Slugs and Snails
What are little boys made of?
Slugs and snails
And puppy-dogs’ tails,
That’s what little boys are made of.
Snails and Slugs have long been the stuff of nightmares for gardeners, and to liken them to parts of little boys well that’s just rude. When have you ever seen a little boy eat his greens with such ferocity?
Alas though, these pests have always topped the charts of the most unwanted in the garden, for a creature that moves at a ‘snail’s pace’ the damage they inflict to your vegetables and herbaceous plants can be catastrophic. Some gardeners will even ply them with booze in hopes to keep them at home with what I would imagine is the mother of all hangovers. However, this year the Royal Horticultural Society have taken a U turn on how these slick gastropods are seen in a world where chemical use is more than a little frowned upon, it’s up to us as gardeners to find new alternate ways to deter those who slime.
Now before you all start a petition to remove the RHS as the governing body of all things green and leafy, let’s look at some facts they have put forward and some solutions that will help your garden survive the coming onslaught. The reason for this change in stance is ultimately slugs and snails are an extremely important part of the garden’s ecosystem, eating dead leaves and providing food for birds and hedgehogs alike. Below are a few eco-friendly ways of protecting your Hostas over the spring and summer seasons
Create a healthy ecosystem
A healthy ecosystem is the ultimate, green, earth friendly way of controlling slugs and snails. Create a habitat in your garden full of natural predators – hedges and shrubs that have an abundant supply of berries and trees to attract birds such as the thrush and blackbird who will feast on the meaty molluscs. A wildlife pond is also a great way to attract frogs, which can fit quite a manageable sized snail in their mouths and their robust digestive enzymes break down the snail’s shell with ease.
For the greener fingered of you, building up a nice healthy soil, helps produce healthier plants that are usually much more efficient at withstanding slug & snail damage. So, mulch your garden beds with homemade compost or well-rotted manure to support a healthy soil environment.
Create a slug/snail zone
Unfortunately, even the best efforts to keep slugs and snails at bay in your garden with natural predators will ultimately be unsuccessful, after all there is only so much, they can consume in a day. So why not become the predator yourself by creating slug/snail zones in a darkened unused corner of your garden. For this use bait such as oats, bran, cat biscuits, old bread and vegetable leaves, then when they assemble that evening for a feeding frenzy, put on some gloves and collect them. A couple of hours after dusk is when you will see the most activity. How you dispose of them after that is up to you. However, don’t put them over the neighbour’s fence as it will not be appreciated, and most will make their way back to your garden the next evening. For the less squeamish out there, a useful trick here is to have a bucket of warm water on standby to drop the slugs or snails into, the next morning drain the bucket and leave the remains for very grateful blackbirds and thrushes. This is not a pleasant way to deal with slugs/snails but it is practiced by horticulturalists the world over.
Create a slug/snail free zone
Slugs and snails love to feed on young seedlings and plants. So, it’s best to prioritise an area to place them, whether that be a cold frame, green house or raised garden bed. Use arched netting to keep slugs from climbing over the sides and floor of cardboard, fine net or membrane to stop them coming up from underneath. Hold back on planting seedlings out too early, let them reach a substantial size to withstand slug/snail damage more effectively. Also overfeeding of young plants in spring promotes lush, leafy growth which slugs/snails love.
Water in the morning
By watering your garden first thing in the morning ensures the top layer of soil has dried out by the following evening, in turn making it harder for slugs and snails to make their way to your leafy greens. Wet soil at night is pretty much a slip and slide to food paradise.
Call in the coppers
Copper rings can be a very effective slug or snail prevention. It’s almost like a shock collar on a dog. For reasons unknown to me, when a slug or snail tries to cross a copper ring, it receives an “electric shock” (there has been much research into how this actually works with no definitive answer). Place these rings around more vulnerable plants such as your prize Hostas, making sure to bury them deep enough so the slugs won’t reach the plant from underneath.
I indicated to this earlier on in the piece, using beer traps has been an essential tool for gardeners across the globe as a control method for slugs & snails for decades. It’s the yeast in the beer that is believed to attract them, it doesn’t even have to be your best craft beer either, they relish a cheap drop. Beer traps are made by using a container such as a jar, yoghurt pot or bottle cut in half with the spout inserted into the base, then dug into the ground, so the rim of the container is at 1cm above soil level (this is done to help stop beneficial insects falling in as they pass by the area), then fill your container a third full of your desired beverage, the slugs and snails head towards it, fall in and drown. Hopefully by the next morning you will have a container full of the critters. To dispose of the remains either dig a hole in your garden beds and drop the remains in or place in your compost bin and let them rot down. Please do not feed the remains to the birds if they are flying home afterwards. One other thing to consider is placement of your beer traps, it won’t be worth placing a beer trap in the middle of your prize little gem lettuce. This just creates a hearty meal for the slugs and snails followed by a cheeky pint afterwards.
