Slugs and snails are voracious garden pests that can seriously damage ornamental plants and your vegetable garden alike.
They aren’t picky about their food source and will chop away at just about any vulnerable plants you might have in your garden beds.
But what’s the best way to tackle a slug problem? Is it the strong chemicals found in snail baits, or are there methods of protecting your garden that don’t risk the safety of your family and other garden visitors?
The good news is that no matter what part of the growing season you’re in or what plant you’re growing, there’s an option that will work for you.
Table of Contents
Do Slugs Eat Plants?
Yes, both slugs and snails love to chew on the fresh green leaves of garden plants, and without a close eye, they can destroy your entire garden.
The good news is that there are numerous strategies for controlling these soft-bodied pests. My favorite slug and snail control methods are listed below.
What Types of Plants Do Slugs and Snails Feed On?
Garden slugs and their cousins, the garden snails, hail from a large group of soft-bodied invertebrates called ‘gastropods.’
Some species of slugs – like leopard slugs – eat other small garden critters, but most prefer tender plants, especially new growth.
Depending on where you are and what your local snails are like, they’ll more often than not go after leafy greens, young seedlings, and any other soft herbaceous plants.
Brassicas, in particular, seem to be popular in my neck of the woods, and I’m pretty sure the entire slug population shows up as soon as my cabbages start sprouting their new leaves.
What Does Snail and Slug Damage Look Like?
The most obvious sign of snail and slug damage is nibbled leaves. They can do a lot of damage in very little time, leaving huge holes and ragged edges on edible plants.
They’ll also eat seedlings top to bottom, as they don’t care what type of plant material they’re noshing on so long as it’s green and juicy.
Snails and slugs also leave very distinctive slime trails. These trails appear as silvery lines over the surface of the leaves, down plant stems, and along pathways and edging.
The slime protects their soft undercarriage from rough surfaces. It’s conclusive evidence that you have slugs and snails, not another type of pest.
What Makes Snail and Slug Control So Difficult?
The most challenging aspect of snail and slug control is that these slimy pests thrive in the same general conditions as your garden plants. It’s why they’re one of the most common garden pests worldwide.
They’ll hide in the cool, dark areas beneath well-watered flower pots and love the protection of garden debris like leaf piles and mulch.
They love the same moist soil your plants do, and even your compost pile can serve as a hotel and breakfast buffet for any enterprising family of slugs.
They are also nocturnal creatures who do their work in the dark. By day they hide from predators beneath dead leaves or whatever small hole they can find in the garden.
It’s rare to see them at work, and often the first sign of trouble is slug slime all over the leaves of your plants – or what’s left of them!
11 Ways to Get Rid of Slugs and Snails in Garden
1. Poison (Pellets and baits)
Slug pellets, snail baits, and other poisons are often the first point of call against slugs and snails. They come in various formulations with different properties depending on the active ingredient.
The most common forms of slug baits are the type that contains metaldehyde. They’re powerful poisons and are often colored blue to make the baits easy to see tossed around your beautiful garden bed.
They are one of the most effective methods of control – but they are very potent and will harm anything that eats them. This includes children, pets, or other animals you’d like to have in the garden.
There are also unconfirmed reports of birds and other slug predators eating dead slugs, ingesting whatever snail bait remains in their system, and dying in turn.
It’s also not uncommon for broad-spectrum formulations to include the chemical carbaryl, a potent insecticide that will take out beneficial insects like honeybees. It’s best to skip these altogether.
Iron phosphate or ferric phosphate pellets are a less hazardous alternative. They are slower-acting, and it’s often harder to tell if they’re getting results as the pests crawl away to their hiding places to die.
While often touted as a safe and environmentally friendly option, they are best described as ‘lower risk,’ not safe.
They’ve been known to cause serious damage to pets that eat them, and like metaldehyde based pellets, they often have supplemental ingredients that can increase their overall toxicity.
In general, I try to use non-chemical controls first. The collateral is often not worth what poisons have to offer.
2. Beer Traps
Many people swear by beer traps to catch and kill slugs and snails. Just like people, these slimy customers like a bit of brew to wash down their evening meal, and they will drink so much that they wind up face down in the beer and drown.
There’s a cautionary lesson in that, I’m sure! These traps are simple to make, and if you like a cold one yourself, it makes for a convivial project after a long day in the garden.
To make a beer trap, you will need the following:
- A small quantity of beer – for best results, use stale beer, but fresh beer is fine.
- a shallow container
- a small stone
- small shovel or trowel
First, dig a shallow indentation in the part of your garden with the most damage. Ensure it is large enough to accommodate the dish and allow it to lie flush with the soil surface.
Place a small stone at the center of the dish to keep it in place.
Fill the dish with beer so the stone is submerged and the dish is completely full.
Sit back and wait. You’ll need to check the trap each day in the early morning and keep the dish filled. Remove any dead slugs or snails you find.
If you have chickens, they love the taste of a beery slug, but the tiny corpses can just be tossed in the garden or into compost if you prefer.
These traps are cheap to make and easy to use. One bottle of beer can fill quite a few traps, and I’ve found that birds and some lizards will often remove the corpses for you!
On the downside, a few rainy days will wash the beer from the trap, so they aren’t great during long periods of wet weather.
It’s unfortunate as slugs love damp conditions and rainy days and will get a lot of eating done while your slug beer trap is full of rainwater instead of beer.
