Safer Slug Solutions

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Death by salt is cruel and painful. Try a toad.

Kinder, Gentler Killers

This has been a banner year for slugs; yesterday I counted over 40 babies and moms in a single flat of 4-inch pots. I’m more laissez faire than I used to be and won’t kill slugs or bugs unless they’re doing obvious damage, but this little herd was mowing down my veggie starts before they could get started. Sorry, critters. It’s doom time for you. So what’s the best way to off a slug without cruelty? Ecologically speaking, it’s the oldest; predators. Toads, frogs, moles, shrews, and songbirds are all slug eaters, as are ducks and chickens. In an organic garden, predators can safely feed on slugs and bugs, and the balance of nature rarely gets out of hand.

Even in urban settings, ground beetles and birds can keep the slug population adequately low, as long as no toxins are present. Some folks argue that an abundance of slugs means our garden ecosystems are out of balance. That may be true to some degree, but it may just mean that the weather is favoring slugs over veggie starts. I admit that in a bad slug year, I’m not above giving nature a nudge. Back in my college days, an elderly Quaker friend asked college kids to buy beer for her so she could bait for slugs without shocking the neighbors at the grocery store. She put a little beer in a jar, then placed it where slugs could crawl in and drown. Given the willingness many fellow students displayed toward drowning themselves in beer, I figured this wasn’t such a bad death, certainly better than salt, which offers an agonizing death by burning desiccation. That’s just mean.

Best Beer Or The AA Special

Independent tests (and not just mine!) show that St. Pauli Girl Dark is the most slug-attractive beer, but pretty much any kind will do. It only takes an inch or so (even of flat dregs) to drown slugs in presumable bliss. Those who prefer not to mess with alcohol can make an attractive bait with watered-down sour dough starter or this even more compelling concoction:

Safer Liquid Slug Bait

1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baker’s yeast
1 cup warm water

Mix ingredients in a jar and let stand 20 minutes before using. Makes about 1 cup, use in beer traps. Highly attractive to indoor fruit flies and fungus gnats.

No Great Bait

What about “safe” bait? For years, I promoted the careful use of iron phosphate based baits, which were considered deadly to mollusks but harmless to vertebrates. Like a lot of organic gardeners and growers, I was horrified to learn that wasn’t true. Iron phosphate itself is a harmless naturally occurring substance found in many kinds of soils and even in streams and waterways. To convert iron phosphate to a toxic form, manufacturers add a substance called EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid). In itself harmless to vertebrates, in combination with iron phosphate, EDTA creates iron toxicity not just in molluscs like slugs and snails but in cats, dogs, birds, and also in worms. Because it wasn’t considered an active ingredient, EDTA wasn’t listed on the bait packages, so it required some investigation to reveal the full ingredient list.

It turns out that vets had been seeing dogs and cats with relatively mild (but still nasty) “safe bait” poisoning for years. We now know too that iron phosphate baits can kill worms, which even the metaldehyde baits don’t do. Recognizing this, some countries now insist that EDTA be labeled as an active rather than inert ingredient, making these baits ineligible for organic certification. In the USA, there have been several unsuccessful attempts to get such baits de-listed, but they encountered significant push back from manufacturers and were dropped. (Surprise!)

Buyer Beware

Hearing about my slugfest, a kind neighbor offered me some commercial slug killer. Several people got involved in our conversation, asking what’s so bad about metaldehyde baits. For starters, they’re quite toxic to wildlife, people, and pets as well as pests; many a dog has been harmed or even killed by eating slug bait. According to the EPA, “Metaldehyde is a systemic toxin. There is no antidote.” But wait, there’s more: “Harmful if swallowed. Harmful if inhaled. Causes moderate eye irritation. Harmful if absorbed through the skin. Avoid contact with eyes, skin, or clothing. Avoid breathing dust. IMPORTANT This product can be harmful to children and fatal to domestic animals when ingested. Children and dogs may be attracted to the product. Application of this product is prohibited unless children and domestic animals can be excluded from the treated area from the start of the application until application material is no longer visible.”

People who actually read the label are usually horrified, especially when they discover that safely disposing of toxic baits isn’t simple. Per the EPA: “Do not contaminate water food or feed by storage and disposal. This product can be harmful to children and fatal to dogs and other domestic animals if ingested Dogs have been known to ingest metaldehyde after opening or tearing packaging Store this product in its original packaging in a cool, secure location, and out of reach of children and pets.”

Can I Toss It?

“To avoid wastes, use all materials in this container by application according to label directions. If wastes cannot be avoided, offer remaining product to a waste disposal facility or pesticide disposal program (often such programs are run by state or local governments or by industry). Nonrefillable container Do not reuse or refill this container Completely empty bag into application equipment Then dispose of empty bag in a sanitary landfill or by incineration.” Yikes! I’m putting out toad houses, how about you?

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15 Responses to Safer Slug Solutions

  1. I have, for a number of years, been using MY method of killing slugs. I agree that salt is not kind! But killing at all isn’t kind, and I’m sure my method isn’t “kind” either, but it is “swift”, and hopefully they don’t suffer. I discovered “by accident” that slugs like to crawl into things and hide. So I began to put my extra clay pots upside down all over my garden. Daily, no twice daily, I turn them upside and sometimes find whole families sleeping inside. I swiftly cut them in half…….I know awful! But I think it is kinder than salt or ingesting something. I keep hoping (I’ll never know) they die quickly. I move the pots wherever I find them doing damage beginning in March!

