Thursday, 14 June 2012

Slugs.


Thursday 14th June 2012

Someone has asked how I control slugs.

Well, it would appear that "not well enough" should be the answer. They somewhat took me by surprise this year, after I saw barely a handful in the whole of last year. Guess that's one benefit of a drought.
In stark contrast, this year there are hundreds. Not the big, fat juicy ones, but small, flesh-coloured little cigarillos. Where have they all come from? They seem to live in the grass, which has been difficult to keep short this year, and particularly like to lurk around the base of dandelions.

Let's get straight tho the point.

I will not use slug pellets. They may do a good job of poisoning the slugs and snails, but where do you think that poison goes when a hedgehog or a toad eats its nightly fill of slugs, or when a song thrush smashes snails against its anvil? And when they're gone, I don't see many other candidates willing to make a meal of a slug.

In fact, I've got nothing against slugs per se. They are actually quite wonderful inventions of nature. But completely untrainable! They are welcome to live in my grass as long as they stick to recycling dead vegetation. But no! They have to get greedy. If only they'd wait for the plants to get big, they would be welcome to a few of the outside leaves. But instead they continue their unsustainable ways, destroying any succulent leaf or stem before it gets the chance to grow into something bigger and tastier. Why on earth can't they eat grass instead? Then they'd actually be doing something useful.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that they need to be controlled, shown no mercy. But how?

Barriers
Last year I bought a job lot of SlugStoppa (or some other similar name which escapes me) while it was on special offer. Basically, it's small clay granules which the slugs don't like to crawl over - I think it sucks the moisture from their slimy coat. This is great in the dry, but it does not work when the ground is wet, as it has been for the last 10 weeks. It does dry out again and continue to work, but for a veg garden as large as mine I'd need a mountain of the stuff. It'd be cheaper to get all my veg delivered from Harrods!

So I use it selectively, usually inside a milk carton cloche. Used in this way it seems to do a pretty decent job of protecting individual young plants.

But I can't protect every bean and squash seedling in this way. Nor will it stop them nibbling my turnips and getting into my brassicas.

So I need to look for other methods to control them. I am thinking that the broken oyster shell which I buy for the chickens might do a very good job as a natural barrier. It is sharp, very dry to the touch, and can be bought fairly cheaply in bulk amounts. Next time I order from the feed suppliers I'll get them to put in a bag.

Other barrier methods I read about include using thorny offcuts, holly leaves, sand, broken egg shells. I'm sure they all help, but not on the scale I would need to use them. Past experiments have shown these methods to be partial deterrents, but wet weather makes them less effective at a time when they need to be at their most effective.
Of course, if you've got unlimited access to copper you could surround your beds with copper pipes. Slugs and snails will not crawl ove rthe stuff. This could mean they stay IN your veg bed too!
Just mind out for metal thieves!


Traps and enticements
I must admit, I've been left on the starting blocks here. I do have a few slug traps and should really deploy them. A job to go high up on the list.
Always seems like a terrible waste of beer though! But the damage at the moment outweighs the alcohol considerations. Must start brewing my own. Not sure if cider or elderflower champagne will work as well.

Another way to catch the slimy little critters is to invite them in. Deliberately tempt them by placing flat stones or large leaves strategically. Upturned orange and grapefruit skins are supposed to work well for this. Comfrey is, apparently, irresistible to slugs.
Though I feel guilty and really should add some of these to my armoury, I have my reservations too. I have enough routine jobs to more than fill my days already. I know it's a question of priorities, but I can't help thinking I'd just be providing the slugs with some luxury accommodation within easy reach of a first class eating establishment.
The same goes for leaving some nice rotting comfrey leaves as a tasty nibble. I just feel I could end up attracting more slugs into the area.

Give them the chop.
The best method of control, by far, is to get out there on a damp evening with a sharp tool (I use the edge of my trowel) and go hunting. Show no mercy!
There may be times when it seems that every chopped slug you have left has grown back into two, but if you put in a concerted effort it will begin to work. The other evening I killed 700 slugs in about an hour! The population will not be able to sustain this, as long as I keep at the job.
Unfortunately, by far the best time to do this is when it's actually drizzling. You will be shocked at the number of slugs you find, but better that you find them than they stay hidden in the vegetation. Just be prepared to get a bit soggy and think of all those lovely veg you'll enjoy in a couple of months time.


Encourage predators
Do everything you can to encourage helpers. A small pond will bring in frogs and toads. You may not have any hedgehogs left in your area, but if you do make sure you don't harm them. Give them a brush pile to move into, or even one of those overpriced hedgehog houses. Same goes for song thrushes. If you can, give them somewhere to nest like a hedgerow or an ivy-clad tree.

I could let the chickens into the veg patch for a while. They would help the situation by eating any slugs they found, but would completely undermine this by scratching up all the seedlings and pecking all their favourite leaves such as the sorrel and Swiss chard! I do let the guineafowl wander freely as they are not so destructive, but clearly two is not enough to keep on top of all the creepy-crawlies.

Nematodes
The soil is full of nematode worms, millions and billions and zillions of them. Some of them are very harmful to slugs. Not sure how, but they can be a very effective control mechanism. You can buy them conveniently in a powder which you just add to water. It only lasts about 6 weeks, so you need to apply  a course of them from early spring.
The main trouble with this method of control is the expense. It's the Harrods thing again. Although if I just had a couple of small veg beds I would consider this method of control.

Writing this has reminded me though. I'm sure I read somewhere that you can grow your own nematodes. I seem to remember it's pretty disgusting. Leaving a pile of dead slugs in water for a few weeks seems to ring a bell.
Now I really must get onto that.

Don't throw them over the neighbours
Not that the neighbours might not deserve it, but they'll just come back if you're the one supplying the food. Unless you are prepared to pick them all up and drive them miles away, you really do need to kill them.

Salt
If you've ever poured salt onto a slug or snail, you'll see what effect it has on them. Looks like a slow, painful death, but it will kill them. However, if you really can't bear to touch them or chop them in half, just remember that you will end up using a lot of salt if you have as many slugs as me and that salt really is not good for nearly all plants.


In conclusion, then, there are many ways to control slugs but none of them is perfect. Probably best to combine as many as possible. The key is to keep the offensive going. And please don't be tempted to take the easy option and scatter poison all over the place.


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