Winter tends to make many of us feel sluggish. Similarly, many of our garden pests have been mostly inactive. But now, as the days get longer and spring is on the horizon, it’s time to get ahead of some of the pests as they begin to emerge from their winter rest.
A good place to start is slug control because by March, slugs will be searching out their first meals of the season.
To decide on a strategy to control slugs, it’s helpful to be familiar with their biology and life history, habits, and food preferences. Slugs are hermaphrodites, with both male and female reproductive organs. Mating occurs in fall and spring. One female can lay up to 500 eggs a year in clutches of three to 50. The gray garden slug, the most prevalent in our area, can live up to 18 months. Some species can live for six years.
Slugs are gastropods, a word coming from two Greek words meaning “stomach” and “foot.” As Harriet Custer, WSU Master Gardener from Skagit County puts it, “A slug is basically a stomach traveling on a large foot,” leaving behind its telltale trail of slime.
Slugs have more teeth than a shark, some species having over 25,000 replaceable teeth! With these, a slug can eat several times its weight in food per day. They have a diverse diet, feeding on many of our favorite ornamentals, vegetables, bulbs and tubers, such as daffodils, hostas, lettuce, lilies, strawberries and begonias, among others. Happily, they avoid eating some of our garden plants, among them daffodils, mint, red cabbage, day lilies, parsley, foxglove, hens and chicks, and sedum.
Where should a gardener look to find slugs in their gardens during the day? First, slugs thrive in moist environments. You can find them hidden under boards, stones, leaf litter, and in mulch and weedy areas.
Since sun is their enemy, think of places in your garden that are moist and where they can get out of the sun. Often times, this will be underground. After dark, when slugs are doing most of their eating, walk through your garden with your flashlight to see which of your plants they are devouring.
When deciding what to do to limit slug damage in your garden, keep in mind that slugs play a beneficial role in the environment. By helping to recycle organic matter, they contribute to the building of healthy soil. They are also food for many animals, such as toads, frogs, ducks, snakes and birds. The watchword is reducing the population of slugs, not eradicating them.
So, what strategies are available to a home gardener? They fall into several categories: plantings, cultural practices, barriers, predators and baits. Here are some tips:
By starting to implement the above strategies now, you will be able to eliminate most of your slug problem early, avoiding future damage and saving time later.
A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears weekly in The Wenatchee World. Casey Leigh is one of four columnists featured.