Slugs and snails have to be THE Number One biggest challenge facing gardeners. If I could invent an effective, humane solution to stop them from eating all our plants, I would be rich on a JK Rowling scale. But I can’t and neither can any of those companies who peddle their wares promising to end your gastrapod woes. But here are five ways in which we are probably all guilty of contributing to the problem;
WE ARE FEEDING THEM. Yes, that Hosta looked gorgeous in the garden centre and I couldn’t resist it and who knows, it might be a more slug resistant variety and I’ll put it in a pot with copper tape around the top and…It’s not fair!! Why can’t I grow hostas without them ending up looking like a slime-trailed doily? Monty off the telly grows them and his leaves don’t have a snail nibble in site! The fact is, if you insist upon growing those plants which are blatantly slug bait, you will keep on facing disappointment. I admit defeat with delphiniums, dahlias when they are in all but their full-blown mature form, hostas and anything that I know will end up being a total waste of money. It’s frustrating to know there are some plants I have to avoid altogether but if the alternative is to plant them under a mountain of slug pellets only to have them nobbled on that one night I take my eye off the ball and forget to wage my mollusc warfare, then so be it.
WE ARE NOT FEEDING THEM. I’m not contradicting what I’ve written above here, it’s just that some have a tendency to be too tidy in our gardens. It’s still difficult for some of us to get past the desire for plants that sit as islands in a pristine sea of freshly dug soil, but this is so park bedding scheme! Bare soil is an open invitation to weeds and it’s not good for the soil to be exposed to the elements for too long. Resist the temptation to pick up every leaf and piece of dead plant debris as slugs and snails can feed on dead and decaying matter. Remove every last scrap of detritus from the garden and your prized plants become the only source of food.
YOUR GARDEN ECO-SYSTEM IS OUT OF KILTER. It’s become fashionable lately to bang on about establishing an eco-system in your garden where everything is balanced and works as a coherent and self-regulating whole. I can be quick to question the prevailing expert thinking myself, but on this point the experts are absolutely spot on. I’ve worked in gardens where excavation has taken place, top soil removed and redistributed, houses built, plant material cleared out and levels changed and it takes YEARS for any semblance of an eco-system to reestablish. In one garden, it was 8 years after major building and landscaping works took place before birds returned to the site. It’s strangely unsettling to work in a garden where there is no birdsong providing a background track to your labours.
When certain species are pushed out of even a small environment, it takes a long, long time for the whole thing to heal. What happens while you are waiting for certain members of the habitat to come back is their prey will often proliferate. If you have a glut of one particular pest, ask yourself what you can do to encourage those species which predate them. In the case of slugs and snails, can you add water to encourage toads and newts? Have you left room under your fences so that hedgehogs can pass through your garden? Do you have trees and shrubs that will encourage birds to nest and do you have a good range of plant material that will not only provide food for the birds but also for the insects they eat?
Using certain chemicals can also affect more than just the species you are trying to eradicate. If you have a strong stomach, you can do an internet search for video footage of a hedgehog that has ingested slug pellets dying a horrible and agonising death. When you poison one species, you cause a chain of events that affects the whole garden. Far better to meddle as little as possible and let the garden work as a self-regulating system. The less you interfere, the better, just let things sort themselves out and work in tandem with what nature has provided for you in your garden.
WATERING AT THE WRONG TIME AND IN FACT, WATERING AT ALL. If you’re watering your plants in the late afternoon or early evening, this is the perfect time to encourage the molluscs out to play. They will emerge at night anyway, but by watering at this time, the temptation for them to clamber all over your beds in search of food is absolutely irresistible. They will be much less inclined to slither over dry soil so try to water in the morning when they are less active and aim the water directly at the base of each plant rather than sploshing it all over the place with a hose or sprinkler.
I’ve made a rule in my garden not to water any permanent planting after the first year it’s in the ground, by which point it should be established and able to fend for itself. If it needs watering after this time, I’ve planted it in the wrong place. Watering and feeding your plants to make them lush and beautiful is aesthetically great. However if you grow your plants ‘hard’, that is without making the leafy growth so green and juicy, they are more able to withstand attacks from any sort of pests and diseases. Over-pampering your plants is not always a good thing.
WE CAN’T RESIST USING SLUG PELLETS. So it’s been proven that predators will eat slugs and snails that have been poisoned by slug pellets and become poisoned themselves. This reduces future numbers of the predators which stops the eco-system functioning in a balanced way. There are also many reported cases of domestic animals that have eaten slug pellets and died. It’s suspected too that high levels of metaldehyde in our water courses is a result of slug pellet residues leaching into them https://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2013/jul/10/slug-pesticides-metaldehyde-drinking-water Yet we still vengefully chuck masses of the blue pellets around at the first sign of damage to our beloved plants. But what are we actually trying to achieve here? Slugs pellets will kill all the slugs that ingest them indiscriminately, including those good slugs which eat organic material and also other slugs. And slug pellets attract slugs and snails to the area in which you sprinkle them, ie straight to your choice specimens. I don’t know whether slug pellets have a 100% kill rate or if 100% of the molluscs that are attracted to the area eat the pellets or if they get waylaid and make a detour onto our plants instead. And once the slugs associate that area with food, do they keep coming in their droves, only to be disappointed if the slug pellets have been dissolved by the rain and no more have been put down and do they then move onto the plants as an alternative? And are slug pellets definitively more tasty than our lettuce plants or seedlings? Can anyone prove the slugs will for go for the pellets over and above the plant material every single time? What is it about the slug pellets that makes them so attractive, is it the colour or the scent, are we effectively waving a big flag over our most vulnerable plants by covering them in slug pellets? The honest answer is, I don’t know. If anybody can direct me to scientific facts relating to how these pellets work, I would love to read them. Because if they not only fail as a long-term control and actually exacerbate the problem, we might want to think twice before we use them.
Population control of any species is risky, it’s far better that we try to work with our natural environment rather than try to eradicate slugs and snails altogether. So next time our plants are munched, let’s look at what we’re doing wrong and what we can do to help the situation by not contributing to the problem.