Dealing with slugs
In my large garden the thing that causes me the most heartache and time is slugs and snails (pukekos follow close behind). They have loved the wet weather over winter – I think thousands of them roamed my garden. It’s warming up but that doesn’t mean the end of them.
The easiest way to deal with slugs and snails is to put down bait but it’s something I try to avoid because of puppies and other wildlife that might eat it or the dead slugs. Also the toxins end up in the soil and in contact with the veggies which can’t be good. I’ve tried lots of ways to stop them eating my plants and I know I’m not alone in trying to solve this problem.
I recently lost the plot when my onions got munched and got hubby to buy bait (I don’t know why I keep calling it ‘bait’ – it’s slug ‘killer’) while on a hardware trip. I’d grown red onions from seed and planted out far less than I’d hoped, so to see those precious few strands munched over a couple of nights after everything I’d been doing to get them growing was the last straw. I drowned them with the killer and my newly sown peas for good measure. Because it was just the regular old toxic killer I then had to cover both beds with all manner of mesh and wood to make sure Chino (or anyone else) couldn’t get to it. It of course meant I couldn’t get to the plants to weed and lay mulch. It also rained a few days later turning it all to useless blue mush. In the meantime I had to go out each morning and remove any dead or dying slimers before anything ate their toxic bodies. It certainly felt like karma.
So what does this mean for non-toxic slug and snail control? If you get online you’ll find heaps of suggestions but does anyone actually succeed with them? Maybe in a small garden it’s easy to try something and think it works because the five slugs in the whole garden just haven’t made it over to the new seedlings. In my now large garden I’ve had to get serious about slug and snail control. Here’s some things I’ve experimented with – hopefully you can find something helpful in all these ideas. (Don’t feel like reading this very long post ? – scroll right down to the summary below!)
Garden set up
One of the problems I have is the set up of my garden beds. I’ve made some of them out of the bricks left over from our house build. The little holes in them are absolutely brilliant for slugs and snails to hide in during the day and come out at night. I’m now filling the tops of all the bricks with wet clay (ie our soil) – a painful process (see in the photo left). I’ve got another bed/wall to make – I’ll use the last of the bricks but this time I’ll top it with a layer of hole-less brick or tile so there aren’t any hidey holes. I’ve heard that beds made from ponga logs pose a similar problem. I’ve also used old carpet on the paths which they like to hide under but at least that’s easy enough to lift and deal to them.
Piles of old bits of timber, bricks and so on should be cleared away as these are all places for them to hide (unless you’re prepared to go and check on them and ambush them – see below under ‘day patrol’).
Plan the planting
Supposedly planting a bed with a mix of plants is better than a bed cleared of everything but new seedlings (which is actually slug bait!). Some ways it works:
- Plants to deter pests – in theory plants that slugs and snails won’t eat are garlic and leeks (I have seen the slugs around mine but they don’t eat it) and onions (not true – they love mine). They also don’t eat the upland cress which is a bitter leaf. So in theory I should plant a ring of garlic or upland cress then put carrot seeds in the middle where they’ll be protected by the plants they won’t cross.
- Sacrificial plants – planting a ring or corner of plants that the slugs and snails love could provide them with enough food to stop them getting to my precious seedlings. Also put seeds down near established plants – don’t put them down into an empty bed where they are easy pickings. The large plants can withstand a few nibbles – emerging seedlings can’t.
In reality space and timing of planting doesn’t always allow for this mix. Slugs will just live in the soil under mulch and plants so this kind of mixed planting isn’t a guarantee – care would still need to be taken that they’re not just lurking and attacking the nearby lettuce. I think there’s merit in this idea of mixed planting though – it just needs some careful planning.
If you’ve got a small garden an easy way to clear up the slugs and snails is to go out at night and find them in the act. Take a torch and a bucket. The snails I drop to the ground and just crush underfoot. (Sometimes I collect them and give them to the chooks in the morning). The slugs are harder to squash so before I go into the garden I put the jug on to boil. When I’m done I take the bucket to the house, flick any slugs back in which have tried to escape and pour boiling water over the lot. (Cold water won’t kill them). I’ve read that people use salt but the boiling water is an instantaneous way to kill them. Do this every night or second night for a week or so and you should have the population under control enough to do it once a week from then on. Because my garden is so large I feel like I could probably do this every night forever and still not get them all but it does reduce the numbers. Some things to think about –
- Go out after it’s been raining slightly – they like the wet soil.
- Don’t go at the same time every night. Too early and they haven’t all started moving yet and too late and they have munched too much.
- Don’t walk the same way through the garden each time – approach plants from different sides so you’re not always looking the same way.
- Check on the plants but don’t forget to look on the ground. Move leaves aside to see who’s coming from the ground up.
- If there’s too many and it’s over whelming focus on the slugs which are curled end to end – they are making babies!
