Slug fest

AJ/Flickr

AJ/Flickr

With the recent torrential rains and the continuing cool weather, conditions are prime for the Creatures of Slime: Slugs.

The little nocturnal beasts travel on a slimy surface of their own mucoidal making. They leave trails of silvery slime behind, a tell-tale sign of their predations, and can follow slime trails, left the night before, directly to your delphiniums and hostas, your marigolds and dahlias, your basil and phlox – and especially your newly planted seedlings.

Between courses, they apparently indulge their lively and passionate nature.

It takes a certain sensibility to put yourself in the so-called "mind" of a slug in love, but that’s exactly what writer Jean-Pierre Otte does with a voyeur’s intensity in "Love in the Garden" (George Braziller Inc.)

Like snails, slugs are mollusks; like earthworms, they are hermaphrodites, having both male and female parts. They can stretch up to 20 times their normal length to squeeze through small opening in pursuit of food — which may add a certain je ne sais quoi to their rowdy love-making.

"First there were brief nibbles, then quick pinches, then the bites got more daring, started going deeper and lasting longer, so that the mutual arousal was heightened . . . "

"They must surely have been delighted to discover in each other a great hunger analogous to their own, a twin and growing desire amply attested by thrusts, bites, successive bursts of passion and a characteristic curling of the ‘foot.’"

When we are not, like Otte, considering the raptures of slug love, we are probably thinking hard about how to get rid of them. As they gnaw the hosta leaves to tattered rags, make the spider flowers look like Swiss cheese and devour the marigolds, one grows a little less interested in their love life.

You can go out in the evening and pick them, bare-handed or with barbecue skewers or chopsticks. You can then dump your victims into a bucket of hot water or wood ash — or pop them into your freezer — to kill them. You can snip them in two with a scissors where you find them, letting their cannibalistic brethren clean up.

Slug damage on hosta leaf               scrappy annie/Flickr

Slug damage on hosta leaf               scrappy annie/Flickr

Providing hiding places with shingles, an old board, spent grapefruit halves or plastic bags will cause the slugs to gather, making collection more . . . satisfying. Paying the kids to collect slugs for you can be an enterprising solution. Be sure to fix the price not by the piece, but by the dozen, or you will go broke in no time.

You can sprinkle slugs with salt and watch them "melt" — although this shouldn’t be carried to excess or you will poison your soil. You can lure them to death-by-drowning with shallow saucers of beer set in the ground (research at Colorado State University reveals they like best Bud, Bud Light and the non-alcoholic Kingsbury Malt Beverage). But then you have to collect their bloated corpses lest they begin to stink.

You can get yourself some ducks, which come highly recommended for slug duty, especially the Khaki Campbells and Indian Runners. But what will you do with them in the winter time? Think about it. Frogs and toads are effective predators, as are birds, the larvae of some ground beetles and fireflies, centipedes and opossums.

Suggested as barriers to prevent slugs from swarming up plant stems are any of the following: crushed egg shells; garden lime or wood ash (which may raise the alkalinity of soils); human hair; diatomaceous earth, which, being composed of sharp, tiny shells, should not be inhaled; lengths of plastic drain pipe; cayenne pepper, ground chilies and slivers of raw garlic. The effectiveness of these home remedies is debated, however.

One thing that does really work is a ring of copper foil set around plants. When the slimy foot of a slimy slug contacts copper, an electric shock is produced that sends it elsewhere. But the copper is quite expensive and is only feasible for protecting a few especially beloved plants.

Baits containing metaldeyde — Slug-geta, Deadline — have been available since the ‘30s, but these are classified as "toxic to wildlife" and can present hazards to pets. You may want to try the new generation of iron phosphate preparations, available since 1997. Sold under such names as Sluggo and Escar-Go!, the non-toxic bait is said to be harmless and breaks down quickly, adding trace elements to the soil. Scientists don’t know exactly how it works, but it seems to bring feeding to an end in a few days, and slugs to an end a few days after that.

What else can you realistically do? You can reduce favorable habitat by cleaning up garden debris and improving air circulation. You can cultivate soils in the spring to disturb and disrupt overwintering eggs. You can keep mulch to a maximum of one inch, or use cedar chips, which slugs seem to dislike.

Slugs are said to be repelled by grapes, sunflowers, geraniums, chives and sage, so consider planting these at garden edges. You can go heavy on plants they don’t prefer, including the following: achilliea, artemesia, alyssum, ajuga, columbine (the leaf miners get them first), cosmos, crocosmia, daffodils, daylilies, foxgloves, gladiolus, holly, hibiscus, hydrangea, impatiens, Jacob’s ladder, liatris, mints, parsley, pumpkin, pulmonaria, rosemary, sage, thyme and tomatoes (the hornworm has first dibs).

You can do any of these things — or all of them — while pondering whether one properly addresses the object of one’s disaffection as "he" or "she."