Plant patrol

Posted July 03, 2009, at 6:45 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.

Since my recent gardening column on slugs, the mailbox has overflowed with readers’ comments and advice on how to win the war. Gardeners need all the help they can get in this slug summer.

Wesley gardener Carola Nickerson wrote that she had tried all of my suggestions for controlling slugs with small results, but has her own method that really works.

“I take an empty can, put a little salt in the bottom, and using a plastic teaspoon, go around and pick them up the first thing in the morning. When I get done, I sprinkle some more salt on them and they are out of commission. They exude a liquid when they hit the salt. So I leave them in the can overnight, in that salty brine, and then go dump them under a tree in the woods,” she wrote.

I thought I had a slug problem until I read Carola’s body counts for the past four years, led by a total of 5,651 slugs salted down in 2008. “So far this summer I’ve picked 2,608,” she wrote, “so I guess it’s going to be another big year. Now, that’s a lot of slugs to get rid of. If I don’t do that I might as well give up gardening.”

Betsy Bartholomew of Tenants Harbor is a recent transplant from Alaska where slugs are numerous and large. She recommends a mixture of half-water and half-ammonia. “We keep the mixture in a spray bottle ready to zap the critters whenever they appear,” she e-mailed. “On contact, the slugs will sizzle and dissolve.”

Also by e-mail, this good advice from Jennifer Fisk of Town Hill: “I turned my chickens loose last fall and I feel that I have a lot fewer slugs to contend with. Guinea hens will keep your garden slug and bug free without the damage to plants that accompanies chickens. For those who cannot employ poultry, ground eggshells provide a barrier to slugs for the same reason as diatomaceous earth.”

Necessity is the mother of invention when it comes to the war against slugs, and since it seems to be impossible to eliminate them all, Marjorie came up with a way to keep her ripening strawberries out of their reach. Patrolling the four rows every day, she props each ripening berry off the ground with a recycled plastic fork, cradling the fruiting stem in the tines. We pick ripe strawberries free of slug bites, but the berries are in full view of every crow and jay that flies over the garden.

I have also received several inquiries about the status of the viburnum leaf beetle in Maine. Kate Wyman e-mailed to ask if the leaf beetle was yet a problem in coastal regions as she was interested in planting a few mapleleaf viburnums, Viburnum acerifolium, to her garden from an adjoining natural area.

I have found adults, larvae or egg casings of this devastating non-native invasive insect pest in gardens from Orono to Mount Desert Island and along the coast as far as Eastport. It prefers to feed on our thin-leaved native viburnums, including mapleleaf viburnum, wild raisin, arrowwood and cranberry viburnum.

Managing the beetle on native viburnums takes time and effort. We have about a dozen plants of mapleleaf viburnum in Marjorie’s garden, all planted about six years ago. So far, we have detected larvae and egg casings on only one of these plants and managed to keep damage to a minimum by crushing the larvae and pruning off the egg casings in winter.

We love our native viburnums — the mapleleaf are flowering now. But without our commitment to monitoring and managing the beetle, they would not be there, adding the beauty of their summer flowers and fall foliage to our lives.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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