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      I’ve noticed that slugs are cannibals; if you leave the cut ones around, their fellow slugs will come and eat them.So there’s that…

  2. Diane Hooper says:

    Hi Ann,
    I think I like the idea of the beer traps.
    Thanks for the information about salt. That is cruel. I have an onslaught of snails…they are mowing through my baby veggies, frustrating.
    Thanks for the tutorial!

  3. Walter Ziegler says:

    I use Slug-Go somewhat sparingly having realized that it harms earthworms. I’ll consider the beer bait but should I use a cheap beer or an artisanal crafted dark lager. To end this world submerged in quality stout–now that is the way to go. Anyway I’m actually inquiring about Marshal Strawberries which I read about on a former blog of yours. I’m sure my slugs will love them but I need some plants to ramble about in the rose garden. A true delight is to have one or two berries ripen along the path just waiting for me to gobble up. What a true taste of summer that would be. I purchased some from Leah Gauthier several years ago but I’ve never received any. And she has not responded to my emails. I don’t mind the delay but why the silent treatment. I’ll write of my payment as a donation to what seems to be a good cause but still I wonder. If you offer them as mentioned in your past blog please let me know. Many Thanks.

  4. barbara says:

    I read your blog about slugs and I can’t agree more….as an organic gardener I have searched for a safe slug solution… and have finally found it … cory’s copper slug tape barrier – this my 3rd season using it….I have installed it on the top edge of my raised beds ( they are made with 2x10s) I use copper tacks to hold it in place as in this application the adhesive doesn’t hold for long… and if I have a plant or 2 that are in an area not protected I cut the bottom out of a cottage cheese container slit it so I can place it around the base of a plant and stick the tape to the outside ( the tape has adhesive on the back)… when the slugs try and cross it they get a mild shock and they leave… it doesn’t kill them but it keeps them away …..when the season is over I pick them back up and store them for next season….the first ones I made are still in use…. I usually have to replace small areas on the raised bed every spring but a small chore to keep the slugs out….love your blog….thank you for writing….

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Barbara, I also use copper tape on the bottom edge of large containers, which keeps them out of trouble. But I have had to watch closely when I taped raised beds as more than once I sound sneaky slugs hiding in the bed, safe from the competition. Hah!

  5. Sarah W Myers says:

    I read your blog regarding snails. Love your sense of humor 🙂 Printed out the PDF and will present it to my garden club should we ever get back to meeting :-0.
    My mom used the beer method of boozing up the critters and I’ve followed her lead. However a friend of mine who has an iris farm told me she put ammonia in a spray bottle and that works for her. I tried it, it does work but it is very creepy.
    Do you ever speak at garden clubs?

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Sarah, sadly, the ammonia spray is extremely painful for slugs and snails and not great for plant foliage, so that’s not a great solution. I’m sticking with beer, and so far, it’s working quite well. As for speaking engagements, I’ve been offering gardening programs at my local Senior Center from March through October, and am not doing online google-meet programs a couple times a month for the Bainbridge Island Senior Community Center, free to all, and the past programs are posted on the website. I don’t think we’ll be getting back to meeting as groups for quite some time, but we are all finding creative ways to stay connected, and that’s the important part!

  6. Diane Hooper says:

    I have a request. I live in a condominium complex and my neighbor wants to spray an Ortho herbicide to kill the broad leaf weeds. I vehemently dislike using chemicals and am wondering if you can recommend something safer for all? Please!

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      I suggest that your condo association might want to change landscape crews! There are many reliable crews that can control weeds without resorting to toxins that harm bees, birds, frogs, children and pets. What’s more, when turf grass is well grown, most weeds are crowded out, so the presence of broad leaved weeds tells me that the real problem is inadequate lawn care. Instead of using herbicides, ask them to rake in an inch of compost over the grass areas each spring and fall (it’s not too late for this spring!). In October, they can spread more compost and scatter corn gluten, which is a natural herbicide that keeps weed seeds from germinating and promotes strong root growth in grass. As the soil heals, it will be easier to remove weeds, the grass will need less watering and they can probably eliminate fertilizing (especially if they use a mulching mower). Hope that helps!

  7. Kris Kramer says:

    First time reader here. Thank you for the article. The warnings sound reminiscent of Surround WP Kaolin Clay. Permaculturalists use it though and it’s OMRI listed (as is Sluggo). Do you have any thoughts on Surround?

    As for the slugs, here in Western NC they are mowing down my carrots before the seedlings are even 2″ tall 🙁 Last year I decided to try the deep wood chip method of mulching. Yeah . . . NOT a good idea here!

    Every day I rake up some wood chips and remove a few wooden garden bed sides and capture slugs under cabbage leaves. With the 8 plus inches of water we’ve had in the past week, or so, there are just too many.

    Alas . . . a lesson in letting go and doing what I can to remove their habitat while still having fresh veggies.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Wireworms can be a bigger problem with carrots than slugs; I’ve had the best success growing carrots in large, deep pots of good soil, covering the tops with cheesecloth until the sprouts are 4-5 inches tall. Beer or yeast traps will be helpful for controlling the slugs, I bet, but Surround should be as effective as diotomaceous earth. Good luck!

  8. Chase Henderson says:

    This post was very helpful with my slug problem! I am currently growing my first garden and had no idea how big of a problem slugs can be. The beer solution sounds like a neat way to take care of these pests. Considering that my 21st birthday is soon, I don’t believe supply will be an issue! I look forward to reading more of your posts so I can learn and improve.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Wow, congratulations, Chase! Great to hear from you, and I’m excited to know that you’re discovering gardening; it can change your world for the better and keep you learning and growing yourself, for the rest of your sweet life. YAY!

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