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Is it possible to hold back the slugs?

Slugs – a gardener’s worst enemy. There are a number of methods out there to stop them in their tracks, be it environmentally friendly or chemical, but have you ever found one that does the trick?

Ask any gardener what their worst pest is and slugs and snails will feature high on the list. Three quarters of Which? Gardening members told us that they’re a real problem.

The tell-tale slime trails across your decimated plants, the stump-like remains of your seedlings and the gaping holes in your hosta leaves all show that slugs and snails have been busy eating your carefully tended garden. The damage is enough to make you hop round the garden in fury.

Barriers to protect your crops

In an attempt to get rid of slugs and snails gardeners use barriers, pellets and nematodes with abandon. But is it time to throw in the towel and make peace with these pests?

Our recent tests showed that environmentally friendly barrier methods are not much better than leaving your plants unprotected, especially when you factor in the faff of installing the barriers.

We tested plastic barriers with sharp teeth that were supposed to deter snail, but the pests simply hurdled the obstacle by arching their bodies. Granules that were supposed to be too sharp to crawl over became soggy and sticky when watered. Copper is another deterrent but the tape we used was breached within days.

Some barriers showed promise, such as wool pellets that created a hairy mat, or a gel that made a slug turn through 180 degrees and head off in the opposite direction, but even these failed to protect our seedlings for long.

Home-made methods, such as egg shells, beer traps or coffee granules may be cheap alternatives, but our poll told us most members have had poor results. Ducks and geese were the best performers, although these have to take their place in the food chain and are often fall prey to foxes.

Biological and chemical controls

Then there’s Nematodes which seem to work well on slugs, but not on snails. These tiny parasitic worms are watered onto the soil and work their way into slugs where they infect them with a lethal fungus. But they’re a nuisance to buy and use as they have to be ordered online and then kept in the fridge until the weather and soil temperatures are right.

The problems with pellets containing metaldehyde are well known, such as causing harm to birds and pets if eaten in large quantities. It’s also known to pollute water when used in high doses in agriculture. Some experts even predict it may be banned in the UK if the problem is not controlled.

Ferric-phosphate pellets are certified as organic, but some research suggests that it may cause problems for earthworms and alter the chemical balance of the soil.

So it looks as though we have three choices: using remedies that may be less than environmentally friendly, carrying out night-time raids with a torch and bin bag or learn to live with slugs and snails. Which method do you use? Or do you have a secret tip that we’d all love to to know?

Comments
Roger Oakes says:
7 March 2015

I find the most effective barrier is a line, about 4 inches wide, of soot from sweeping the chimney. THe depth is just enough to ensure a colmplete covering of the soil. However, I am concious that this could have some detremental effect on the soil. When I run out of soot I have used builders lime in a similar way. As I would wish to lime the vegetable patch in accordance with some sort rotation anyway I see little disadvantage. Another barrier is sifted ash from my wood burning stove. As wood ash is said to have some plant nutrition benefits it is not likely to be harmful. It is advisable to use rubber gloves and goggles when placing any of these barriers.

john smith says:
7 March 2015

When I had a small pond I never noticed slugs as I was told the frogs eat them. Then I had a grass snake visit my pond and eat the frogs. Now no frogs, but more slugs than I have been used to over 30 years. So get a small pond, if you can, for frogs and other wildlife,

F Reed says:
7 March 2015

Keeping ducks, if your circumstances permit, is a fantastic way to get rid of slugs! Organically sound, and free duck food.

That sounds like a noisy form of biological control. 🙂

Definitely a quack remedy!

No, ducks DON’T work. We used to live beside a stream in the village and I would hurl all and any slugs, especially the large black type, to the ducks that puddled around in the shallows. The ducks came running when they saw me, the fastest grabbing the slug and then realising it’s mistake. The look of disgust on its face was comical and it then spent much time trying to wipe the slime from its beak. In the end I stopped throwing slugs since the ducks had caught on and refused to be tempted. Admittedly, living in the village they were very well fed ducks!

