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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Slugs: the Nemesis of My Garden

Warning, pictures of slugs coming up! Since they're so ugly, I just thought I would share a flower photo to butter you up.  

Hello everyone, I'm a new writer here and so I thought I would give you a short introduction about myself.

I was originally a city (Portland, OR) and career girl. Since I've had a child, become a stay-at-home mom and the economic recession, I've moved outside the city and am trying my best to raise my own food and become a modern homesteader. I started out not knowing much much about the subject, and am learning as I go. As I learn, I write about it on my blog at: www.MySuburbanHomestead.com. And I'm honored to be writing here, a blog that has provided much inspiration to me.

This first blog post is about one of my most frustrating experiences as a gardener: slugs.

I live in the Pacific Northwest, where the weather is mild, but rainy about 9 months out of the year. Since slugs love wet ground, this means that slugs here survive and proliferate throughout the winter, and are giant in size: many slugs here reach 4" long!

Cabbage seedling devoured by slugs. Many times I go out in the morning and there is only a little stump on the plant left, not even enough to take a picture of. 
I'm doing my best to live off my garden, and since the slugs here are so prolific and can eat their weight in plant material daily, slugs have shattered my plan more than once. This year I've lost all eggplant seedlings, at least half of my tomato fruits, countless sowings of lettuce and all my pickling cucumbers... the list goes on and on.

When I went outside a couple of months ago to discover that every one of my beautiful fall broccoli seedlings were devoured, I declared war on the slugs living in my garden.

Over the years I've read many different strategies to control slugs, but I've never noticed much of a difference in the slug population. So the first thing I've done is set up experiments to see how each "remedy" affects the slugs in my garden. Here is a list of the experiments I've conducted:

Copper: many sources will recommend using copper as a barrier around the gardens to deter slugs. I wanted to determine first whether or not copper really works. Since copper is very expensive, so I ordered a small amount of "copper slug tape" and adhered it to a piece of cardboard. I then put the copper with lettuce leaves placed on top in a box, added a slug, and put a lid on top. Here's what I found about an hour later.

A really ugly slug, munching away on the lettuce regardless of the copper. Thankfully I didn't spend much money! 

There are more "slug deterrents" that are popular. To determine their efficacy, I then set up very similar experiments with: wood ashes, diatomaceous earth, crushed eggshells and coffee grounds. I've photographed each one of my experiments on my blog, but I'll save you the agony: slugs could care less about any one of these so-called deterrents. 

I then attempted to find out just how affective it would be to use trap and destroy slugs. I placed as many boards (about thirty) and tiles that I could find in one area of my garden, thinking that I could trap the slugs the next day or two and then move them to a different area of my garden. But that also didn't work! After about two weeks, there were still slugs gathering underneath, and slugs were proliferating out of control in the other areas of my gardens.

So then I turned to beer traps. Oh people love those beer traps! The thinking is that slugs like to drink beer so much that they will crawl in and drown. And yes, some slugs do drown, but check out these photos:

A slug dunking its head over the side of my trap, drinking beer. 
These slugs have been in this box for two days. Notice many of them are fine, and that another slug is drinking out of the trap. That big slug never did drown, even a couple of days later! 

I think that most people assume that the beer trap method works very well because they observe slugs drowned in the traps. But what I don't think people realize is that not all of them drown, and beer can actually be food for some of the slugs!

Perhaps the beer traps work better in locations where slugs don't grow so large. But considering the expense of beer traps (the least expensive beer locally is .71 cents/pint) I've determined that my effort and money is probably best spent elsewhere.

My latest efforts are twofold: cultural control and baits.

By cultural control, I mean reducing the things in your garden that allow slugs to proliferate. Obviously, slugs don't care for light, so they hide during the day. They hide and lay eggs under rocks, weeds, boards, debris, pots, etc., and so I am doing my best to remove hiding places as much as possible. Unfortunately, this also applies to mulch. I know lasagne gardening and sheetmulcing are very popular methods, but unfortunately the mulch provides slugs habitat, and in the case of leaves, provides them with food. So all leaves, straw, etc., goes into my compost pile before it goes out into the garden.

Since slugs do like to feed at night, I frequently go out with a flashlight or headlamp and a pair of scissors. It's disgusting and laborious but free and effective.

This year I attempted allowing my tomatoes to sprawl on the ground, rather than propping them up. I've read that this works just fine for most, but did you know that slugs love tomatoes? I didn't until this year.
These were the tomatoes that were salvageable if you cut off the bad parts.  I never took pictures of the tomatoes that weren't salvageable, but I think you get the picture! 

My least favorite slug control method is slug bait. There are three main types of bait. Two of which are fatally toxic to pets and wildlife, so I've never used them. The other one, called iron phosphate, is reportedly least toxic and breaks down into fertilizer for your soil. Locally, the most popular product is called sluggo.

The problem for me is that sluggo is ridiculously expensive, which is why I've always avoided using them until now. Sluggo is most commonly available in small, 2.5 pound bottles. One pound costs around $8 and covers 100 square feet and needs to be reapplied every two weeks. You can probably imagine that this cost would add up pretty quickly.

