Slugs ate my petunias. Overnight. Right down to a couple of bare stems sticking out of the ground. In other years they have only lightly munched, with bearable damage, on the menu I usually offer of generic red petunias, but this spring I sprung for Easy Wave petunias at double the price, apparently a gourmet treat. Floral filet minion vs. meatloaf. (Though I do love meatloaf.)
I have never been much of a fan of Wave petunias. No particular reason except they are maybe a bit rangy. And aggressive marketing turns me off. But I do like the Easy Wave variety. It has the flowers and vigor of Wave, but a more mounding habit without the rampant growth, and it comes in a more interesting range of colors.
As much as we celebrated a mild, or at least tolerable winter, so did the slugs. I don’t expect things to get any better. Fortunately I had not planted all of the petunias I bought. So I dug up the slug victims and put them in intensive care, potting them up in good soil, fertilizing them, putting them in the sun and crossing my fingers. We’ll see.
Meanwhile I replanted their leftover cellmates. And I mulched with slug bait. OK, not quite mulched, but I was very generous in my application. Generally I use a slug bait that contains metaldehyde, which makes organic gardeners cringe. It’s poison. Yes, it is, but not as toxic as the aspirin you might take after a hard day of gardening or the beverage I sip.
There is an alternative, which may be as effective and safer, containing iron phosphate. I am averse to paying big money for a product that contains 1 percent of an active ingredient which you can buy by the ton from industrial suppliers. But maybe I’ll get some and use both to protect my petunias.
There are several homey approaches which all have one thing in common: they don’t much work. The old trick of putting some beer in a saucer to attract and drown them is ineffective and a waste of beer. Some advocate messy hand picking or even stabbing one by one, which is like saying you should clear your lawn in fall by picking up the leaves one at a time by hand. Some say coffee grounds repel them and that is worth a try. Can’t hurt. Gotta do something with the grounds. But keep in mind that the active ingredient, caffeine, is toxic. And lest you feel superior, so is peppermint tea.
I like escargot, but eating them is not an effective control. They are the wrong kind of snail.
Having given the ineffective methods, I hesitantly suggest one that does work. One reason I am reluctant to mention it is because I can’t find anyone, experts nor dirty hands gardeners like me, to back me up. Even Google laughs at me.
Wave petunias were not the only thing different for me this season. I found a good deal on real mulch this spring, the fancy kind in bags. No, not colored or rubber. Just natural ground bark. In the past I had mulched with grass clippings a couple of inches deep. There’s no shortage of those in May. Not pretty, but the price is right and it’s effective as a mulch. Besides, what else are you going to do with them?
An aside on grass clippings. My wife mows the lawn. I do the gardening, but she mows. That was in our wedding vows. She empties the mower bag into a large tub for me to distribute. That is a job that must be done right away. After just a few hours, grass clippings get really nasty. In fact, less than an hour later when I start pulling them out, it is noticeably warm.
Slugs also love dahlia sprouts. Early in the season, when I first put them out, the slugs have a party. But I grow them out back for cutting, and as soon as I had grass clippings available, I mulched them, including this spring. No need for the fancy mulch out there. It is like Dad coming home early to interrupt an after-school teen tryst. The feeding stopped. So I have come to the conclusion — I and no one else — that grass clippings deter slugs, and quite effectively at that.
I am amazed that I cannot find any concurrence on this method. None at all. After all, it is totally organic (as long as you don’t use clippings that have been treated with weed killer). Organic gardeners will try anything, believe anything, as long as it’s organic, whether it works or not, and this seems to work. Maybe that’s the reason.
Let me make an uncommon request. As some may have discerned over the years, I am a Republican. As such I am desperate these days to find someone to agree with me. Anyone. On anything. Even slugs. And since I have been unable to find ANY accord from anyone who actually knows something, I reach out to readers. Has anyone had such success with grass clippings as a slug deterrent? If so, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Together we can change the world. Or at least the garden. A little.
Of course you can plant things slugs don’t like. This is obviously not possible for deranged hosta fanatics, but there is gardening beyond hostas. They could swap out their hostas for helebores and astilbes and begonias and be the better for it. Not only no slug damage but a better looking shade garden. Evergreens, grasses and ferns are all pretty much immune if you don’t care about flowers. In sun you can plant euphorbias — there are many different kinds — and dianthus and salvias and sedums and … well, dozens more. I hate to turn this space into a bunch of lists. If you Google “slug resistant plants,” you can blow the rest of the day with lists. Probably none of them are your favorites.
If slugs aren’t enough to move me from gardening to something less frustrating like golf, I spotted my first Colorado potato beetle. It would be called the buffalo burr beetle if anyone cared when all it ate was the buffalo burr weed, but when farmers moved west and started planting potatoes, the bugs decided they liked those better, and the banquet table was groaning with them.
I am growing eight varieties of potatoes, most of which you won’t find in your neighborhood supermarket. A favorite is Desiree, red skinned and yellow flesh and delicious. For outstanding flavor and texture I always grow fingerlings, small potatoes very popular in Europe.
Some of my potatoes are blooming now, a summer milestone. When the flowers appear, that means there are small potatoes underground, the kind markets sell as gourmet, a word that I believe means expensive. If you root around under the plant, you can dig up a few of the babies, then leave the plant to produce its normal crop later in the season.
I am not a selfish person, and I am willing to share. A few beetles eating a few holes in the leaves doesn’t bother me enough to do something. Up to a point. There were only a few, but I knew when temperatures regularly climb into the 80s, the population can explode. So as a first step, I’ll smash any row of tiny yellow eggs I find on the undersides of leaves. Then what?
Over the last hundred and fifty years the beetles have developed resistance to many pesticides. You use a spray and it kills most of them, but a few have a natural resistance, and those are the ones that reproduce, making a population of resistant insects. Normally I use different insecticides each time I spray. And there is a strain of Bacillus thuringiensis that is specific for potato beetles, all natural, and I’ll use that. If I can find some.
As it turns out, none of that was necessary. I couldn’t understand why the beetle population remained very low. Then one morning I saw a predator wasp eating a potato beetle. No idea where they came from. But thank you, wasp.
It looks as if the season is transitioning from planting time to maintenance time. I haven’t, not yet. There is still planting to be done. I guess I’ll have to do both for a while, rubbing my stomach and patting my head.