by Lois Scott, Master Gardener
I recently read the book “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating” by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. The author recounts her observations of a common woodland snail while she was bedridden. Although the very title of this book could strike fear and loathing in a gardener’s heart as we imagine our plants being shredded, it was an enjoyable, informative read and made me curious about the slimy creatures that lurk in my garden.
What I have learned about snails and slugs (gastropods) can hardly be described as scratching the surface but here are a few details.
In their natural settings gastropods help disperse seeds and spores, break down decaying plant matter, consume empty snail shells, sap, animal scats and carcasses and provide food for other predators like birds, small mammals, salamanders, turtles and invertebrates like firefly larvae that feed exclusively on snails.
Gastropods are equipped with thousands of sharp teeth that are routinely replaced.
Non-native species of gastropods are higher risk for damaging agriculture and preying on native species of gastropods and are most likely the ones we encounter in our own gardens.
The fact that non-native gastropods are likely the predominant ones in my garden might make me more interested in spending evenings in the garden with a flashlight picking slugs off my plants but some studies have shown that doing so doesn’t make a dent in their populations. So, for the time being I will continue to do what I have in the past which is essentially nothing. In a ‘Laidback Gardener’ blog, Larry Hodgson discusses Snails (okay) and Slugs (bad!) and one in which he discusses the effectiveness of various slug control methods. Both blogs are informative reads.
There is really only one of his ‘effective’ treatments that I engage with in my garden, and that is to encourage slug predators by providing an environment for wildlife. The rest can seem like too much work! Planting slug resistant plants is also something to consider and Larry Hodgson provides a list for that too.
In my garden I find practices such as seeding lettuce in containers and planting out hardened off nasturtium seedlings slow down slug predation but I generally accept some cosmetic damage to plants and at the same time enjoy the sight of the resident chipmunk munching on a slug.