Having investigated the information available online, ducks do eat slugs or can be trained to do so. It’s hardly surprising that well fed ducks are not interested.

Ducks also eat garden plants, so you might be swapping a small problem for a big one. The only saving grace is that to make use of the pest, I’d rather eat ducks than slugs. However, controlling nature is one of the human race’s more unattractive pastimes. Much better to try and live in harmony than to dominate, don’t you think?. Just plant extra lettuce.

Tolerating loss is one solution and choosing plants that are less affected is another. For example, some potatoes are less affected than others, according to what I have read. Biological control is generally regarded as safe providing we stick with indigenous species, though it can be too specific, for example effective on slugs but not snails or eggs.

As Len pointed out, effective pest control is necessary in agriculture and this is currently dependent largely on chemical pesticides. These pesticides are non-selective and harm beneficial species. Planting extra lettuce is a reasonable solution for the garden or allotment but it’s not an answer to the problems of commercial agriculture and ensuring that we have plentiful food at an affordable price.

This topic started about gardeners’ problems of course, and many of the remedies are only sensibly applicable on a small scale. Commercial growers face different problems but equally are able to invest capital in providing solutions. Hydroponics support a number of crops and presumably do not have a slug problem. Although we have lots of slugs and snails I have never suffered the losses of cabbages or other brassicas, broad beans, peas or runner beans that Len had to deal with. Perhaps the type of ground where you grow is a factor?

I think your are right about the effect of the soil. Agriculture focuses on growing vast numbers of the same plants, producing an ideal habitat for certain pests. That’s one reason that crop rotation is practised.

Most gardeners are prepared to put up with pest-damaged produce to some extent, but that would be rejected by paying customers and therefore by the supermarkets. Pest damage can also affect storage properties of potatoes etc.

Surely planting extra lettuce Malcolm, you’ll be providing those slugs with a mighty feast or even attract a larger crowd of slugs (Won’t they tell all their friends?) Also, do they stop when they get full..?

The slugs don’t have mobile phones, Andrew, so they would have to go and find their friends. They may not move at a snail’s pace but they are very sluggish.

If we could train slugs to finish off one plant before starting on another, the damage would be much reduced.

Haha wavechange, that made me laugh! I wasn’t sure if slugs, like other insects, had ways of attracting others. For example, when killing a wasp, doesn’t it release a pheromone that draws more wasps to aid their fallen comrade?

You are right about the pheromones Andrew. I wonder if they could be used in a simple device to attract and trap slugs. Much better than chemical warfare.

Andrew, it hasn’t worked like that in the past but you have a point – Len’s loss of 250k cabbages in 6 hours was a worry. Perhaps I’ve, over the years. just achieved an amicable arrangement with my slugs and achieved a natural balance.

Birds are the ones with mobile phones, wavechange. As soon as we filled the bird feeders with seed our feathered friends arrived in flocks.like bees finding a nice field in flower. The crows are the most intelligent – one flaps on the feeder so seed spills onto the ground where its family and associates gobble it up. I’ve put up a notice saying “Slug and Snail Takeaway” with a “scores on the doors of 5” in the hope they will also come to an amicable agreement with these pests.

Well slugs being nocturnal (most of them) they obviously are smart enough to know when birds are sleeping so we need to increase the owl population. I’m not sure about bats! There’s no getting away from it Malcolm, you need to get out with the garden hoe to assist your birds to get at the slug eggs first and foremost.

I have never considered the crows in my garden to be that smart since they do all the hard work pecking at the nuts and seeds while the more intelligent ones stay on the ground picking up all the spills!!!

I might have a go at the eggs with an ammonia spray, as suggested in the list posted by Dieseltaylor. This will disappear promptly, making it environmentally safe compared with other chemical treatments. Care is needed in its use.

GRIZZLY says:
7 March 2015

If you can get hold of it these days, use weathered soot, buy putting it in a ring around your plants slugs and snails will not cross that barrier. I and many others used that method on our Allotments but now we are down to using them there slug pellets, yep you need to replenish them if it rains Ha Ha Ha.

