WRITTEN BY VALERIE EASTON
ILLUSTRATED BY KRISTOPHER LEE
Slug Bait No More
Plant your own resistance movement to those slimy predators
A BULLETIN FROM the front line of the slug wars: Even on a warm, drizzly March morning, a good many plants in my garden are unscathed by slugs. Is this because of meticulous garden management or plentiful squirts of Deadline? Neither. I'm messy, and I never use slug bait of any kind.
But for the past several years I've added more plants that slugs leave alone, and slowly eliminated or planted in pots the ones they love best. There's not a single Iris reticulata growing in the ground, nor a primrose — all are up in pots to give them a better chance of remaining unshredded. So last spring as I checked out leaves for telltale holes, and made note of undamaged plants at this most slug-fraught time of year, the garden appeared less like a slug smorgasbord.
My philosophy of ignoring disease and pests and growing only plants that stay healthy and trouble-free breaks down when it comes to slugs. There's no way to overlook these voracious predators. If you've had a fresh, plump hosta torn to tatters or the heart of a lily bulb eaten out overnight, you know the rage and sense of futility that comes with spotting a slimy trail leading away from scenes of devastation. We are lucky enough to garden in an admirably temperate climate, with cool, damp springs that encourage flowers to linger for weeks. Instead of a snake in this garden of Eden, we have hungry slugs to spoil our paradise. The problem: These pests flourish in the same conditions that make our springs so long and lovely.
You can mess about with saucers of beer or copper tape, but who wants to look at the sticky glob left by a drowned slug? And I can't even imagine the time involved in circling every plant with copper. There are plenty of poisonous slug baits, and even some advertised as safe, but if you read the cautions on the label, none convince me that it's a good idea to spread them where children walk barefoot, cats play or dogs snuffle about. Which is just about everywhere in many of our gardens.
As the weather warms up a bit, hungry slugs stir from dormancy. The eggs they laid last fall begin to hatch an onslaught of gooey babies that continues through June. Despite how tiny they are, there's nothing sluggish about a young slug's ravenous appetite, and when grown it'll eat 40 times its weight each day — from your dahlias, hostas, primroses and all the rest.
The only way I've found to fight back effectively is to hunt them down early in the morning and at dusk and kill them as humanely as you can manage. A spray of one part ammonia mixed with two parts water disintegrates slugs almost instantly. It helps to keep the garden clean from piles of debris or pots that provide shady slug lairs. If you're persistent with slug patrol and cleanup, you can significantly decrease the population over the years. But certainly not eliminate it. And no wonder, for slugs are hermaphroditic (possessing both male and female sex organs), so each and every slug produces up to 500 eggs in its two-year lifespan.
An approach that promises the most peace of mind is to make a garden of slug-resistant plants. This is often an unattainable goal because we're as attracted to lilies, hostas and ligularias as the slugs are. But if you use slug-proof plants in the highly visible areas of your garden and in massed plantings, then you can carefully guard, or grow in pots or window boxes, a few precious plants beloved by both you and the slugs.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is email@example.com. Kristopher Lee is a Seattle Times news artist.
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