In the next few months many gardeners will have to wage a battle in earnest against snails and slugs. The combination of moist conditions from late winter and spring rains and lots of tender, green growth is irresistible to them and they will slowly but determinedly make their slimy way through your garden, munching as they go.
It doesn’t take much time for snails and slugs to do significant damage, especially when you’re trying to nurture tender seedlings. But snails also act as janitors in the garden. They eat dead plant material and emit waste that is nitrogen-rich to feed the soil. So, as with all pests, your objective should be to manage and their minimize damage, not completely eradicate them.
Here are a few methods you can try:
- Diatomaceous earth (DE) is a product composed of ground-up fossilized sea creatures. Sprinkle it around wherever snails and slugs are likely to be and they will avoid crossing over it. The reason? The jagged edges of the DE tear up the undersides of anything crawling over it, leaving the pests vulnerable to death by dehydration. Be sure to use food-grade DE, which is safe to use around pets and kids.
- Beer traps are a time-honored means of attracting and drowning snails and slugs. Pour beer in a shallow dish (an aluminum pie plate works well) and set it out. The snails will crawl in for a drink and drown. You'll need to keep emptying and refilling the trap and you'll need to make sure the beer doesn't get diluted by rain. (I've heard it rumored that Coors is their beer of choice, but perhaps your garden snails and slugs have a more refined palate and would prefer a good craft brew.)
- Copper tape applied around containers or wrapped as a collar at the base of young plants will also deter snails and slugs, which get a small shock when they come in contact with copper.
- Coffee grounds sprinkled liberally will deter snails and slugs and are an excellent soil amendment as well.
- If you have chickens and ducks, they will love having an opportunity to feast on the snails and slugs in your garden. They are a healthy addition to the birds' diets, so there's no reason to discourage their hunting and gathering. Ditto for any other birds that pass through your garden—they're more than happy to keep the snail population in check.
And here is one snail control method to avoid: tobacco. You may see articles recommending sprinkling lines of tobacco around plants to prevent snail and slug damage. It is definitely effective. Snails will try to cross the tobacco line but within minutes the chemicals they absorb crawling over the shredded tobacco will kill them. But given what tobacco costs these days, this doesn’t seem very cost-efficient. And dogs and cats may nibble at the tobacco, which is toxic to them. So skip the chew and stick to the tried-and-true methods described above.
Claire Splan is the author of California Fruit & Vegetable Gardening and California Month-by-Month Gardening.