Free duck food sounds good – I love duck breast with home-made plum sauce. I’ll happily forget they lived on slugs.

Michael says:
8 March 2015

We have very very few slugs or snails in our very large garden.

How? Simple.

Over the years we have encouraged, fed and fostered through the winters our little band of stormtroopers aka blackbirds. They reward us by keeping slugs and snails to the bare minimum.

Robert Christie says:
8 March 2015

Many years ago my father used clinker from local coal fired power station . I have used coal dust and grit down to about 5 mm ,slugs NOT keen on it as it clogs their trail .I used to go on night patrol , pick up all I could see , into a jar, microwave them. The smell was fairly inviting but NEVER sampled them .Another method was, lay thick black polythene between rows, pick up in daylight scrape off , microwave. Now at night I cut them in half, leave them in place, in a few hours I have observed their mates HAVING AN OLD FRIEND FOR DINNER .For snails leave a damp dark place, a few weighted boards, lift them in daylight, squash them on path, leaving them for the thrush. One year I dispatched over 3,000 .A bit paranoid perhaps but the research had to be done .TIP hundreds can be caught in fine rain/drizzle conditions .My best “trap” was coal dust. HAPPY HUNTING ! !

cazbah says:
8 March 2015

I’ve started collecting plastic bottles – eg fruit juice, milk containers,- cutting a section out of the middle, putting a ring of copper tape round it and placing them around seedlings. It’s not completely foolproof but has been reasonably successful and is cheap! Also found crushed eggshells help a bit but you do have to crush them quite small and they only last a week or two.

Now does anybody know how to keep those tiny snails out of the wrinkles in Curly Kale?!

I have tried nematodes. They are part of my annual battle against slugs and snails, which is a several-pronged attack.

Nematodes work well as long as you apply them when the slugs first hatch. I think there are two main times each year, roughly March/April and September. The ground needs to be damp when you apply them and kept damp for them to work.

Last year I grew dahlias for the first time. The slugs and snail loved those – they got nibbled back to stumps in no time at all. But I found that plastic collars were quite good to let them establish and worked well unless the leaves drooped down to touch the collars.

Last year I also tried wool pellets for the first time. I soaked them first and applied them in a thick soggy mat about 8cm around the stem. These worked an absolute treat on the Dahlias. I got months of flowers and very few nibbles on them after the wool pellets were applied. I have found the same with a lupin that I overwintered, but something has been digging under the wool around that one, which is a bit annoying. They were a bit less successul with the hostas, their leaves turned yellow and died back, not sure if it was the wool or the fact that they had been nibbled back to the point of extinction before I reached them. Will definitely be trying wool again this year.

I generally find that removing them by hand, and putting them in the green waste bin so that they are removed entirely from the garden. I find that the best thing for finding all the small snails is to leave tidying my garden up for winter until late Jan/Feb. As I am pulling out all the old leaves I pull a bundle of baby snails out with them and throw them in the recycling bin.

It is worth checking out the base of evergreen plants such as phormiums because slugs and snails love to hide in those!

Victoria, I like dahlias and grow from both seed and tubers – anxiously watching them sprout in the greenhouse at the moment. I grow them on in pots before planting them out late May, so they are usually fairly substantial plants by then. They then suffer minimal damage from slugs and snails.

Trouble is, there are other “pests” in the garden as well – ants that undermine the lawn and get into pots, wasps that made a nest in the shed, whitefly that infested the greenhouse, blackfly on the beans, and pigeons that assume I just grow peas and beans for them. We have to adopt other tactics apart from anihillation.

I use wire mesh “cloches” over peas and beans when they are first growing and that seems to deter birds effectively. One problem is that when you cut it you leave sharp short wires than can jab you if you aren’t careful. This set me thinking – you can get mesh with 1/4″ (sorry, 6.3mm) holes. Maybe if you cut long narrow strips, leaving the sharp wires along the top, and surround vulnerable plants with them as a pallisade htis might keep slugs and snails at bay? Any one tried it?

