Last week, I extolled the virtues of a vital and growing garden space. While I would like to pick and choose what comes to live in the habitat that has developed around our place, it’s not up to me. There are desirables and undesirables. It helps to keep in mind that even those things that I or my wife don’t like each have their place and make a contribution in some form.
My wife doesn’t like bats, but having them show up from time to really helps control the flying insect population! That hawk that has “taken out” a songbird or two is also busy keeping the field mice count manageable.
Yet another set of cousins has moved in and gotten a full community going — slugs and snails. Even with our dry climate and heat, these creatures thrive in cultivated and irrigated areas due to needed shade, daytime temperature protection and food (that would be your plants and lawn). They don’t pose as much a threat to commercial agriculture because host plants and areas to retreat to and ride out the heat of the day don’t as readily exist as they do in a home yardscape.
The common yard snail isn’t native to Utah, but it’s found its way here along with most other temperate parts of the world. It is believed to have originated from the Mediterranean or Middle East.
Snails and slugs have become a part of the food chain, as a food source to some birds, lizards, frogs and insects. That’s the good news! The bad news is that they can be extremely damaging to a host of different ornamental and edible plants. They are primarily herbivores that do quite well with many food and habitat sources. They feed on several types of vegetable crops, ornamental flowers, fruit trees and cereal grains. The slugs around our place are quite partial to rhubarb, and the snails enjoy keeping the grass mowed down near the flower beds. These creatures will also feed on decomposing plant and insect matter.
In the spring, they have a voracious appetite for recently sprouted plants, including veggies! Many a gardener has put out transplants only to find them decimated the following morning. If this has happened to you, it’s highly likely the culprits were our slimy friends.
On larger leaves, they will leave smooth-edged irregular-shaped holes. There are other pests that do this type of damage (caterpillars come to mind), but the dead giveaway is the dried slime trail that slugs and snails leave behind.
Keep in mind that snails and slugs are not the typical garden pest that can be controlled with typical pesticides for insects. They are from the mollusk family, not the bug clan! So, this calls for a different control strategy.
The first approach you can take is hand picking. C’mon, you can do it! Disposable surgical or painter’s gloves make the task a bit easier for the squeamish among us. As you collect them, put them in a container for disposal. Soapy water works well, as does brine water (avoid dumping brine water on your flower beds — most plants have a low tolerance). Some people like to step on them and crush them (ewwww!), however there’s a good chance that any eggs that a fertilized snail or slug has in its body will survive and hatch — even after you’ve crushed them. (Sort of like some bad zombie movie, huh?)
When on the hunt for these creatures you’ll need a flashlight after dark. Sprinkling an area near sunset will bring help bring them out of hiding sooner.
Another strategy is to have the snails and slugs come to you. This is accomplished by setting traps or collection points. You can put boards on the ground between plants, raised slightly on 3/4” wood blocks, so there is space underneath for the creatures to congregate. If you wish to “supercharge” the attraction, you can place some bran-type cereal under the boards, or even under a slightly elevated terra cotta flower pot, placed where it will be in the shade all day. They will feed, then rest in clusters on the walls of the pot. That makes “harvesting” convenient!
You can also use partially buried plastic beverage cups with beer or commercially available baits in them. To do this, take larger plastic drinking cups and cut some windows sideways around the cups about a third of the way down from the top. Make sure the windows are large enough for the snails to enter. Partially bury the cups in the soil, upright, with the bottom edge of the windows slightly above the surface of the soil — about 10 feet apart. Place the bait of your choice in the cup, and then set a small board over the top. This makes the bait last longer, and keeps dirt as well as irrigation water from readily finding its way in and spoiling or diluting the bait. You will need to check the traps ongoing, cleaning out and refreshing as needed.
There are a wide variety of effective poisonous baits to kill snails and slugs. However, some can be quite toxic. Suffice it to say, these should be avoided around cats, dogs and small children, or precautions taken to assure the bait is not accessible to them during use.
Baits that use iron phosphate are good candidates for yards where small children and pets frequent. The iron phosphate “stalls out” the snail and slug digestive systems, but is not harmful to other more sizable creatures.
An interesting feature of the snail and slug is that they are hermaphrodites, meaning that each creature produces both male and female gametes. You could say that these guys can use whatever restroom they want! You may recall from biology class that it takes a male and female gamete to unite to form a zygote, the first cell to start dividing and culminating in the creation of a new individual within the species.
Although self-fertilization can and does sometimes occur, reproduction is typically done the usual way. Both walk (or should I say, glide) away impregnated. About two weeks after fertilization, they will lay a batch of approximately 50 to 80 eggs. In a year, up to six batches can be laid.
It’s because of this that control of these creatures needs to be done ongoing to assure that the “next batch” is greatly reduced. Control this year will have a definite correlation with both this year’s and next year’s population.
For those of you that are culinary adventurers, our snail friends are edible. Although they are not the true “escargot” species treasured in French cuisine, they are sizable enough and have the proper taste to be served up (mostly to the unsuspecting, I suspect). I have never done this, so what I’m about to tell you is second-hand information, obtained by poring over culinary, homesteader and self-reliance websites.
The gist is that the most sizable snails are harvested using the non-bait collection methods outlined earlier. Once you have your prizes in hand (or should I say, bucket), you will need to put them through a 10-day cleansing process — as in a digestive cleanse! You’ll need about six to 10 snails per serving you plan to prepare. Put the snails in a five-gallon bucket, with plenty of small ventilation holes. Make sure the lid will snap on securely as the snails can gather around the edge of the lid and exert quite a combined lifting pressure (you don’t want a prison break, do you?). Feed them grape leaves, lettuce, bran, or cornmeal for ten days to purge the contents of their digestive tracts.
Keep the bucket in a cool place, out of the sun. A temperature range of 55-75 degrees Fahrenheit is good. They need water, so a small chick waterer works well. You could use a small dish, but you’ll need to monitor it ongoing to assure water is readily available to your “meals in a shell.”
On day seven, withhold all food, but keep providing water. This will flush out any remaining, well… you know. On day 10, de-slime them in brine and vinegar water and then cook them. Escargot (sounds better than “snail,” doesn’t it, although the word comes from an old French term for, you guessed it, snail) is typically served with a butter and garlic sauce.
Yummy. So if you join us for dinner some time at our home, and you are served something you don’t quite recognize, don’t bother inquiring. If “don’t ask, don’t tell” is good enough for the U.S. military, it’s good enough around our house too.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at email@example.com, or you can visit youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.