One of the main things you have to deal with as a gardener is the plant-eating competition! It’s not just you that wants to eat your lettuces and strawberries – there’s birds and insects and mammals who have a taste for them too, and they generally help themselves when you’re not there.
One of the least popular of garden pests is slugs, which can destroy foliage faster than the plants can grow, so you risk losing a whole harvest of some vegetables, and you won’t feel much like eating fruit that’s half-eaten by a slug.
It’s tempting to want to get rid of every last slug on your patch, along with all the other pests. But be aware that slugs and snails provide food for all sorts of mammals, birds, slow worms, earthworms, insects and they are part of the natural balance. You’ll be more content if you accept that you’ll need to share some of what you grow with other creatures, and aim just to keep garden pests like slugs under control. Better for the environment and better to avoid chemicals which create other problems.
Slug pellets – the easy answer?
No, because even if they did keep slugs under control, hedgehogs die if they eat pellets or slugs which have been poisoned by pellets. Hedgehogs do a great job in the garden eating pests including slugs, beetles and caterpillars but they are now seriously threatened – their numbers have dropped 99% since 1950 to around half a million, and although a lot of the deaths are on the roads, gardeners are also responsible for many deaths through using toxic slug pellets, strimmers and leaving out wide mesh netting in which hedgehogs get tangled and die through dehydration.
So we need to avoid the toxic blue pellets and use other methods, including making life safer for hedgehogs on our sites. If you insist on using pellets, check the label for whether they are safe for hedgehogs and other animals who eat slugs. An example of a 100% organic slug repellent is SLUG GONE or look up this website for more information: www.hedgehogstreet.org.
So how do I tackle the problem?
There’s different ways to approach it. You can
- work with nature,
- adjust your gardening activities and habits,
- recycle items, or
- buy products
Why not try the ones which work with nature first, as well as looking at the way you garden, as they may be enough to manage the problem?
One solution not listed below is salt sprinkled on slugs or the soil. This is probably the cruellest way to kill them as it dries them out and they die slowly, but also salt ruins the soil and is harmful to a lot of wildlife and plants.
Work with nature
Encourage predators and take advantage of the fact that slugs are in the food chain – if the animals which like to eat them are around your plot, your problem is solved!
- Make your site and plot hedgehog friendly – some shrubs or other undisturbed space on the edge, with leaves and old logs where hedgehogs can sleep and hibernate. You could also make or buy a hedgehog house and provide food and water. Meat-based cat food is suitable. For more information, look up www.snuffles-rescue.com
- Make your site and plot frog and toad-friendly. So make a pond or leave some damp shady spots undisturbed.
- Encourage the birds which like a slug treat. These include song thrushes and robins. One idea is to put a brick in the middle of a large bird bath or tray with water (shallow) in a shady spot, then put the slugs you’ve collected on the brick. They can’t swim and when the birds and hedgehogs come to drink water, they’ll have a slug snack too! (See www.instructables.com/id/Teaching-Birds-to-Eat-Invasive-Slugs-a-Poison-Free for more information)
- Some hens also eat slugs.
Gardening activities and habits
- Watering: do your watering early in the day so the soil is dry by evening, because slugs are most active at night and like damp conditions.
- Hoeing. Vigorously hoe the soil regularly as this should smash the eggs which can lie dormant for years.
- Plant housekeeping. Clear debris and stones under and around your plants so the slugs can’t hide there when they aren’t active
- Make an area just for slugs – eg some lettuce and cabbage plants. Then collect them early or late in the day and put them in this patch.
- Carpet and wood between raised beds. Slugs will hide from the sun under these so you can pick them off.
- Slug resistant plants. Some plants repel slugs – plant some of these next to your vegetables and fruit. These include lavender and marigolds, and any evergreen shrubs, grasses and plants with tough leaves which are difficult to chew. Slugs also find it difficult to travel over growth which is hairy, waxy or glossy – so roses and fuchsias are good choices.
- Choice of vegetables. Slugs tend to avoid red leaved plants such as red-leaved chard and red cabbage, and they don’t like pumpkins either. They also avoid herbs such as basil, fennel, garlic, ginger, lemon balm, parsley, mint, sage and rosemary.
There’s various waste and natural products you can use to lure slugs away, drown them or deter them reaching your plants above or below ground. A thick layer of sharp material round the plant may stop some and for slugs which live mainly in the soil, solutions (eg caffeine, garlic) may work better.
- Eggshells. Leave these to dry out and harden (a cooling oven is a good place), then break them up into sharp shards. Eggshells also add much needed calcium to the soil.
- Wood chips, sharp stones or gravel – any materials that slugs avoid travelling over.
- Hair and fur or lint from the washing machine. Slugs get tangled in it. They also add nitrogen to the soil which is useful.
- Pine needles. Slugs don’t like the acidic content.
- Citrus rinds. Put beside affected plants, orange and lemon rinds can attract slugs away, so you can then collect and put them out for the birds
- Caffeine and coffee grounds. Used coffee grounds, which also enrich the soil, can be put round your plants. A caffeine solution is more effective as it diminishes their appetite before killing them.
- Garlic. Make a solution (2 bulbs of garlic crushed in 2 pints of water for 5 minutes. Strain and add more water) and spray on and around plants. Repeat if it rains.
- Beer, sugar, yeast. Slugs like yeast and barley, (or sugar and hot water). Recycle a tin, jar, plastic cup or other container, bury it up to the neck in the soil near any plants suffering slug problems. Pour in some cheap beer which will attract, drown and poison slugs, but not damage the plants or pose a risk to children, pets or hedgehogs.
Items to buy
If none of the ‘free’ methods above work, you may have to spend some money in order to protect your harvests.
- Copper tape. Place a thick band of copper tape around plant pots or troughs. This gives the slugs a blast of static electricity so they stay away.
- Beer, sugar, garlic – or other products if you don’t have any waste. Garlic Wonder Organic Pest Spray is a garlic spray product.
- Nematodes. You can buy a product like Nemaslug which contains microscopic worms or nematodes which seek out slugs and stop them feeding on your plants within 3 days, and then kill them. The majority of the slugs will die underground. One application watered in with a watering can is enough for 6 weeks, and the best time to do it is May/June and September/October. Not a cheap solution, but if it saves your most valuable plants, it’s worth it. For more info, www.nematodesdirect.co.uk
No-one has yet come up with a full-proof method of stopping slug damage which doesn’t have undesirable consequences – and we’re only just now experiencing some of the long term problems. So the very least an individual can do is start with the methods which work with nature and don’t cause harm in other ways.