Don’t feed their addiction
If slugs and snails are decimating your herbaceous perennials, and you are too squeamish to use any of the previous control methods, maybe it’s time to change the plants in your garden for cultivars less appealing to the old foe. Choose plants with leathery or glossy leaves, foliage that is toxic to slugs & snails, plants that have developed thick or hairy foliage and plants that have a pungent aroma to them, such as fennel and lavender. Below is a handful of alternate plants that will give colour and interest to your garden throughout the year that slugs & snails have a distaste for.
- Aquilegia (Columbine, granny’s bonnet)
- Penstemon (Beardtongue)
- Euphorbia (spurge)
- Geranium cinereum (cranesbill geranium, hardy geranium)
- Ajuga reptans (bugle weed)
- Digitalis (foxglove)
- Astrantia major (greater masterwort)
- Alchemilla mollis (ladies’ mantle)
- Anemone hupenensis (Japanese anemone)
- Helleborus (Christmas rose, Lenten rose) My own ‘Hannah’s blush’ may have something to say about that.
- Heuchera (coral bells)
And lastly- most fern cultivars.
However you have decided to deal with this pest, remember there will always be more waiting under that pile of rocks or that fallen timber fence. Take solace in the fact (and I know that’s hard after you have just lost a perennial border) that the slugs and snails you have missed are a working in conjunction with every other biological element in your back yard. Keep this in mind the next time your seedlings get slimed.
Have a great spring. SM.
Things to do in Spring
Springtime is upon us; the birds are nesting; the sap is starting to rise and all is well within the garden…. OR IS IT?
Now is the time to inspect your garden and truly see what the winter months’ winds, rain and frosts have succeeded in damaging. However, you are ready, with sharpened tools and a tidy shed, you are prepared to give mother nature a helping hand.
On one of the first warm days of spring pop on your gumboots, have a slow walk around your garden and make a list of things that may need to be repaired, cut back, lifted, divided and so on.
Always start with the hardscaping elements first, check for bowed wood in a trellis or fence, water blast paving to get rid of moss and lichen, check for blown jointing due to frosts and repair, all in all get the structure in place for your garden.
Before you start working through your garden beds, now is the time to prune. This may mean removing wood damaged by winter winds, or a complete reshape of certain shrubs and trees.
Shrubs such as Cornus alba ‘sibirica’ (red barked dogwood) can be pruned hard. This is called coppicing or pollarding and with certain plants, stooling. By doing this the following year’s vigorous regrowth produces, in this case, vibrant red stems that look amazing the following winter. Maybe even use some of the straighter 10mm thick canes that have been removed to improve the crop by cutting just below a set of buds, leaving around four buds per cane. Push the canes into the soil of a selected area between 2-3 buds into ground. Fingers crossed they will strike, and new shrubs will grow.
Other examples of shrubs to be pruned now are Cotinus (smoke bush), Buddleja (butterfly bush) andFuchsia. However, don’t prune shrubs that bloom early or flower on last year’s wood, among these are Weigela, Azealea and Forsythia. By doing this you will run the risk of pruning off this year’s flower buds.
Now look around the garden and you should start seeing the fresh new growth of perennials starting to sprout from the soil. Now is a good time to remove last season’s growth, if it was left there to protect the plant over the winter months. If space is limited maybe think about dividing and transplanting some of the larger formed clumps to different areas of the garden. If you choose to do this, a good rule of thumb is split and move perennials the opposite season to when they are in full bloom, meaning Summer and Autumn flowering perennials lift, divide and transplant in the spring, while spring blooming perennials in the Autumn.
Once shrubs have been pruned and perennials have been moved and the garden resembles something of the summer past, it’s a great time to feed the soil. A good practice is to top dress with some organic matter in early spring (technical bit), remember if soil organic matter drops down by just 0.5% this can reduce the soil’s nutrient holding capacity by anywhere between 3-7%, so now is a great time to do this. Spread 5-7cm over the area and lightly fork through, if you don’t mind your garden beds looking a tad messier, why not let the worms do the work for you?
Certain plants will also benefit from a light dressing of slow-release organic fertilisers such as blood and bone. This should be lightly scattered around the drip line of the shrub while avoiding early leaf growth. Again, let the worms work it through the soil.
Turning attention to the lawns. Although most of the heavy work should have been done during the Autumn months, now is a good time to tackle smaller problems with a lawn. Areas where leaves have fallen and not been cleared or where moss has built up, can be dealt to with a spring-tine rake, grass seed and a light topdressing of soil. Fertilise the lawn in mid spring. At this time of year the sun is getting stronger and the lawn is actively growing. Fertilising now helps promote strong, thick growth, which in turn helps keep the weeds and moss from establishing over the approaching seasons.
After a few hard days in the garden, all that remains to do is sit back and watch the garden “SPRING” into action.