As I went to harvest some rhubarb the other day, I noticed a few slugs making their way up a stalk to start chomping on a leaf. There are few creatures that will eat a rhubarb leaf as its inclusion of oxalic acid often makes its ingestion toxic. But slugs don’t seem to care as they make their way up, leaving a slime trail behind and a soon-to-be shredded leaf ahead.
Like my hostas, the slug community has come out in full glory over the past 10 days given the foot of rain we have received in that much time. On Memorial Day there were few invaders as I could only find tiny, infrequent slugs no larger than a grain of rice. With each collection of greens, they washed out in the salad spinner, squirming as they found themselves separated from their leafy perches. Now, I need to look at each leaf as I pull them from the garden sometimes cocking my index finger against my thumb in preparation of launching a fat slug into the compost heap or away into the either.
Given the invasion every year of these pests, I need to be extra careful when bringing food into the house. One of my worst moments came years ago when I swore that I had thoroughly washed the greens (I lied) and a big fat green slug started to crawl out of one of the salad bowls I had just served. Since then it’s always triple wash with a dash of salt on the first try. The salt is not for seasoning but rather to help separate the slugs from the leafs they grab on to. Extra salt is not just bad for us humans but it is deadly to slugs as the laws of osmosis are amply demonstrated when salt meets slug.
When we had one of our first gardens in Long Island, my daughters and I would stalk slugs on the concrete patio after a good rain with salt shakers in hand. A liberal dusting makes any slug shiver and change composition. Fat ones express a tiny pop of fluid and then convulse in a white foam caused by the reaction between the salt and their viscous bodies. Small ones just appear to wither away. Others, the big ones, shed their outer skin as would a snake and slither away to recover unless you douse them again. And again. One summer evening after a particularly heavy and warm rain, our house was attacked by monster slugs that covered walkways, siding, chairs, etc. We were living in a George Romero remake of “The Night of the Living Dead,” except that we were surrounded by slugs rather than zombies. We went nuclear in using over a box of Morton Salt to dissolve this invasion. Unfortunately, the morning revealed a Battle of Gettysburg aftermath in corpse slime, which required hours of hosing and scrubbing.
Based on that experience, we usually holster our salt opting instead for thick straw in the strawberry patch, iron phosphate pellets for other areas of the garden and the occasional tuna fish tin of cheap beer. The beer is usually a good draw for slugs as they fall into it as would many a high-school boy into a keg party when given the chance. A tidy tin of bloated drowned slugs is easy to throw out and helps keep the population in check; the same cannot be said of high-school boys.
The real challenge is attempting to start any small greens or tender plants in the garden between June and September. Rows of emerging carrots, lettuce and other plants stand little chance against a three-inch spotted Limax maximus or great grey slug. This year I am trying to thwart them a bit by starting greens in cell packs and transplanting them only when they get to a critical size. Too early to tell if that will work.