Guy’s news: Exodus; not a good time for slugs

For the last month, our irrigation reservoirs have been rimmed by a black mass of writhing tadpoles. I reckon there are over a million in the one I swim in, even after the carp have feasted. Last week they got their legs and this week they are off; the ground around the ponds is heaving as they go in search of their first terrestrial meal. Facing this hungry biblical plague, slugs have no chance. It will be two years before the toads return to breed, by which time they’ll have made a home on the waterless hill half a mile away.

“What we do about slugs” is always the visiting gardener’s top question on our organic farms. The answer, with the occasional exception of our polytunnels, is nothing; they aren’t a problem for our field crops. I know you will find the occasional slimy surprise in our lettuces and our sprouts are often scarred (which we hope and assume you can live with), but I cannot remember ever seeing any organic crops suffering significantly. Most conventional potato growers will routinely apply vast quantities of slug pellets and still have substantial damage. Likewise, slugs can be a huge problem in winter wheat and barley even after applying pellets, but almost never when the ground has been organic for three years or more. The reason is undoubtedly that our soils, free from pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, are teeming with life looking for a meal; toads, frogs and carabid beetles like to munch on slugs, nematodes will parasitize them, and there are almost certainly many other predators and pathogens. No-one makes money from their activity, so this unglamorous part of ecology hasn’t been studied much.

The principle of organic farming is to find balance; the population of every indigenous pest (except Homo sapiens) is regulated by predators and pathogens. It doesn’t always work; sometimes you have to encourage them a little (e.g. flowering plants to foster the lacewings and hoverflies that control aphids), but with slugs all you have to do is spare the soil those toxic chemicals, and soil ecology will do the rest. Annoyingly I know this approach does not work in a garden; I suspect there is just too much cover for the slugs to retreat to. If you can handle the poo and keep the foxes away, get a duck.

Guy Watson

16 responses to “Guy’s news: Exodus; not a good time for slugs

  1. Jacqueline Male

    Exactly I can vouch for this! When I had an allotment I never used slug pellets and the slugs were not too much of a problem. Yet all around, where they did use the pellets and more beside, the slugs were devouring their crops. I say leave it to nature.

  2. Quite so. In a small very leafy garden I have only one bantam dealing with
    little slugs and hedgehogs cope with the monsters. Scrap wool ( loose fleece)
    is very efficient guarding seedlings – if the bantam doesn’t scratch it away .

  3. I disagree that this approach does not work in the garden. My garden has not had a chemical put on it in the fifteen years we have lived here and although I do come across the odd slug there are so many predators including birds and local hedgehog, the only slugs I do find are very small ( young) and probably rarely reach adulthood.

  4. Scrap wool, noted!

    Our urban pocket-handkerchief with ivied walls and log-piles is slug Eden: no thrushes, toads or hedgehogs, lots of food, lots of cover.

    We dissuade them with cloches, garlic, coffee-grounds – and predate them with the late-night slug-bucket – and seduce them with yeasted sugar-water. In a larger plot the labour would be too much but it works for us.

    The drowned corpses are fantastic nitrogenous matter for compost and snails provide calcium too 🙂 It is gratifying to have them nourish that which they ate.

  5. Love the video!

  6. Slug ‘pubs’ – a tin or plastic bottle half full of cheap lager – work well in a garden, I find. Also having a garden pond with frogs or toads helps! I was appalled and confounded recently to find that nurseries routinely treat flowering plants – bedding and the like – with pesticides, some of which may include those bee-upsetting neonicotinoids, which means that the flowering plants you buy from your local garden centre (I checked with mine) have almost certainly been treated with them. Unless you grow everything from seed with organic compost, you may be inadvertently introducing pesticides to the insects. Horrible, isn’t it?

  7. You’re so right about ducks, Guy. I kept them in my last two gardens and delighted in watching them hoover up the slugs from around my raised beds. It was also really good fun watching them swallowing snails whole. One of our ducks would even catch snails we threw to her – yummy! Sadly my current, much smaller garden, although good for growing food, is not suitable for ducks as we have no solid boundaries with neighbouring gardens. I hope that might encourage hedgehogs though.

  8. Anyone got a really good solution for getting slug slime off your hands please?

    • Slug slime, EURGH. My mum uses a pair of 14-inch metal tweezers for uplifting the buggers, very delicate, but I prefer getting to grips manually.

      A palmful of dry used coffee grounds (or polenta flour, dry earth or similar), rub the affected area firmly and it will abrade/desiccate it off. Under the fingernails a dry nailbrush helps. Only then hot water and soap, mostly to remove the coffee aroma 🙂

      In general don’t add water. The stuff seems to have evolved to get slimier the wetter it is.

      • Thanks Katharine. I will try the coffee grounds idea, always lots of those around. I,ve tried everything else and rubber gloves don’t give you enough grip. C

  9. Tiptoe through the toadlings!

  10. Thanks Guy for the encouraging news of the froglets. I installed a pond 3 years ago, but sadly am still waiting for frog or toad spawn to arrive. Anybody got any tips please?

  11. I love to see froglets and toadlets at this time of year, and in Early spring one has to be careful driving near where I live,as there is one road close to a river which is inundated with frogs and toads heading to the water meadows to spawn, Dead Slow and prepare to stop is the order of the night!

  12. Thanks so much Guy,
    I absolutely love getting your blog and reading first hand about the workings of Riverford farm. I love your philosophical and ethical approach to food growing. If we are what we eat, surely the industrial/chemical food growing complex is a mirror of society’s dysfunction.
    On a more pragmatic note – today’s blog left me really wanting to know more about ducks! Do you have ducks on the farm? If so, how many and what breed?
    In short, can you write a blog about ducks,

  13. We live in France, but have family in Bedford who receive your Organic boxes. I love reading your newsletter. Please could I go on your mailing list.
    On another matter, I am sure that tons of wild hazelnuts are wasted because of the fiddle of extracting the nuts. I have a tree and have improved on the nutcracker by shelling 18 at a time. I have a silicone baking mould for madeleines with 9 depressions. I put 2 nuts in each compartment then using a 2lb hammer go across the tray once, breaking open the nuts. (Any not opened I leave). I remove all the exposed nuts, taking out any unopened and then repeat the process. I can extract a breakfast bowl full in 20-30 minutes. Roast at 180° for 10 minutes. Hazelnut coffee can be made by adding 1 tea spoon of finely ground hazelnuts to your usual 1 measure of ground coffee (reduced by a little).

  14. Pressed Post Comment, before ticking Notify me of new posts by email. Whoops .

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