Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Slimy Slugs

Once upon a time a long, long time ago, when my son was just a little boy - he wandered into the house with some slugs crawling around on his hand. I reacted like mothers everywhere are likely to react. With alarm and a loud shrill voice: “Get those ugly slugs out of the house.”

My son responded with the sweet innocence of childhood, “But Mom,” he exclaimed, “their beautiful. All slugs are beautiful.” His expression was of pained exasperation. “See?” He said, as he held them up for me to take a better look. I bent down, with a deep breath, biting my lip, to look at the slimy creatures. He pointed out their finer qualities, “See,” he said, “They have cute stripes down there back, just like chipmunks.”

“I guess,” was about the best reply I could muster, “But they don’t belong in the house. Please take them back outside. And then you need to wash up and come in for lunch.”

Slugs! I suppose they once were an integral part of creation. Food for amphibians and other important members of native food chains. But most of the slugs that hound our gardens originally came from Europe. No one actually brought any slugs over here on purpose. (Unlike snails, but that is a different story.) Slug eggs hiding in containers of soil involved in international horticultural trade were the culprits. It was all done accidentally. Now we have those little gray slugs, the “all slugs are beautiful” striped guys, and those giant reddish ones. We can hardly even imagine what it was like to garden without them. (I really want to garden without them!)

While I don’t really agree with the idea that all slugs are beautiful, I have learned to accept the fact that they are not all bad. I like toads, frogs, and salamanders. They think slugs (at least the smaller ones) are pretty yummy. And then there is the Leopard Slug. This guy is us gardeners’ hero. He is a carnivorous creature: his favorite prey is other slugs. Hurrah! Here is a web site where you can get a good look at this awesome guy: http://www.whatsthatbug.com/molluscs.html (Scroll down on the page, the second pictured leopard slug looks like the ones found in our local gardens.)

A few slugs in the garden, even the herbivore kind, can actually be beneficial. They help clean up decomposing plant matter and participate in the soil nutrient cycle. If they only nibble a little on the edges of your garden plants, your plants will respond by making more anti-oxidants – and that is good for you. But slugs in the garden often get out of hand. Their reproductive habits are odd and efficient. (The dang creatures are hermaphrodites, each party to the pro-creative act slither off to lay hundreds of eggs.) And modern gardeners may be caring for their yards and gardens in ways that discourage slug predators.

Amphibians are some of the most efficient slug predators around. They will happily devour young slugs by the dozens, nearly every day of the year. To insure our friends the toads, frogs, and salamanders make permanent homes in our gardens we must first attend to some of their basic needs. Just like us, they need shelter and water, in addition to their slimy dinners. Broad leaved evergreen shrubs, pruned to begin branching within 3 – 4 inches of the ground make great amphibian habitat. Check out friends, neighbors, and relatives yards. You are sure to find some interesting plants that you can try to start from cuttings or seeds. Or if you want to try something a little different check, with your local nursery. We will explore more information on amphibians in the garden in a future article. But in the mean time, there are other creatures that will be happy to eat slugs, if you know how to keep them happy in your garden.

Soldier and Ground Beetles, are voracious predators when it comes to young slugs and slug eggs. The larval stages live in the soil and might be mistaken for other types of grubs. These creatures thrive where there is plenty of organic matter and a nice mulch of coarse sticks and twigs. As adults they also need a good supply of pollen to fuel their hunt. They are partial to pollen from some common garden weeds and wildflowers including milkweed, wild lettuce, golden rod, amaranth, and evening primrose. They also like Hydrangeas, which is nice, because they do thrive in our area and varieties can be selected to provide a long bloom time.

For these beneficial insects to thrive and help control your slugs, you will want to have a variety of blooming flowers and weeds through out the growing season. Check out your local nursery in different seasons, and carefully read plant descriptions in your favorite garden catalogs. Choose a mix of spring, summer, and fall blooming varieties, particularly from the plants listed above. Then after they have bloomed and set seed, you can spread the seed around where you would like to see more of them grow. The old stalks can be cut into 2 – 4 inch sections and used as mulch, to shelter the young beneficials.

Meanwhile, you say, what about the four inch slugs sliming around my garden right now? My best suggestion is to hand pick them, first thing in the morning or last thing at night. You can use a recycled plastic bag as a glove, and stash them in another recycled bag. If you know anyone with ducks or geese they might welcome these icky guys. Some folks drop them into salt water, but then you have to dispose of that. And salt is not good for our soil. I tend to seal them up in the bag and toss them in the trash, lamenting that all that good nitrogen is being removed from my soil nutrient cycle.