3. Diatomaceous Earth
Diatomaceous earth is a white mineral made from the fossilized remains of ancient sea creatures, ground to a fine powder.
It works by burrowing into the soft tissue of the pests, effectively lacerating them from the inside out. Grim!
It’s very easy to use – just sprinkle the powder around your plants or inside containers to keep the pests away. Alternatively, mix it with water and use a spray bottle to treat plants regularly.
Diatomaceous earth is one of the safest pest control tools around. It’s a food-grade product that is 100% harmless to us larger creatures, so it’s often recommended for slugs and snails.
But it’s not the most effective, as it only limits their ability to grow without killing them outright. It’s also very light and tends to blow away, and like a beer trap, it loses its effectiveness after heavy rain.
4. Coffee Grounds
Coffee grounds protect against snail damage by providing a physical barrier between a snail’s hiding place and the leaves of plants.
The rough surface of the grounds damages the soft underbelly of the snails and slugs, and the strong scent helps drive them away too.
One of the big benefits is that they offer a two-for-one service, as the coffee grounds also serve as a pretty good source of nitrogen and can fertilize your plants as it protects them.
Sprinkle a coffee around the areas you are likely to find these pests, roughly over the root zone, to get the best of both effects.
You’ll need to refresh it frequently as it breaks down, but it’s a natural and cost-effective choice if you have a big garden and love a warm cup of joe.
5. Copper Tape or Copper Wire
If you only have one or two plants that are being nibbled to death, using copper barriers can deliver enduring results.
This is done by wrapping a band or wire of pure copper around access points, like the stems of your plants or the base of large pots or planters.
The soft wet tissue of the pest’s underside reacts quite painfully with the copper, almost like a mild electric shock.
As a result, they’ll avoid crossing the barrier if they can possibly help it. It’s an enduring and very environmentally friendly choice.
There are a few caveats to this. First, you need a wide barrier – a single thin band won’t cut it. Common wisdom states you need at least a four-centimeter wide barrier to really deter them.
It also has to be very pure copper and very clean too. Too much buildup on the surface, and the snail will just glide on by.
6. Egg Shells
A wide barrier made of eggshells is another bit of folk wisdom often passed down from one snail victim to the next. My grandfather swore by it, even as he swore at the snails!
It involved breaking egg shells into small, rough-edged pieces and using them to build a wide physical barrier around the plants needing protection.
The slimy trails used by snails and snails to protect themselves against sharp edges aren’t strong enough to protect them, so like copper, they’ll turn away rather than risk crossing it.
I’ve personally never found it to be a particularly effective way to control snails and slugs. The shells have a habit of settling over time, and for a large garden, you’ll need to eat a lot of eggs to get a wide enough barrier.
7. Wool Pellets
Wool pellets are another great way to get rid of slugs and snails. The material sucks moisture from the pests as they cross it, trapping them on its surface for later removal. All you need to do is fill a container with wool pellets and bury it at the base of your plants.
This tactic is better on paper than it does in real life. It’ll work fine in dry weather but will become soggy and heavy as soon as the wool becomes wet. It’s also costly compared to other barrier methods and harder to maintain.
8. Slug Resistant Plants
Some plants are just so offensive to slugs that they’ll keep clear of them entirely – and if you place these strategically in your garden, they’ll serve as bouncers that protect the rest of the garden.
Lavender, hydrangea , and geraniums are fragrant choices, and a Japanese anemone or a rosemary will provide a pop of color.
9. Organic Slug Traps (Citrus Fruits & Melon Rind)
If you like the sound of a beer trap but aren’t partial to a tipple, consider making traps using citrus or melon rinds.
Cut the fruits in half, hollow them out, and bury the rinds in the soil around your plants. The pests crawl inside for a snack but struggle to get back out, dying in the process.
Both traps are biodegradable, and the dead pests will return what they’ve stolen to the soil as they decompose. It is a solid method if you have a large garden where you can’t easily access all the plants.
10. Pine Needles
While most mulch is just the second course for your average snail, they can’t stand pine needles. The sharp, jagged texture of the leaves and the natural resins they contain damage the slugs and snails.
Use them liberally as a cover mulch, and it’ll also suppress weeds. I’m not a fan of it for vegetable gardens, as I, too, find the sharp, jagged texture of the leaves to be unpleasant when tending more labor-intensive plants, and like all mulches, there’s a bit of upkeep.
That said, it’s a good choice for large areas of ornamentals.
11. Physical Removal
If you have a small garden, the cheapest and most ecologically sound way to deal with slugs and snails is to simply remove them yourself.
The best time to hunt these slimy vermin is around early evening as they leave their hiding places in search of a meal.
Look under leaves and in moist areas, and once found, you can drop them in a bucket of soapy water to dispatch them. Alternatively, you can feed the slugs to poultry or other insect-eating pets.
12. Natural Predators
My favorite option is encouraging other critters to do the hard work for me by hunting and eating the slugs and snails on their own.
It’ll vary a lot depending on where you are, but many varieties of reptiles, amphibians, birds, and insects like firefly larvae love to eat slugs – wildlife will work for free, but if you’re raising poultry, they’ll do the job nicely too.
You can encourage wildlife by reducing insecticide use and creating a habitat for them in your garden, such as a small pond or rockery.
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