Snails, Slugs, and Things That Go Bump in the Night

As Halloween came and went this year, I found myself considering the cast of creepy crawly things and four-legged nocturnal creatures that roam our gardens while we sleep. The sound of my metal compost bucket being turned over in the night no longer startles me. It is likely a possum, raccoon, or possibly a rat (ugh) happily eating the apple peelings I forgot to take to the compost bin. I know they’re out there. They wander the garden by moonlight; I wander the garden in sunlight.

When it comes to many-legged creatures I’m not terribly squeamish about them (with the exception of palmetto bugs). One summer I did get so frustrated with stink bugs on my tomatoes, that I pulled all of the plants out of the ground. In fact, I am positively giddy if I find honey bees in the Lenten Rose patch on a sunny winter day.

I see the millions of busy creatures living here in my garden, seen and unseen, as something both mysterious and necessary. Without earthworms to pull the compost I apply each spring down into the soil, I would have three-quarters of an acre of sticky clay. Without the local honeybees and the countless other pollinators that float through my garden, my lovely crabapple tree would not bear fruit.

A lynx spider, looking like a piece of exotic jewelry, on a rose of sharon bloom.

I consider myself an organic gardener, and for that reason, I steer clear of pesticides as much as I possibly can. I look for the least harmful approach to pest control, whether it is sticky traps designed specifically for white fly, or dormant oil to control tea scale.

Do I struggle with some of these creatures? Yes. This fall I’m besieged with tiny snails that tend to inhabit a very small fenced garden where I plant anything that I want to keep away from deer and rabbits. The tell-tale signs appeared a few weeks ago on my bok choy, though if I had been paying attention, I would have seen the holes in the nearby Japanese anemone foliage. Live and let live is a good policy, but I’d like to eat my bok choy in December, so something had to be done.

I decided to try a beer trap (a large sea shell that I keep on my fence post, sunk into the ground, and filled with beer).  A few days later there were about a dozen little snails in the beer soup and one drunken fly (who did revive himself and fly away, in case you were worried). I was feeling pretty good about this, until I watched a British garden show on YouTube at lunchtime, and was informed by Bunny Guinness (the irony is not lost on me), that beer does not actually attract slugs and snails and apparently these “traps” are only successful if the slug or snail stumbles upon it. Stumbles upon it? How many snails are out there in my garden every night eating their way through my plants?

Clearly, there is a lot going on in our gardens, and I for one am going to do a better job of pest identification in 2021. Margaret Roach, a well-known garden writer, recommends field guides (such as the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects). The google photo app on my phone has been a handy way to ID unusual spiders and other insects that I find in my garden. For pests that make you scratch your head, snap a photo and email your county extension office for assistance. They are there to help and I consider these professionals an underutilized resource.

If something is bugging you this fall, figure out what it is, even if you need help from the pros. A few holes in your spinach leaves should not send you looking for insecticide. After all, the whole purpose of growing the spinach is to eat it, right? The key is knowing when you can leave things alone, and when you need to identify the pest and figure out the best way to deal with it, safely.

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