- The huge slugs apparently eat broken down plant matter, not fresh plants and supposedly other slugs so they can be left alone. I don’t know if that’s true – I’ve tried to watch them and even put a slug in the path of one but didn’t see it eat the slug or any plants. I would like to think it’s true because those huge slugs would do alot of damage. I do know that the tapeworm looking ones eat earthworms – I’ve seen it!! So they’re on my hitlist.
Make easy hiding places away from your seedling such as pieces of timber, wet cardboard or veggie leaves. Flip them over in the day and get those slugs. Also take note of where snails in particular like to hide and ambush them during the day. I find them under plant leaves up against wood or brick (eg my brick wall). The bonus is they seem to like to hang out together so I can grab a whole lot at once and throw them to the chooks.
Direct sow vs seedlings
There are some things which are better off sown directly rather than sowing in a pot and transplanting but if you’ve got a big slug problem (me) it could be better to germinate them inside. Last year my beans were ruined by slugs when sown direct – just one night of nibbling by one small slug can kill a germinating seed. This year I’ve sown them inside and my transplanted bush and climbing beans seem to be doing ok thus far. Salad plants can be sown directly but I can’t risk it so will also start them off inside.
Barriers – there are some things which supposedly form a physical barrier to stop slugs and snails getting to your plants:
- Egg shells – I think you would need to form a massive solid ring around the plant to stop them crossing it as it hasn’t worked for me. Egg shell is good for the soil though as it adds calcium (break it up finely).
- Coffee grounds – a solid ring of coffee around one of my beds and around some seedlings did seem to work. I’ve also added ground chilli which seemed to deter them initially. I think once it got wet it stopped being effective but it’s a method I’m still trialling.
- Salt – as above with the coffee grounds. You need to literally surround the plant with salt and once wet it doesn’t work any more. Also – very tender seedlings don’t like to be drowned in coffee and especially not salt so that’s something to keep in mind.
- Wool – supposedly slugs and snails don’t like wool so I recently collected some (we have sheep which self shed so it’s easy to pick up bits) and tucked this around my new lettuce and rocket seedlings. On checking these a few nights later I found this was not a success. The wool had been pulled away from some of the seedlings (I don’t know if this was from the wind we’ve had lately or the Chino factor) and I wish I’d had my camera to take a picture of a small heap of wool. It supposedly had a seedling in the middle of it but now all I could see was a couple of (very tiny) slugs on top of the wool they supposedly hated.
- Wool product – there is a product I’ve used called SlugGone which you lie right around the plant to form a barrier. Even though my actual wool barrier above didn’t work I did have success with the SlugGone but it was an expensive way to protect my garden. If you only had a few plants eg young trees to protect it’d be worth trying.
- Bran – I’ve recently read that an interesting alternative to bait is bran. Apparently the slugs and snails love it, eat it and eat so much they go home without getting to the plants. Then there tummies swell and they die. That does sound gross but no more so than death by bait. I’ve bought some and surrounded some but not all of my recently planted out leek seedlings. How do I know if this is working though? None of the seedlings have been touched (yet). At least the slug bait leaves a trail of semi dead bodies so I have that feeling of achievement.
The beer trap is something we all know about but does it really work?
- I’ve used little dishes of beer in the garden to drown slugs and snail and it does work but it seems like quite an expensive way to kill them. Use any shallow dish and fill it with beer eg a take away container or cut the bottom off a milk bottle. Dig it into the ground a bit – it doesn’t need to be level with the ground to work though. If it’s shallow enough (eg a plant pot dish) it’ll work sitting on the soil.
- I tried using sauvignon blanc instead of beer (I had some past use-by-date home brew) which was semi-successful. When I trialled the wine vs yeasty mix (below) they preferred the yeasty mix but both were still successful.
- I’ve also used a mix of yeast and sugar which does work and is cheaper than a can of beer. Unfortunately it attracts everything including bees so I have to leave a little twig or something in it for them to climb back out of (the slugs obviously don’t manage that). I’ve also read that people put flour in the mix and I have tried that but it also seems to work without it (I’m not sure what benefit the flour has).
Like the coffee and salt barriers above, the traps seem to stop working after a while. Maybe the rain dilutes them or maybe word gets out? Now that it’s getting drier I find the shallow dishes dry out during the day but it’s still easy enough to replinish them a couple of times a week.
- Another ‘trap’ method I’ve read is to put de-juiced orange or grapefruit halves in the garden. The slugs hide under them in the day, then you can take these and throw them to the chickens. I’ve tried this with lemons because that’s what I had but the slugs didn’t take to them. I can say that the chickens wouldn’t like the lemons either but in theory the oranges, some pumpkin pieces or other used bits of veg could work.
eg Quash which is supposedly better on other critters which might eat it (or the dead fallout). While I’ve been trying to avoid using bait I think there’s a place for using this safer option – at least in moderation while the plants are tiny. I would still make sure it’s not where pets and wildlife can get at it just in case. The slugs don’t die on instant contact so it’s not as easy to see if it’s worked (they crawl off home to die). I’ve tried this lately with some lettuce and rocket seedlings. I tried coffee vs wool vs Quash and sadly the Quash was the most successful at protecting the plants.
