Garden News article about slugs

This is an article I wrote about a month ago so forgive the slight time vortex you are about to enter.

‘Mr Sandman bring me a dream, keep the slugs away from my little greens.’ This is my evening song as I trek down from the kitchen garden at the end of a hard days fretting. Someone once said that a week was a long time in politics, well not as long as a night time in the garden. Especially a damp humid night; the kind of night one or two pests in particular adore. My head twitches on the pillow on nights like this. I can picture exactly what’s happening in my veg patch, and I don’t like it. The slugs and snails are on a death march. It makes me nervous.

“Why can’t I just shake a few pellets from a tin like the rest of the human race and have done with it.” I say to myself fitfully as I think about my sweet little seedlings, all naked and unprotected. Not a slug pellet in sight (not even the organic one Advanced Slug Killer), but more than this no barriers, no traps, no biological control. “What sort of a gardener am I?”

Well as you can tell a very nervous one. But if you don’t take risks how are you ever going to learn. And lets face it my world isn’t going to end if I lose a few plants to slugs. I’ll be annoyed but I will survive. Having edited a book compiling at least 70 different organic techniques for controlling slugs (The Little Book of Slugs) and knowing through my Bug-the-Slug campaign that what works for some people does not work for others I’m trying to find out what happens if you strip the slug problem bare of those things we have come to rely on. I’m asking the question – do we need to clutter our gardens up with all these extras or will a few simple tricks based on our understanding of slug habits do the job. It’s a question I might live to regret.

My experiment actually started two years ago – during the drought (and I’m sure will go on for several more!). It was so dry I didn’t bother taking extra precautions against slugs – such as setting up traps or laying barriers. There was no need. Slugs hate dry conditions and wont crawl over dry soils to look for food. They prefer to hide out in clumps of weeds, long grass or any area with rich, damp vegetation. I kept my beds weed free, hoed regularly (thus disturbing the trails which slugs follow back to their prey and any slug eggs they might lay just beneath the surface) and occasionally removed any slugs or snails I found up there on night patrols. And this worked. I didn’t lose a thing, either during the early growth stage when they are most vulnerable to attack or in fact throughout the whole growing season.

This year I’ve taken the extra step of leaving some cut comfrey around the beds to act as a slug decoy. Slugs love to eat comfrey. Cut a bunch of stems off the plant, leave them to wilt in the sun for a couple of days, go and have a look at night and you’ll see slugs and snails happily chomping away at the pile. Having drawn the slugs to one place it’s easier to pick them off and take them somewhere else. Although – having spent some time watching them – it may be ok to just leave them to it. They don’t seem interested in the living plants when they have some decomposing comfrey to chew on. Keep topping the comfrey pile up every few days with newly cut comfrey, especially if its very dry and the comfrey loses all its moisture.

I’ve placed the comfrey at the edge of the wild area of the garden and left a foot of open ground between the comfrey and the seedlings, a kind of border control area in which toads, frogs and slow worms – all predators of slugs – patrol. Any slugs trying to cross this area will have to run the gauntlet with these natural predators.

Of course there isn’t a one solution fits all approach to slug control and if you’ve got a big border full of hostas or a greenhouse bench full of vulnerable seedlings you might need to do things differently. Having neither I’ll leave that experiment to someone else. But for your average veggie plot developing an approach that allows you to use natural resources harvested from your own garden will save you money and help you to be more self reliant. I’ll let you know how I get on.

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