A few days ago I called around find out the price differences. I'm pleasantly surprised to find out that there are huge variations in prices, but in order to get the best price (close to $3/pound) you will need to buy larger quantities. If you live in the States you can check out my post on least expensive sources of iron phosphate. There are also some sources local to Portland, OR.

My thinking now is that if I keep my gardens heavily baited throughout the next couple of rainy seasons that the slug population will drop then I can focus on just baiting the perimeter of the gardens.

So for anyone out there suffering a slug infestation such as mine, here's what I can recommend: keep the garden as weed free as possible (invest in a good, wide hoe), remove rocks, stray boards, mulch, etc. It you have the energy, go out at night to search and destroy. Seek out the least expensive environmentally-friendly slug bait. Protect seedlings as best as you can since they are the least vulnerable. And get those tomatoes up off the ground!

Do you have a pest that is particularly bad in your area? How have you handled the situation?

25 comments:

Malchus Kern said...

Since we have Indian Runner Ducks the slug population here really is less. And the ducks love to eat the slugs, and until now they have not done too much damage to the garden plants. I am looking forward to get the garden slug free with our 5 Indian Runner Ducks.

Serenity Love Sincere Peace Earth said...

Poison the beer

Vegetable Garden Cook said...

Malchus, I love ducks. I've had them here, but a nasty raccoon got to them and eventually their offspring. We've got terrible predators. Not only that, but both my dog and my neighbor's dog like to play with ducks as if they're squeaky toys. I won't go into the gory details.

However, I've got a lead on additional ducks, and plan on setting up a long run along the edge of my garden where they'll be able to patrol and hopefully be safe.

Ilene said...

I have slug troubles here in Oklahoma, too. Tried Slug-Go, and found it becomes ineffective if it gets wet.

I think the ducks would work. And chickens, too. But I hear chickens will eat seedlings too.

Enjoyed your blog, good luck to you. --Ilene

Michelle J said...

I live in Olympia, Washington and have a slug problem similar to yours. I found that the beer traps worked pretty well for us, especially if they were counter-sunk into the ground. The downside with those was cleaning them out - YUCK.

If you are in an area where you can keep chickens, ducks or geese, go for it! My slug problem is history thanks to my hungry little hens. ;)

Mrs T-W said...

One eco friendly way is establish a 'wildlife' pond where frogs will congregate. Apparently frogs eat slugs. Yay frogs! Sometimes I attack the with a sprinkling of salt. Here in England, same problem. Very wet usually. Slug paradise.

Angela said...

I feel your pain! I live on the slug-friendly northern California coast and the slugs are numerous in number and kind. They wreak havoc on gardens. I am hoping to get chickens next spring and plan to use a movable enclosure to give them access to garden spaces before planting to cut down on the beginning slug population.

Margo said...

the copper experiment is interesting - I use copper rings (not tape, actual rings of copper like oversized egg rings) here and put them around my seedlings. I swear by them and really feel they do work as a barrier - I've had seedlings without them devoured but the ringed seedlings left along. Rings of thing craft copper seem to be just as effective as the purpose-made heavier garden ones. YOu do need to keep all the leaves inside the ring and off the ground, and mulch away form the ring so they can't "bridge" inside.

Dani said...

we had some problems with snails and slugs until our son brought home a pekin duck..since then, no problem...she is larger than most ducks and death to slugs...she gets so excited and makes the cutest noises while she's feasting on them....we have noticed also that most of the grasshoppers and crickets we had are gone too....coincidence?

lynne said...

Hi
Last year we tried nemotodes for the first time. They were very very expensive but they seemed to work. They also leave no mess to clear up as the slugs go underground to die. We noticed a massive reduction in slugs. However you need to retreat periodically.They are expensive but seem to work.

the little book that said... said...

I have developed an innovative, cost effective, and green solution to garden slugs; and it does have to do with copper. The Slug Shield is a woven copper 'bracelet' that acts as a mini electric, barbed-wire fence for slugs. They have worked for me (with overnight results) and for about a dozen "testers" in Seattle, WA. They have saved my garden!

I am happy to send you some to try (and anyone else who is interested). Email me dalessandro22@gmail.com.

Hailey in MT said...

Great post! As a fellow PN Westerner I look forward to more of your homesteading adventures.

Raven said...

i had a slug problem in my herb pots, so i layered a mix of salt and ground ginger around the outsie of the put during the day, salt ries things out, nd slugs are basically a soggy creature, theydont lke it and will not cross it. just dont salt your plants because it could hurt them.

Vegetable Garden Cook said...

Ilene, thank you for checking me out! I have attempted chickens once before, but found that yes, indeed they do eat seedlings. Actually, they eat pretty much all leaves. So, for that reason and predator/dog reasons, my poultry have a yard of their own but aren't allowed to roam freely.

Michelle J, I wish I could let my birds out, but cannot. I may devise a system in the future to let them into the gardens to do some cleanup. Yes, the beer traps are rather stinky. Make sure to hold your breath when you empty them!

