COMMENTARY: There are many ways to stay pesticide free during season of ravenous slugs

In spring I'm reminded of Theodore Roethke's poem about slugs. He calls them "a fat, five-inch appendage /Creeping slowly over the wet grass/ Eating the heart out of my garden."

In spring I’m reminded of Theodore Roethke’s poem about slugs. He calls them “a fat, five-inch appendage /Creeping slowly over the wet grass/ Eating the heart out of my garden.”

Last year, our garden was inundated with black, gray and beautiful banana slugs. Not wanting to use pesticides, my husband, Michael Laurie, and I thought we could solve the problem with a bit of hand-picking in the evenings. We found quite a few. Michael squished his, while I gave the invasive grey and black ones to the neighbor’s ducks and relocated the native banana slugs far, far away (for them) in the nearby forest.

The slug community laughed at our feeble efforts as seedlings disappeared virtually overnight. At the Vashon Farmers Market, I referred to the replacement seedling packs we bought as ‘slug food.’ Until we could plant them, I placed them way up on top of our 200-gallon rainwater tank. Surely, I reasoned, slugs would never climb the five feet to the top of the tank. It only took a week for the slugs to get up there. How did they know?

Needing more guidance, I pulled up the phone interviews I had done in late 2014. As part of the effort to reduce pesticide use on Vashon, I had interviewed local farmers and gardeners about their favorite ways of dealing with garden pests, including slugs. Karen Dale, author of “Garden On, Vashon!” used beer traps and copper strips. Michelle Crawford of Pacific Potager hand-picked them in the evening. She said: “I used to pay my kids a penny a slug. They could find 50 pretty quickly.” Great idea. Too bad I didn’t have any kids to recruit.

Joe Yarkin of Sun Island Farm, ever creative, tried eating them like expensive escargot. The result? “They didn’t taste that great.” I can imagine. Nancy Lewis Williams shared: “I have sandy soil, and the slugs don’t like to cross it. I also advise spreading out your plants so there is not crowding. Keep grass mowed around the garden. In winter, I let chickens into the vegetable garden to turn it over and ducks to pick away at the slug eggs.” Ken Miller, local biochar guru, used cinder blocks for the walls of his raised beds.

“The slugs don’t like rough surfaces,” Miller said.

Rob Peterson at Plum Forest Farm used beer traps. Here is how you make them: simply put out dishes of beer in your garden. Use a container with a steep enough slope that the slugs can’t just take a sip and slither on — they need to fall in and not get out again. Slugs are not snooty beer drinkers; cheap and stale beer is just fine for them. And, surprisingly, they are even more attracted to the trap after a few slugs have died in it. Go figure.

It was good to be reminded of all those options. I ruled out Sluggo or any iron phosphate slug baits because research shows they kill earthworms. Also, the King County website for rating garden products, Grow Smart, Grow Safe (growsmartgrowsafe.org), questions its safety to pets and wildlife.

I decided to try copper strips as the most humane approach. Apparently slugs won’t cross copper as they receive a mild electrical shock when they touch it. We cleaned out Ace and Island Lumber’s stock of Correy’s slug tape and put it around all our raised beds and half wine barrels. Though the tape is sticky on one side, we made sure it would stay by stapling it at regular intervals. I also fashioned single-plant slug protectors by raiding the recycling bin for appropriate-sized plastic containers, cutting them up and making plant collars out of them. A ring of copper tape went around each one.

Putting up the copper tape and making the protective collars was a lot of work, but it saved our plants. Slug damage dropped considerably in the garden. I even saw a slug turning away from the copper strip on a raised bed. The other good thing was that it was a relatively permanent fix. Once applied, the copper tape stayed on the raised beds, and the plant collars could be reused for several seasons.

Later in the spring, shortly after we cut down a large patch of nettles near the garden, we were infested with slugs once more — even a few in our copper-protected beds. Hundreds must have been living happily in the nettles, and when we removed their food source, they took revenge on our vegetable garden. An intense hunting effort began. In one day, we picked over 170 slugs out of the garden. The neighbor’s ducks enjoyed the feast and we enjoyed the duck eggs the neighbor gave us.

The war continues, but I think we are winning. Persistence pays.

— Diane Emerson is an

islander and gardener.

This column is part of a series by Vashon Island Growers Association (VIGA) members. VIGA represents local farmers and those who eat

and use their products.

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