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Slug Patrol: Tricks for Pest Management

By Charlyn Ellis

Tags: slugs, pest management, Pacific Northwest, Charlyn Ellis, Oregon,


Slugs. Before I moved to the Pacific Northwest, there was an occasional nasty encounter; when I arrived  here and planted beans, I had stumps one day after full-on leaves. Slugs are a menace and dealing with them organically and effectively can be a challenge.

There are three varieties of slug in my neighborhood. The first, the banana slug (Ariolimax columbianus) is a rather handsome fellow, encountered in Doug Fir forests. They are olive green with darker markings and usually sport a decorative fan of fir needles attached to the back end. They move slowly across trails, eat forest duff, and do not come downhill into my urban farm.

The common garden slug (Deroceras reticulatum) is a greater problem. They are much smaller — about an inch or two long — a disagreeable grey color all over, and hearty eaters. What a few garden slugs can do to a daffodil is really not pleasant to encounter. However, I think the worst slug, for damage, is the tiny mini-slug, less a than a centimeter long, and pale grey, which lurk under leaves and chow twenty four hours a day. The mini-slug is a gardener’s worst nightmare.

There are many opinions on how to deal with slugs. The most popular—and least effective, in my yard — is the beer trap. First, the trap fills up with rain water, diluting the beer.  Pacific Northwest slugs are onto this concept. They wander over, give the sour cream container a sniff, and turn away.

We know the beer trick, they say, and we don’t drink cheap beer. We have regional pride. I have found them collected on the rim of the container, peering down, but not moving in. When they do occasionally fall in, the result is slug plus beer — not good early in the morning. Finally, buying 40 ouncers at the local grocery, as a high school English teacher, is just not good PR. “Sure, it’s for the slugs,” my students nod. Then word gets around: our essays are driving Ms Ellis to drink.

I tried hand-picking slugs one spring. Right before bed, I would wander out into the garden with a flashlight, a fork, and a jar of soapy water. I became quite adept at spearing the slug and dropping it into the jar. The entire mess was then dumped into the compost pile. It did help — but then, I began to have nightmares. The slugs were coming back to life, crawling all over my body. It did not help that my long-haired cat began carrying slugs into the house — and onto my pillow — in her belly fur. Despite the occasional satisfying splat of a large slug hitting the compost, I stooped hand-picking.

Setting up a board trap was quickly abandoned. My entire garden was a board trap — and it required hand-picking. Salting, which I did try one day, brought out the cannibal instincts in the slugs, and I had a munching, salty slug pile. Disgusting!

Chickens helped. I wrestled with the slug dilemma for about six years before I discovered a few solutions. Although chickens do not eat slugs (ducks do), spending a month on each garden bed, rooting around in the soil, did destroy many eggs and reduced the population. The habitat is just not as appealing as it once was. They also love to dig around the outside edges of the raised beds, exposing more slugs to sunlight and desiccation. Chickens are very helpful.

I also try to dry out the top layer of soil before planting. Three weeks before the first planting out, just about when I start the seeds, I place the cold frame over a garden bed, or I create a small hoop house. The soil stays damp enough for planting just from bottom moisture, but the surface dries out and is less appealing to a slug. In a really bad year, I will sprinkle some Sluggo, but the chickens tend to eat it and that just does not seem like a good idea.

My best decision, however, was to work with Nature and just plant later. I now start all of my seeds in pots, either in the greenhouse or on the shelf outside. Greens, vines, beans—all start in pots and are transplanted out when the temperature is right. A bean plant popped into warm soil, with four leaves already on it, will thrive in a way that the seeds, planted a little early, will not.

The slugs might still munch, but the plants are able to grow more quickly and survive. I have found that pushing the season does not really gain me more than a day or two, and costs me a great deal in aggravation, slug shudders, and replanted seeds.

Charlyn Ellis has been growing vegetables since she was five years old, when her mother bought her her first rake and pitchfork. She and her family are urban homesteaders and have a large organic vegetable garden, fruit trees, a beehive, four chickens, one rabbit, and two cats on a small urban lot in the center of town, surrounded by college students. Charlyn considers permaculture principles when she makes changes in her designs, especially the idea that the problem is the solution. Find her online at 21st Street Urban Homestead, and read all of Charlyn's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here

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