by Jacqueline Windh, Tofino
This is the time of year when we gardeners watch tenderly as delicate carrot seedlings uncurl from the damp earth - then disappear overnight without a trace. Newly planted petunias and marigolds are reduced to mere stems in no time at all. Stargazer lilies send strong stems skyward at lightning speed, only to be cut and fallen by morning. Only a slimey curl of slug-poop points to the culprit.
Yup, it's slug season.
My flower beds and veggie patch are carved out of the rainforest, a startlingly sunny plot, given its small size and the tall trees all around. As pretty as my backdrop is,
it means that I am vulnerable to attack, as slugs can converge on me from all four directions.
Like many west-coast gardeners, I moan to my friends about the nightly slug damage. It is just amazing how many non-gardeners have no shortage of advice to give me about slug-control.
"Organic slug bait!"
one suggests. The ubiquitous "organic" label does not assuage my fears. I happen to know that deadly cyanide is organic (while the "organic glacial clay" sold to gardeners can never be). The idea of strewing poison, even organically labelled poison, in my veggie garden is not too attractive. Besides, the whole modus operandi of slug bait is that it attracts slugs. Now this might work fine in town: you and all of your neighbours scatter slug bait around, the slugs come and eat it, and they die. But I am surrounded by prime slug breeding grounds - a perpetual source of new slugs. They are out there, constantly replenishing their armies. The more I attract them, the more they come!
"Copper wire!" offers another. "Slugs will not cross copper!" Imagine the task of surrounding my entire yard with copper wire, laid out seamlessly on the uneven earth so that no slug can squeeze under it. Imagine patrolling the line daily, so that no fallen twig or salal leaf provides a slug-bridge. But I am curious. I start simply - a band of copper tape around a lily pot. That night, I step out in my bathrobe to inspect. I find a plump spotted banana slug happily munching away on his third lily leaf.
"But no," someone else adds, "I heard that you need two copper bands - as the slug crosses from one to another it creates an electric current that zaps him." Nobody can tell me the source of this "common" wisdom. But I am even more curious. Slugs are damp, possibly saline like us. Could it work? I tape a second band to the lily pot, locating it with precision so that even the smallest baby slug could not climb up without touching both at the same time. That night the slug is back grazing on the remaining leaves - this time having found an alternate route slithering up the branch he chopped down the eve before.
I don't know if this electrocution thing works - but even if it does, the image of my whole yard, seamlessly surrounded by two precision-placed parallel strips of copper tape, just does not seem achievable.
But the helpful advice continues: surrounding my yard with crushed eggshells, with coffee grounds. (How many eggs would I have to eat? Will my yard smell like a cafe? What happens when it rains?) Someone tells me that slugs will not cross cedar branches - that I should make a barrier of cedar branches around my yard, relocate my favourite flowering plants into the cedar forest behind the house.
My attack-slugs congregate in the cedar forest. They shelter there as they plan their nightly raids. I don't think I'll be trying these tips any time soon.
So, I resort to slug-picking by hand. One of my enviro-activist friends drops her banana slugs through holes into the sewer system. I find this kind of ironic, given the work she does to protect native rainforest species in general. Out of sight is not out of mind for me, I cannot send the banana slugs out to sea.
I've learned to recognize the slug species. Introduced slugs get speared with a twig and embedded into the soil (veggies thou art, veggies thou shall be), kind of a karmic retribution for damage inflicted. But native slugs, the banana slugs and the tail-droppers, are allowed to live. I send them flying back into the forest, or toss them over to my neighbours Kev and Nuala when they are not home (who toss them back to me when I am not home).
Apparently, though, the native slugs are capable of learning. A certain Turkish squatter out at Catface has been gardening there for the last fifteen or so years. He insists that banana slugs can be trained: if you just keep tossing them out, they eventually learn not to come back. "It takes about ten years, but they will learn."
His advice is the best I have received. I am about halfway through the slug training program. Slug brains are very small, so you cannot expect results in the early years. But, at times I see small hints of progress - a slug sliming his way towards my baby lettuces who suddenly, inexplicably, changes course. The slugs are starting to understand that I am in charge. I am confident that, in just a few more years, I will have a trained army.
A big thank you to my Catface mentor. And to the rest of you with your hair-brained ideas, get slugged!
Jacqueline Windh lives in Tofino and is an accomplished wildlife photographer. To view her images, visit www.windhphotos.com