The finer points of slug hunting

It’s time to get serious about slugs and snails in the garden before they become a major problem. Here in Alameda County, we can find all five species of California slugs in our gardens. Every year I start setting traps as part of my spring planting prep. It’s better to eliminate as many slugs and snails, hereafter referred to as S&S, early, as a means of damage control before planting those delicate little lettuces. There’s nothing more discouraging after hand-raising seedlings or paying for them than seeing nothing but tiny stumps in the ground the morning after you planted. 

So I set out slug saloons. I use plastic store-bought covered dishes. However, you can fashion your own from a plastic bottle set on its side (remove the lid). I bait mine with cheap beer, but any fermented liquid will work. Set them about 5-10 feet apart. It’s very satisfying the next day to see what you’ve caught with very little effort. You’ll probably catch some earwigs and pill bugs too. I’ve even snagged cutworms, believe it or not.

But the height of all-out slug control is The Hunt. I think my record is upwards of 400 in one night. The tools are simple: a flashlight and a bowl that can handle boiling water. 

Then head out into the garden after dark. You’ll learn their favorite haunts after a few expeditions. During the hot dry months, it’s said up to 95% of slugs are underground. Have you ever unpotted a plant and found a slug at the bottom, hanging out in the roots? 

Slugs can travel about 40 feet in one night, which is faster than you might imagine. I’ll circle back and sometimes will find one where there hadn’t been any just a few minutes before. Another trick: If you drop one on a paving stone and squish it, you’ll often find several gathered at that spot soon afterwards. Hopefully you’re not squeamish…

After gathering your finds in the bowl, head to the kitchen, boil up a cup of water and cover them with it before they get away. I’m pretty sure death comes quickly.  Afterwards you can add the dead slugs  to your compost. 

A variation on the night hunt is the early morning hunt. S&S like warm, moist and low-light conditions. After a rain is good, but early morning condensation also makes for prime hunting. 

As I write, in late April, the tiniest of slugs are just hatching. Watch carefully; they’re no bigger than a grain of rice yet can wreak havoc on those tender seedlings!

A teensy slug. It’s best to get rid of them when they’re young.

The other prime hunting season is in the fall, after the first rains start. The long-absent moisture brings them out in droves. This is their prime mating season, so it’s a good time to get them before they procreate, which takes anywhere from 4-12 hours (!) Slugs start out as male, then develop female sex organs when they mature, at about two years. They can lay up to 50 eggs at a time and I assume that applies to both parties, though my source didn’t clarify. That’s a lot of slugs! They can live up to six years, though probably not in my garden.

(Top image credit: wolfgang-hasselmann-unsplash)

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