For Christmas we were bought a battery-operated “Bug Bat” – like a small tennis raquet with two wire grids in the frame. Supposed to zap biting bugs and wasps when they touch it. So tea in the garden might be less of a challenge when the wasp air force is on manoeuvres.

A night time raid with a torch on a damp night is probably the best option, when slugs and snails are on their slimy travels! They can then be collected and banished from the garden or disposed of humanely. Eventually you will see a decline in numbers.
It’s essential to do this several days before planting vegetables or flowers. Gardeners often spread slug pellets directly after planting, but this leaves slugs with a choice of pellets or your prized plants on the menu, so damage can still result until they have been eradicated.
I wish someone would genetically engineer weed eating slugs and snails – Now that would be useful!

Maewyn says:
29 March 2015

I’m a slug patroller, like many others. Wearing disposable latex gloves prevents hands from becoming horribly slimy. Drop the slugs and snails into very hot water, and they die instantly. Then throw the lot into the compost, and the slugs can feed the garden rather than eating it. If you use salty water it will slow down the composting process as the salt will kill of the bacteria and other helpful composters.

Yoga monkey says:
21 July 2015

Can anyone tell me if slug/snail etc bitten leaves make the vegetable more nutritious? I mean, are there any health benefits to a plant being bitten into by an invertebrate scavenger?
Someone told me this snippet recently and I wonder if there is any truth behind it?
Plants do produce their versions of an immune response when attacked or predated, lectins or plant hormones are there to deter the consumption of their seeds etc but does a bug biting into a leaf cause the release of healthful chemicals?
A positive spin on slug attacks perhaps!

Snails and slugs have been a serious issue for my garden for years. I am really against the usage of chemicals and that is why I am always looking for new solutions! Thanks for the article! Here is another one that I find helpful :http://www.houzz.co.uk/ideabooks/57663016/thumbs/protect-your-garden-from-slugs-and-snails

Kerwin Maude says:
6 May 2016

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Sprinkle table salt around your garden or flower plants at least 3 feet away from the plants. Sprinkle it lightly in dry weather and reapply after rainy periods, common sense. The slug will self implode into a gooey glob; commerical baits might be effective but salt is cheap and very effective. Slug baits bought at retailers might have issues for pets, curious kids and plants, but ask an expert. If you want to whack pesky ants, try 50/50 mix of borax and icing sugar, it works like a charm but ants are resilient buggers. If you want to kill unsightly weeds, vinegar is great and I use recycled window bug screen fabric or new defective rolls to layer them at least two sheets thick around my shrubbery and it works beautifully. They are porous and permit air and water but weeds struggle to pop through, and landscape fabric is costly. My landscape project has been weed free for over 9 years, try it to reuse and recycle window bug screens instead of them in landfills.

I’ve never tried it myself, but some people eat snails. As a child, I did eat periwinkles, and that’s maybe similar? Anyway, I have spent around twenty very early mornings (between the end of June and now, at about 5am or earlier) collecting snails from my garden and helping them migrate to a nice grassy area of parkland across the road. I haven’t injured them in any way if I could help it, and if seagulls and magpies began to be seen more often on the grassy area, well…. Any snails and slugs that tried to cross the road again were gently redirected by me, and now the population in my garden is well down, and I don’t see any on the grassy area either.

I’m not too bothered bu slugs so long as they stay in the garden.

Post-uni, I rented a terraced flat in West Jesmond, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Here we suffered from frequent night time incursions – and would often wake to find silvery trails over the carpets.

Jatue says:
19 August 2016

Can someone tell me why I just had like 30 snails all over my car 😱 even when picked off they we’re trying to make there way back to it!!

Jatue- because your car is in a cold moist area . Slugs/snails dont like warm conditions ,so if your car is cold and like a normal car has a smooth coating of paint thats good territory for them . Beware ! it might be so good they lay eggs on it but usually they are underground .