Slugs, it’s war

A slug slides down a dew-covered tiger lily leaf in June 2009 at Swan Lake State Park in Swanville.
A slug slides down a dew-covered tiger lily leaf in June 2009 at Swan Lake State Park in Swanville. Buy Photo
Posted March 23, 2012, at 11:45 a.m.

Slugs aren’t just slimy and creepy and ugly, they’re also in league with Japanese beetles and aphids when it comes to destroying gardens. And while gardeners, wielding shining spades and forks, may appear to be formidable foes, they are often forced to surrender to these tiny pests that gnaw holes into flower seedlings and transform lettuce heads into loofahs.

No more.

On Tuesday, the Belfast Garden Club gathered for their monthly meeting to “slug it out.” Club member Martha Laitin led a talk on swiftly and efficiently vanquishing “garden-variety” slugs.

To slay a foe, it seems that you should first know him.

Well, a slug is neither a “him” nor “her.” Slugs are hermaphrodites, having both male and female reproductive organs. So when two slugs mate, both have the ability to produce eggs — usually 25-50. In other words, their army grows twice as fast.

“Every three months, they mate, and they have an 18-month life span,” Laitin said. “They live for more than a year, including the winter because their body has a kind of antifreeze. And not only the adults, the eggs survive the winter. Thrilled yet?”

A mild winter increases the chance of slug survival, and the following summer may see an especially large slug population.

“Slug” is simply the common name for all gastropod mollusks that lack a shell. If they have a shell, we generally call them snails.

“Slugs have more teeth than sharks,” Laitin said. “That’s how they chew through your leaves. Even on their first day born they’re trying to chew, even though they don’t have teeth yet. It’s called rasping, and it scars your leaves.”

Slug mucus production is a bit complicated and includes the ability to shoot a “slime cord” out of its rear end and gracefully land on your mulch after devouring one of your taller plants.

Laitin had gathered several methods for ridding yourself of slugs to present at the meeting. Epsom salt sprinkled around plants can deter slugs, as well as pine needle mulch, coffee grounds mixed in mulch and seaweed mulch.

The simplest way to get rid of slugs is by handpicking them (wearing gloves) off plants and stuffing them in a plastic bag. Throw the bag away.

This can be tricky. Slugs prefer shady, damp areas quite simply because they dry out and die in the sun. After checking the foliage (their snack spots), check the shade.

“When people put logs around raised beds or line gardens with rocks, oh don’t they like that. They’re so happy you did that,” Laitin said to the laughter of her fellow club members. “Weed piles, left out plant pots and dropped blooms — they like those too.”

The first way to prevent a slug problem is by clearing out leaf litter and debris in gardens. And if you get slug slime on your hands, use a dry paper towel to clean it off. Their mucus simply absorbs water. If your gloves are completely slimed, clean them with white vinegar.

Beer is also a solution. Slugs are attracted to yeast, and many gardeners have found success in leaving open jars of beer in the garden. Slugs climb in and drown in the frothy brew.

“They can smell the yeast in the beer, and slugs actually follow other slugs’ slime trails,” Laitin said. “And there was a college study about which beer attract slugs the most. Contrary to common belief, they found that slugs prefer microbrews.”

Copper, believe it or not, is also a slug deterrent. Slug mucus reacts with copper and sends the slug an electric shock. Many gardening centers carry adhesive copper strips to border plant containers and pots. Copper mesh perimeters around gardens are also effective.

Laitin’s last bit of advice was to raise the pH of the soil since slugs prefer acidic soil. A common way to do this is by adding lime.

After discussing battle tactics, it’s only fair to mention what these slimy pests are good for. Slugs recycle plant matter into fertilizer. Their nutrient-rich poo helps things grow. Still, they do a lot more harm than good in magnificent flower, herb and vegetable gardens.

Slug Solutions

Courtesy of Martha Laitin of the Belfast Garden Club

Yeast-baited traps

2 1-quart Mason jars

1 packet dry yeast

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. sugar

2 cups lukewarm water

Directions: Stir contents together and nestle the jars in the earth at an angle, with the lower lip of the jar reaching the surface of the earth. Place the jars in this manner every 6-8 feet in your garden. Dump and refill them on occasion.

Copper Slug Fencing

Stuf-fit copper mesh ( doyourownpestcontrol.com)

Directions: Rid your garden of slugs by handpicking them. Then surround your garden with a strip of copper mesh, hidden just beneath the surface of the earth. Slug mucus reacts with copper, shocking the slug and deterring it from the garden.

Ammonia spray

Household ammonia

Nonchlorinated, nonsoftened water

Old Windex bottle or garden sprayer

Directions Mix: 1 part ammonia to 5 parts water. Put mixture in sprayer and spray the entire garden and surrounding land 3-4 days in a row.

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