Living Harmoniously with Slugs and Snails

Living with slugs and snails? I guess for any gardener it might seem like a strange concept :) I have for years been trying to figure out how to deal with these 'pests'. Although I never considered using traditional slug killer I did at various stages feel the need to reduce the population because of the havoc they wreaked in my garden. My garden is now 17 years old and it has seen many seasons. Whilst my garden was growing, I completed the RHS General Certificate (as it was then) in Horticulture and I also volunteered and spent quite a bit of time in our local Camphill Community garden. I worked with wonderful mentors and learnt so much, both through my 'hands on' work and also through their advice and expertise.  I suppose as an evolving person and an evolving gardener, the condundrum of finding balance in the garden has always been in my mind and now, it no longer seems reasonable or right to want to kill slug populations. This, of course, is with the luxury of just having my own small garden and no financial pressure to protect crops for sale but I will outline some of how I deal with the slug and snail problem.

Brown Snail on Branch
Large snail in my garden
First of all, I came to the conclusion some years ago that I had to apply the 'survival of the fittest' principal when it came to decorative plants. Each year is different of course, and slugs love damp weather, so in dry years, the problem has been minimal. However in some years, there was a literal army of slugs in my flower bed. They adorned every stem and petal and inch of ground, all shapes and sizes and seemed to be having a veritable party in my space. I had tried growing lupins and marigolds at different stages in the flower bed and both were literally decimated in a matter of days. Now I just don't even consider them for my garden, unless it is as sacrificial plants to distract the slugs from other things I want to protect. So I feel now, that if something is so easily destroyed by slugs, then it should just be left out. But on that topic, there are more resilient plants that slugs seem to enjoy but which can withstand a certain amount of chomping.  And these I am happy to have - I often take the half eaten leaves and put them on the ground around the plant in order to keep the slugs happy at ground level.  This isn't a particularly scientific method, just something that I felt worked to some degree.  The resilience is key, I think. It may not look picture perfect to have raggedy, half eaten leaves but there are plants in my garden (hollyhocks for example) which don't seem to be daunted by a bit of slug activity and so they are perfect in my book.
The next approach I have, is to do with crops I grow in containers - for example lettuce leaves which I try to have each year. Again, this is doable because my garden is small and I would only have a few pots with edibles but I go out and do regular checks at night with a torch. This is weather dependent too and damp weather brings out the snails and slugs in force so you might have to be extra vigilant. It is important to note as well, that small seedlings are particularly vulnerable and will benefit from being covered or protected in some way. Once they are bigger, they have a bit more resilience and can survive a bit of eating.
*A method that works in flower beds is one which I discovered recently. I read about it and decide to give it a go - basically you just save your grapefruit halves and put them open side up near the plants you would like to protect.  According to what I read, they would just fill with slugs/snails and they would be there in the morning ready to transport elsewhere. I gave it a go and came out the first morning to empty grapfruit halves! So although I left them in place, I wasn't that impressed with this method. However I went out last night to do a check on my vulnerable sunflowers which I put in the bed recently, and lo and behold, one grapefruit was teeming with little creatures.

Snails in half grafpefruit in garden

I left them there but in retrospect, I should have probably moved them last night as they were mostly gone this morning. Interestingly enough, I have 4 sunflowers in the bed, one in a sunny spot which has had some damage (Photo 1), next 2 are quite close together near the wall but in an area packed with plants (Photo 2) and the last is in possibly the shadiest spot but a little bit further away from the wall than the others (and with no overhanging plants)(Photo 3).  The third has next to no damage which surprised me, as it is in quite a shady area. The worst affected have been the two which are near the wall and close to other plants as it is both dark and there are lots of little damp areas where slugs and snails can hide under leaves and debris. So we will see if my sunflowers survive but this is certainly a method worth trying.

Photo 1
Photo 2
Photo 3

My final methods involve barriers which slugs don't seem to like. I have found copper tape to be very effective around the pots containing my salad leaves and my hostas. This is well worth getting - it can be a bit awkward to get on smoothly around certain pots but it seems to stay on nicely and does offer a good deal of protection from what I observed last year.
I have tried coffee grounds and eggshells to mixed results. Neither seemed particularly great at keeping slugs at bay but perhaps there might have been some small level of protection.  Another type of barrier that I discovered last year was wool pellets. These do seem to work pretty well also and can be very good if you are trying to grow susceptible veg in pots - they won't really work for lettuce containers as they are too large but they are good for bigger plants that are spaced out a bit.

I don't use beer traps for the simple reason that they are basically killing slugs and I feel that they are important for biodiversity and as a food for birds, no matter how annoying they might seem!

Yellow and Brown Snail on Leaf Ireland
Yellow and Brown Snail on leaf
'Snails and slugs might be particularly important as a food source for generalist predators in late autumn and early winter, when more favourable prey sources such as earthworms and insect larvae are unavailable [18]. In fact, snails appear to be such an important food source for some birds that, where snails are absent from areas due to high levels of heavy metal pollution, birds lay deformed eggs that have a terrible chance of survival, which is due to the breeding females obtaining insufficient levels of calcium owing to the absence of snail shells[19]. So, at the very least, snails and slugs add some level of robustness to complex food webs and, by extension, overall ecosystem functioning.'

And for more of an indepth look at the balance of predators and pests, check out this video from Bruce of the Red Gardens on YouTube - his videos are fantastic anyway and well worth watching.

*Added 3rd May 2020 to reflect new method I learnt about since original post.

You might like to also read my Gardening in the Pandemic post.

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  • Shaban
    Shaban 30 March 2020 at 14:16

    Copper sounds like a good method to keep them away I need to try it. Have you tried salt? does that keep them away or do you think that is a bit too inhumane?

    • Cliona Kelliher
      Cliona Kelliher 2 April 2020 at 16:40

      I have used salt in the past but ultimately gave it up because I just felt it was too cruel. The copper tape works really well though!

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous 20 April 2020 at 13:19

    I was just thinking of slugs lately and using beer traps but felt quite queasy about it. This is absolutely brilliant to read - great to benefit from all your experience. DeeB :)

    • Cliona Kelliher
      Cliona Kelliher 20 April 2020 at 18:28

      Thanks! I'm also experimenting at the moment with mini cloches made from plastic bottles, just to protect veg seedling when they are very small. We'll see how that goes! :)

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous 9 June 2021 at 08:15

    I used squeezed out orange halves, and put them on the ground near vulnerable plants with the opening facing down. That really helped. Every morning, there would be lots of slugs inside which I then released into the wild. I have hardly any slugs in my garden, now it's the snails, but they are easier to spot and remove!
    As far as I know, any citrus fruits would work. Not sure that they have to be intact, or if you can eat them first. I squeezed the oranges, and still had a good result!

    • Cliona Kelliher
      Cliona Kelliher 7 August 2021 at 22:28

      That's great to know! I will try the oranges too cos I often use slightly older ones for juicing - and apologies for tardy reply, your comment had gone into spam so I didn't see it straight away.

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