My annual battle with the slugs has been underway for a while now. It began when I planted my seeds and seedlings, surrounding them with commercial slug bait so they had a chance to at least come into the world. It continued with repeated applications of the same commercial substance. That was not not a step I took lightly. There were other things that I tried, hoping to solve the problem, or help a bit, or at least feel like I was trying.
In my first adult gardening days in Western Washington, slugs were three-inch long garden predators, in shades of tan—or occasionally black. Some had spots or stripes, and some were solid colored. All of them had enormous appetites. When I moved, first to Utah and then to North Dakota, and a friend pointed out the local slugs, I laughed. I didn’t think those pale, inch-long creatures could do much damage. I was wrong. They may have been small, but there were a LOT of them. Petunias disappeared overnight, and begonias never had a chance.
In my early married years, I tried to garden as organically as possible, for both financial and environmental reasons. All those chemicals were risky, smelly, and expensive! Slugs, though, were always private garden enemy number one. Even then, too many slugs made it past whatever barriers I devised, grazing happily on my baby cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, and squash plants. They ate the carrots as soon as the first leaves appeared, leaving orphaned roots to wither and die. They even ate marigolds down to bare-tree shapes, which meant they clearly didn’t have any taste buds. As the gardening season progressed, I often found cavities chewed out of tomatoes, and eaten into the tops of the few carrots that survived, both with slugs often still happily munching inside the holes. I knew, even all those years ago, that drastic measures were called for.
I tried. I really did. I went to the library and carried home arm loads of books on garden pests. There were a lot of suggestions for dealing with slugs, and I tried them all. First, I planted onions, garlic, and marigolds throughout my garden, because they supposedly repelled slugs and other pests by their smell. The slugs ate them.
Mint was supposed to repel slugs, too. Most aromatic plants did repel pests, and that included slugs. Wormwood was often recommended, and since it grew widely in North Dakota, it was easy to try when I gardened there. Since both mint and wormwood spread uncontrollably, keeping them in pots or making a tea of them by soaking leaves in boiling water and spraying that on the garden was actually safer than planting them in the garden.
I laid down a wide border of sawdust, all the way around the garden, and in paths between the beds. Supposedly, the gritty sawdust discouraged the slugs from coming into the garden. I saw the sun shining on their gleaming slime trails every day, and figured slug tummies must have been tougher than the people who said sawdust would deter them realized.
I tried laying rings and lines of crushed egg shells around plants and seed beds, for the same reasons. The slugs crawled over those too. In fact, I sometimes thought they were eating the egg shells. At least I was adding calcium to the soil, which was a good thing.
Coffee grounds were supposed to work in the same way as sawdust, but we were never coffee drinkers, and I was never brave enough to ask restaurants for their leftover grounds. Coarse sand was another alternative.
I tried spreading thin lines of salt around the garden, but the size of the slug population meant I needed quite a lot of salt, and I didn’t really think adding salt to the soil was a good idea. I tried to reduce the damage by carrying a salt shaker out to the garden with me, shaking the contents liberally over ant slugs that dared to show their faces. The writhing and squirming were too much for me, though. I was sure there were tiny screams of agony involved, and I could not bear to torture even a slug.
A border of seaweed was also supposed to help, partly because of the salt content—so I had qualms about it for the same reasons. I considered trying seaweed from fresh water lakes, carrying it home in buckets from nearby bodies of water. I worried, though, about the smell as it decomposed.
I set out some cups of beer. The slugs crawled in, and lay soggy and motionless in the morning. A few hours later, though, they crawled away, leaving telltale slime trails behind. I actually read that soda pop was equally effective. At least with soda pop, the slugs would not be hung over, making me wish for tiny aspirin tablets to hand out. Milk was also recommended, but the slugs drank it. A mixture of honey, yeast, and water, boiled down enough to be really sticky, acted like a trap, keeping slugs in place. I considered laying out fly paper, or the glue traps sold for catching mice, Boiling down honey or molasses was cheaper.
I laid out boards, sometimes with food scraps like lettuce, cabbage, or moistened citrus rinds underneath. When I turned the boards over early in the morning, I found slugs. Then I just had to decide what to do with them.
I learned that slugs hated copper, but I had a very large garden, and the copper tape available in the stores was too expensive for me to manage. I did consider laying down a border of pennies, but my children would have found other uses for any pennies they found lying on the ground. In those days, our small neighborhood store still had penny candy. The temptation would have been too great.
The most effective home remedy I found was to go out to the garden early in the morning with an old pair of kitchen shears. I figured, since I couldn’t seem to keep the slugs out of the garden, I had to find a way to kill them. A quick decapitation was more merciful than a slow death by salt poisoning. I knew the slugs were dead, instead of just dead drunk, and I saw a decline in population. It still wasn’t enough. Plenty of slugs still found their way to my cabbage and squash plants—and everything else I tried to grow.
While each of those efforts probably helped to reduce the slug population in my garden, eventually I decided that commercial baits were also required. I laid out rings and circles of granules intended to kill slugs and snails. Too many slugs still got through. I discovered a paste form of slug bait, and drew circles around each of my bedding plants. I boxed in smaller-seed crops like carrots, with lines of paste. It helped. It just wasn’t enough.
Back in the Pacific Northwest once more as a retired person (what my Australian son-in-law calls an “oldie) I have continued to battle slugs. However, I resented spending paying so much time, energy, and money to fight slugs, when my retirement income was so low. By then, with the internet available, I didn’t have to carry home arm loads of books. I researched online. I read everything I could find, and I tried most of it. I was astonished at the number of things people claimed would work. If even half of them did, I suspected the world would be slug free.
Some of the suggestions were still the same—sawdust, salt, eggshells, and copper. Beer was still advised. I already knew those things did not eliminate the problem, but I was willing to try some things again, even if they only reduced the population. I began to build a border of crushed egg shells around the garden. It couldn’t hurt, after all. I built sawdust and wood chip paths. I didn’t use salt, because living as close to the ocean as I did, I figured the sandy soil had enough salt in it already. I still couldn’t afford copper.
I learned that foxglove plants repelled slugs, so my daughter and her husband dug afew up alongside the road and brought them home. They bloomed nicely, and we waited for them to multiply, so we could plant a foxglove border around the garden.
I heard that sedum plants had the same effect. I had discovered sedums in North Dakota, where they grew when many things could not survive the winter. They did equally well in the temperate climate where I retired. I picked up a small flat of mixed sedum plants, and planted one every foot or so along the garden fence. They thrived. So did the slugs. At least the sedum was pretty. I hoped it would be more effective when it was bigger, and filled in as a border. I kept trying everything I could. Gradually, I began to see less and less slug damage. While no one technique cleared my garden of slugs, the combined effect of so many suggested solutions did seem to help.
I still carry my kitchen shears out to the garden with me, and I still cut in half every slug I find. Somehow, though, they keep coming. I’m not sure if they hide from me more effectively than they did all those years ago, or if I don’t find them because now, as a retired “oldie,” I refuse to get up at 6:30 to hunt slugs. I know I should, but for the first time in many years, I don’t have to get up that early to go to work. I’ll keep watching. I’ll keep reading, and planting anything that might help. Even if each thing I try only helps a little, the combination might be increasingly effective. I can only hope.