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Northeast Gardening: Slugs in the Garden

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Lowe’s Northeast gardening contributor offers advice for slaying the spineless slimeballs called slugs.

Slugs leave a trail of slime.

By Irene Virag

Hostas are prime slug targets.

The enemies of our plants are almost overwhelming in their numbers -- a proper list from weeds to pests would take up this blog and dozens more. But for me, one species wriggles alone in its absolute depravity.

My favorite all-time garden writer, Celia Thaxter, whose book The Island Garden is a timeless classic, described them best. “It seems to me,” she wrote, “the worst of all the plagues is the slug, the snail without a shell. He is beyond description, repulsive, a mass of sooty, shapeless slime, and he devours everything.”

When it comes to slugs, appearances are not deceiving. Not only do they glide through the garden in their own secreted mucus, leaving a trail of slime, but they also wreak horticultural destruction wherever they go -- especially my hosta beds. They do it with filelike tongues and thousands of tiny teeth. It’s estimated that for every slug you see, 20 more lurk in the shadows.

Slugs are not the most discreet creatures.

Slugs know I’m their nemesis. One summer morning they even tried to invade my home. I woke to the sight of two great gray slugs clinging to the screen outside the sliding door of my bedroom. At first the gruesome gastropods stretched side-by-side—but not for long. By the time I roused my husband, they had wrapped themselves around each other and were writhing happily together at the end of a thin rivulet of slime.

My husband, who has radar for such things, knew immediately they were doing more than merely hanging out. Throw in the fact that slugs are hermaphrodites and well, I’ll leave it at that except to tell you the screen was a mess!

When it was all over, the sated creatures dangled happily from their increasingly fragile cord. They weren’t fooling me: They were preparing to drop off and produce hundreds of eggs that would lead to generation after generation of garden destroyers. By one estimate a single slug can produce 90,000 descendents during its almost-six-year life span.

We gave them a choice. Since slugs are attracted to beer, with its yeast, we put a bowl -- a very big bowl -- beneath them. If they had any sense, they could swing in either direction and miss the bowl. They didn’t. They fell right in. For me, my husband, and our garden it was the happiest of endings.

In my garden I bury empty tuna cans so the lip is level with the earth. That allows the wriggling monsters easy access to the yummy yeast in the beer I fill each can with.

Besides beer you can do in slugs with salt and grape juice, or diluted sprays of vinegar, ammonia, or buttermilk. Copper strips shock them, human hair entangles and strangles them, diatomaceous earth—the fossilized remains of dinosaur-era hard-shelled algae—lacerates them, rove beetles eat them.

You can buy commercial antislug products, but my garden is organic. When I see a slug I run for a saltshaker and within minutes, the slimy villain is finished.

Celia Thaxter ringed her flowers with salt and lime at night and then removed the stuff in the morning before watering so it didn’t leach into the ground; a wise approach since salt in the soil can damage plant roots. Later she got good results from toads, which are known pest killers and may well be the slug’s natural predator.

Most gardeners have their own methods for knocking off the spineless slimebuckets. Some slug slayers stalk by night with flashlights -- slugs prefer dark, cool evenings -- and dispatch the creatures with a variety of sharp-edged scissors, homemade spears, knives, spades, hoes, even screwdrivers and barbecue skewers. And this may border on myth, but I’ve heard of gardeners who trap slugs and then toss them in the road for passing cars to crush.

An air-conditioner repairman told me something that boggles the imagination: A friend of his swallowed a slug to win a $50 bet. And a few years ago I got a letter from a gentle gardener who went out to cut flowers in the morning and found a slug army on the lawn. She started snipping slugs instead of blooms. After several days, she said, her kill count went over 2,000. As she put it, her friends were “considering confinement or at least therapy” for her, but it ended the invasion.

For the most part slugs eat by night and slink out of sight by day, so it makes sense to keep the garden free of debris, which affords them hiding places. And water early in the day so the garden dries out by nightfall. This keeps them from finding the dark, dank spots they like so much. Or place a wooden board near the scene of the crime, and in the morning remove it and wipe out the slugs likely to be lurking under it.

Not that I’m averse to nocturnal encounters when necessary. Celia also had a thing about cutworms and expressed a truism in dealing with them that applies to slugs. “There is no remedy,” she wrote, “so sure as seeking a personal interview and slaying them on the spot.”