—awareness dawning in his tired eyes. “The sawdust we got from the mill in January and mixed with the manure.”
“Yes, and you have five new apprentices who don’t know how to thoroughly rake the clods out of the new beds. Those warm little pockets under the clods are perfect boudoirs for earwig orgies.” Malcolm rocks forward and rises from his chair. “But even so you might not have had this plague if there’d been a good freeze this winter to kill off most of their eggs, but it never got terribly cold.”
Jonathon stares in amazement at Malcolm. “How long have you known?”
“All along,” he says, stepping into his garden clogs.
“And you didn’t say anything because I told you not to butt in anymore.” He closes his eyes and shakes his head. “I’m such an idiot.”
“No, no,” says Malcolm, putting a hand on Jonathon’s shoulder. “You’re a fine gardener. We can’t know everything.”
“So what did you do back then to kill them off? Poison?”
“Never.” Malcolm laughs as he steps outside his cottage—his sinecure for fifty years of service to the sangha. “What we did was double dig the ground and make the new garden immaculate. Then we sunk big bowls every six feet along the rows and filled them with beer. Earwigs love beer even more than they love baby basil. That drowned a good many of them, and we were out every night for two weeks picking the rest of the buggers off by hand until the plants were strong enough to fend for themselves.”
“I guess that’s what we’ll have to do,” says Jonathon, relieved to have the mystery solved, however difficult the remedy.
“Have you seen my little vegetable patch?” asks Malcolm, starting up a narrow trail leading away from the main garden. “Up in the old orchard?”
“I didn’t know you’d planted anything this year,” says Jonathon, watching him go. “I’ve been so busy with the expansion of the fields, and the master classes, and…”
“I’ve been fortunate.” Malcolm beckons him to follow. “Not many bugs up there. Might get enough beans and such to see us through until yours come ready. Come on. I’ll show you.”