Two types of slug killing products on the market are billed as safe and organic. One type is the iron phosphate slug bait. While this product is safer than the more toxic traditional slug baits, it will still harm other creatures that eat it (contrary to advertising and press releases). And the slugs that survive the treatment become immune – and continue to reproduce. The other type of product is a “beneficial” nematode. These microscopic creatures parasitize ground dwelling creatures and eventually cause their demise. However, there is growing suspicion that they can parasitize people. Science has yet to prove or disprove this, but a growing number of people suspect these nematodes to be at least part of the cause of Morgellon’s Disease. This disabling, disfiguring, and painful condition is on the rise and found mostly in elderly people, chronic drug addicts, and those with impaired immune systems. If you are considering using a pesticide product, even a natural ‘safe’ product, please read the label thoroughly before you decide. Personally, I will stick with handpicking and annoying the neighbors by letting the weeds go to seed.

Ornamental varieties of most of the plants listed above can be found at many nurseries. If you’re local nursery doesn’t have the varieties you want, check out Forest Farm: http://www.forestfarm.com (541) 846-7269. They carry over 70 different kinds of Hydrangeas, 3 types of milkweed (Asclepias), and five types of evening primrose (Oenothera). Thompson and Morgan offers 7 types of ornamental Amaranthus seeds as well as 1 type of milkweed (Asclepias), and 4 types of evening primrose (Oenothera). http://www.thompsonandmorgan.com (800) 274-7333.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned, next week we will be getting ready to grow Lenten Rose and other winter bloomers. Mean while, you can probably find me out in the garden, Digging the Dirt.

Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell, from my column "Digging the Dirt," published in The Hoopa Valley People Newspaper, Oct 21, 2006. Posted here with permission. http://www.hoopa-nsn.gov/enterprises/newspaper.htm

(And here is a pic of the icky guy himself:


Ki said...

When hiking in Tiger Mountain area in Washington State (they have monster slugs there)we saw a most amazing sight. A salamander had managed to almost swallow a banana slug entirely. About an inch was sticking out of its mouth so we knew it was a banana slug. It seemed like it was choking as it was sort of convulsing but I guess it was just trying to swallow it whole. The amazing part was that the slug must have been almost as long as the salamander! Your son would have loved it.

Anthony said...

As a hosta lover, the slug is my mortal enemy. Thanks for the background info on this terrible and nasty beast. :)

Looking forward to hearing about winter bloomers.

Harvest said...

Hi Ki & Anthony!

Thanks for stopping by. I wonder if that salamander ever got that big ole slug down . . .

And Anthony, I will try to get to the winter bloomers soon . . .

I think I have something ready to post, I will have to go through my files directly . . .

Harvest said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harvest said...

Since I wrote this article, I first switched to using plastic peanut butter jars for "bagging" the slugs,then I put them in the sun until dead, and then I buried them in the compost holes mentioned in this article: http://harvestsgardeningsecrets.blogspot.com/2006/01/simple-garden-routine-useful-for-bad.html

You can also find a pictorial essay on this "Compost Hole Method" on my facebook photo page: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=124895&id=588082483&l=dc54e9c2a6 You may have to send me a friend request to access--but I accept all requests.

Sorry the links won't work from here--you will have to copy and paste.

Earl said...

We have a reasonable population of slugs, mostly, I think, leopard variety, although ours seem to be more brown than the darker ones in your photos.

I'm trying to leave them alone to get on with the job, but every now and again i just feed them to the chickens who fight over the delicacy.

Mostly our snails go to them as well and the eggs are just beautiful.

Harvest said...

That's great Earl--I had been wondering if chickens would eat slugs!

gardenin' guy said...

I sometimes pick up slugs and carry them over to my chickens and they usually go nuts for them. Sometimes they seem to tire of them. I also go around in the late afternoon or evening when the harlequin squash bugs or stink bugs (or whatever those black and red shield shaped bugs are) are gathering up on the stalks of the mustard plants for the night and gather scads of them for the hens.

Harvest said...

Thanks Gardening Guy! You are all welcome to join me on facebook if you like. I have some gardening photo albums over there . . .