Damage Control: Dealing with Slugs and Snails

The Gardener

I live in slug paradise (aka Portland, Oregon) and the slimy little creatures are having their way with my garden right now. The leaves of my hostas, cauliflower and lettuce are shot through with holes and I find slugs creeping their way across the patio whenever I step outdoors. This week I'm striking back with my organic arsenal of slug fighting tools.

Spring is prime slug and snail season because they love wet, cool weather and plants with young, succulent foliage. Seedlings that are just emerging from the soil and plants like hostas, lettuce, and basil are particularly vulnerable. Slugs and snails can annihilate a row of baby greens overnight and heavy slug damage often permanently stunts or disfigures plants. Luckily, the slimy creatures are easy to control with organic slug baits. These products contain iron phosphate, which causes the slugs and snails to lose their appetite when they ingest it. Eventually they die of starvation (not poisoning). The ridiculously named Sluggo and Escar-go are two common brands. The organic baits often take a couple of days to take effect, so use the following strategies in the interim:

Go hunting. Slugs and snails tend to congregate in dark, damp, cool spots like the edge of lawns, under logs or mulch, and around the sides of raised beds. Look for them in early morning. Drown any you find in a jar of soapy water and then toss them on your compost pile. Try crumpling up a piece of newspaper and placing it into the garden at night. Slugs often hide out in the paper and you can just pick it up and toss it in the trash in the morning. I also avoid mulching in my vegetable garden until the weather warms up and the soil surface stays pretty dry.

Feed them to the birds. If you have chickens, let them loose into the garden before planting in spring to gobble up slugs and weeds. During the garden season I hunt for slugs and snails and toss them into the chicken run as a snack for our hens.

Attract ground beetles. Slug eggs are a ground beetle's favorite meal. Lure these good bugs to your garden by planting low, perennial plants that provide shelter, such as ornamental grasses, oregano, and thyme.

Make beer traps. Slugs and snails are drawn to the yeasty smell of beer like college kids are to a keg. To make a beer trap, simply bury a shallow container, such as a yogurt or keg cup, in the garden. Leave the rim of the container one inch above the soil line to prevent ground beetles from accidentally falling in. The slugs will smell the beer, crawl right into the container and drown. Simply dump the contents onto your compost each morning and refill the cup. I've found the cheaper the beer, the better it works. In fact, we once used up an entire batch of bad home brew in slug traps. It tasted terrible to us, but the slugs didn't seem to mind.

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Willi Galloway writes The Gardener column. She lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about her kitchen garden on her blog DigginFood. Her first book Grow. Cook. Eat. A Food-Lovers Guide To Kitchen Gardening will be published in January 2012.

(Images: All images by Willi Galloway)