Mrs T-W, I actually do have a pond on my property, with lots of frogs! At the moment, it's all overgrown with blackberries and ivy, but I hope to make it into a protected duck pond in the future. Oh, and maybe have a little fish farm... but I'm getting ahead of myself!

Angela, that sounds like a great idea. I've found that chickens don't care at all for slugs that are any larger than the tip of your pinky. They just can't get them down the hatch. I've also tried smooshing up and giving them to the chickens, but there's just something about the big ones that chickens don't like.

Margo, I've had other people swear by rings. Perhaps that's the trick to getting copper to work. I'll try another experiment in the future, but I sure do have a lot of seedlings that will need to be protected.

Dani, would love to see a video of your duck making excited slug eating noises. I guess I have a sick sense of humor.

The Little Book That Said, Oh you bet I'm up for a sample. I'll be in touch.

Lynne, I've been curious about nematodes as well. I will probably try an experiment soon with them. My major challenge is the expense and I believe they die off in soil that is under 55 degrees. Our soil is only 55 and over for six months or so out of the year. Also, Steve Solomon wrote in his book that you need to be very sure that the nematodes are fresh or its likely they aren't alive. But still, if it works, that would be great!

Raven, sounds like an interesting solution for pots. My gardens are awfully large and that would be a lot of salt (and it would wash away from all the rain). I'm glad it works for your pots though!

Anonymous said...

I see that other folks have also recommended it, but I will third or fourth some of the others, if you can have ducks I would highly recommend them, I use both my chickens and ducks thoughout my growing season, my garden is now up to 3/4th of a acre so like you, I would have to pay alot in regards to buying products. Hubby and I have made a number of mesh cover's for the seeding beds which give me a good cover from the birds and even slugs, they crawl up, the birds eat them, and the seedlings keep on growing.

I train the ducklings to like the slugs by feeding them to them as young birds and yes, they will come running if we call them to a fresh patch, we also use the boards but then call the ducks and chickens when we flip them over, and let them go..

Vegetable Garden Cook said...

Very interesting, anonymous, thanks for submitting your comment.

Joanne said...

The slugs have been bad here with our first wet winter/spring after years of drought. I'm not willing to give up mulch- its a necessary part of gardening here in Australia where rainfall is fickle and water restrictions pretty much a constant.
I've had some success with submerged beer traps- I use salvaged plastic bottles, cut in half so they hold quite a bit. Hubby was making his own beer so it wasn't too expensive. I think you could water it down somewhat.
The other thing I've had to do is buy seedlings and allow them to develop quite a bit before planting out. Every seed put in the ground has been devoured as soon as it shoots, if not sooner.

louisa @ The Really Good Life said...

We have terrible slug problems too. Beer traps just don't cut it. This year I lost a lot of my overwintering seedlings to the blighters.

Next year, I'm going to make a portable chicken run so I can let our chickens loose on the soil before I plant anything - then probably try a dose of nematodes before planting out my seedlings in the spring and autumn.

Vegetable Garden Cook said...

Hey Louisa, I feel your pain. I've gathered slugs for my chickens before, and they love the little ones, but my chickens want nothing to do with slugs that are any bigger than the tip of your pinky. I've heard people swear by ducks, which I am going to attempt again (raccoon got to my last flock).

Janet said...

tried lots of the ideas here without much success. My husband decided to rototill an extra 2 times in the spring between the rows. I'm sure I'll be told how bad that is for the soil. But, we had a garden that produced for us - not the slugs finally!

Vegetable Garden Cook said...

Janet, I have a little mini rototiller that I use. It doesn't cultivate very deep, but cuts the weeds quickly. Whatever helps, right?

Kim said...

We also live in the PNW. Our land is wet and moist all the time.

Last year, I tried Sluggo and beer traps. Neither worked. I hated the cost of sluggo. My husband hated me using the Guiness for the slugs!

I buried, to their rim, quart mason jars of beer in the dirt next to plants being most affected.

Finally, after losing several sets of seedlings, I went out each night at dusk with a flashlight. I hate slugs. I never thought I would pick them up. But, when they attack your plants it's time for war and the gloves come off (so to speak).

I started checking my plants. I picked up the slugs and dumped them in the mason jars. They did drown :-)

That got rid of the problem! This year, I had no slug problems, but if I do again, I'll be back to hunting them at about 8:30 or 9 p.m. each summer night and giving them a bit of extra help to drown in that beer!

It's very satisfying to have victory over slugs!

Vegetable Garden Cook said...

Hi neighbor Kim, I too go out at night. I don't bother with picking them up. Rather, I just use scissors. I know, its totally gross, but it works for me.

Double Glazing Warwick said...

Slugs have been the major pain in the neck of gardeners for many generations. Many methods have been developed to control these slimy pests, some methods work better than the others.One of the methods that I know is by luring the slugs crawl under an inverted cabbage leaves under this item to get away from the light, and heat of the sun, and in the morning all you need to do is dump them into the trash.

Anonymous said...

Careful with the salt folks! It will poison your palnts and sterilise your soil - excess salt is a no no in the garden- even on paths it can run off and poison the ground.
cheers SB