The use of mulch
Mulch such as pea straw or grass clippings is the perfect hiding place for slugs. Don’t mulch right around your tiny seedlings when you first plant them – instead put the mulch (or something else eg a piece of cardboard) a bit away from the plants. Check under the cardboard during the day – hopefully the slugs have taken cover and you can deal to them. After a few weeks, once the plants get bigger and you’ve de slugged the area, get that mulch around the plants as it stops the soil drying out and encourages worms into the top layers of soil.
Sacrificial leaves (or plants)
Where I’ve got a fresh bed of young seedlings I have had success with putting some leaves (eg failed cabbages) down which the slugs can eat on their way to my seedlings. They get distracted eating those long enough for me to find them at night. They also use them to hide under during the day so I can check under them if I remember.
Under ‘mix up the plants’ above I mentioned sacrificial plants – in theory you would have some plants you don’t mind if the slugs and snails eat – they would be drawn to these and leave the new seedlings alone. While I haven’t tried this I can see that it would work – again it just takes some planning. Obviously you would still need to get rid of the s’s at some point though rather than just feeding them.
I would like to use birdlife to take care of the slugs and snails for me. Some ideas I’ve read or tried are –
- Chickens. My lazy chickens were only eating the tiny slugs and the big snails if I’ve squashed them a bit. It was starting to feel like I was just collecting the slugs and snails from the garden at night and relocating them to the orchard in the morning. I realised we were feeding the chooks too much and they were getting too lazy and reliant on us to feed them rather than foraging in their gazillion meters of orchard they live in. I stopped their morning feed and I’m happy to say they are now eating slugs again.
(Once I stopped their morning feed it did take a few weeks of them standing at the gate before they realised they weren’t getting fed in the morning. They also wouldn’t eat the s’s when I put down the tub I’d collected them in the night before. Initially I had to tip them out and throw some mulch on top of the lot so they would scratch through it and ‘find’ them. I did fluff around with other ways to get them to eat the s’s but really it comes down to over fed chooks. If they’re hungry enough they will eat those disgusting slugs).
- Birds. My mother in law night hunts the slugs and snails at night, puts them in a bucket and turns it over in the morning. The birds have learnt to come and eat the escaping pests. One idea I had was to put down pieces of timber that the slugs would hide under in the day, go through in the day and flip them over and get the blackbirds and thrushes trained to come and eat them when I do. While this training takes place though (as above with my night patrol and the chooks) I’d just be releasing them back to the garden. Also I did wonder if my mother in law just thinks the birds are eating them and she’s really just capturing the same ones night after night…..
- Ducks! This is a method I want to try. Unlike the chooks which scratch the mulched garden beds to bits and eat random plants (actually, my fussy chooks wouldn’t) ducks are supposedly quite good at pest control. I’m not talking about housing a couple of Indian Runners down in the garden, I want to use the wild ducks. We have a pair which hang out quite close to my garden eating (I hope) slugs in the grass. OK, yes they’re just waiting for me to feed the chooks which is when they fly up to free load. The problem is that we trained Chino to go into the chicken-orchard and chase any ducks off because they eat their food and ‘fowl’ up the drinking water. He does it so well that he’ll carefully bypass the chooks then run at the ducks to scare them. Now I have to retrain him to only chase birds when he’s told to. Hopefully I can lure the ducks into the garden and get them on slug patrol. Using the wild birds will mean the end of using any slug bait so it’ll be one or the other.
Slug and snail control summary – start here rather than read it all
What does this long post mean? If you don’t want to use bait there isn’t just one solution. A natural approach to gardening means doing several things:
Night patrol was the best way to reduce the numbers. A couple of times a week for a few weeks would reduce the numbers in your garden significantly. To remind myself to go out I would sit the torch on the bench. Coming home after a few wines is also a good time to put on the gumboots and get stomping! The beer/yeast traps are good to include in the mix. One trap in one garden bed would make a difference. Tip the dead bodies back into the garden (nutrients) and refill it once or twice a week. While I’ve read that people have success with coffee grounds and egg shells around plants I didn’t find that but I think it’s worth trying on a small scale. They both will benefit the soil so there’s that bonus even if they don’t stop the slugs. Chilli added to the coffee is a combination worth experimenting with. I’ve been starting my plants off in pots then putting them out once bigger rather than sowing direct. When I plant out my seedlings now I tuck around the leaves of upland cress, cabbage, kale and parsley I have in abundance. These will mulch, add nutrients and delay the route of slugs and snails to my plants. During the day I check probable hiding places. The posts holding windbreak around the fruit trees are a good spot – I stomp down the grass so the chooks can get in and scratch around. I do the same around the garden fence line and what I don’t find to take the chooks I hope the birds will see.
My night patrols are reaping less in November than they did during winter and my latest lot of seedlings seem to be surviving. It is drier (finally!) which I guess they don’t like but it also feels like I’ve finally getting them under control.