It wouldn’t seem like much of a contest; and they don’t really seem like worthy foes. At their largest,they’re a couple of inches long. Their top speed is .003 miles per hour. Flat out, with no breaks or meal stops, it would take one two and half months to get from Fashion Island to South Coast Plaza. They only have one foot; we have two. We also have two hands and opposable thumbs; they don’t.
So why are we locked into endless combat with one of the worlds lowliest creatures? Iraq would appear infinitely more winnable than the war we wage in our own backyards. The gardener vs. snails and slugs.
They seem to eat anything that’s green and juicy. Petunias, basil, succulents, daffodils, annuals, perennials, herbs, vegetables, even citrus trees. They chew the flowers and they chew the leaves, a battle field of holes, tattered foliage and silvery trails. Where one day there was growing, blooming flowers, next morning there are only scattered remains.
The main offender in our lettuce patches and flower borders is the Brown Garden Snail (Helix aspersa), a species that terrorizes gardeners throughout much of The United States, as well as Europe, Africa, Australia, Mexico and South America.
Snails and slugs like moisture, and are most active at night when the weather is damp. Lush. over-watered yards are their Eden.
In my own garden I seldom see a snail anymore. When I first inherited the garden they were everywhere. I remember my attempts to grow sweet peas and vegetables – thwarted by the nighttime attacks of these relentless gastropods. But today I hardly every see a snail. In fact, I can’t remember when I last saw a snail in my garden. Why? Where did they go?
There are three reasons, I believe, why I don’t have snails in my garden . . . and my neighbors do.
First, when I began tending my garden, and its resident snail population, I began picking them. For some, the idea of picking up a snail is impossible, but for me it’s no big deal. My hands have been in the soil my entire life. Early on, in my garden when I saw a snail, I “harvested” it. On to the roof or out to the street it went. Considering that the snails in your garden live for two to three years, hand picking is a very efficient method of control, and it’s organic and free. A snail removed today is one less for the next three years.
The second thing I did was use a bait. Being an organic gardener I will not use the common snail products that contain metaldehyde, like Snarol, That’s It, Corry’s or Deadline. They’re poison, are highly toxic to mammals like pets and children, and don’t work very well anyway. I did occasionally use an organic product called Sluggo, which safe for pets, people and the environment. Sluggo contains iron phosphate, a naturally occurring soil ingredient.
Metaldehyde, the traditional snail bait, does not kill snails and slugs directly, but stimulates their mucous-producing cells to overproduce in an attempt to detoxify the bait. In theory, the cells eventually fail and the snail dies. In sunny or hot weather, they die from desiccation, but if the weather is cool they usually recover. Metaldehyde baits break down rapidly when exposed to sunlight or moisture. Sluggo on the other hand is less affected by water and sunlight. Ingested, even in small amounts, causes snails and slugs to cease feeding immediately, retreat to a cool shady spot and die.
But perhaps the primary reason I don’t have snails in my garden anymore is that I water appropriately. After thirty years of visiting hundreds of local gardens and talking to thousands of gardeners I am convinced that a garden over-run with snails is also an over-watered garden. My garden gets water only when it needs it, not when the clock on an irrigation timer says to. My garden is healthy and lush – and I don’t have any snails!
Whatever your battle plan, harvesting, organic snail baiting or proper watering, you can bring an end to the war you are waging in your backyard. It worked for me. It can work for you as well. Remember, you’re also smarter than the snail.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar