Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

September 7, 2017
From pruning to picking snails, the garden needs our attention

Although summer is drawing to a close, there is plenty of gardening yet to do in our yardscapes. Pruning is a big one, and ongoing deadheading and weed removal also beckon us.

Whenever I start to pull weeds, the chickens get all excited, ‘cause there’s fresh greens coming their way. Come winter time, they outright miss their daily salad.

It’s fun to see the melons and squash sizing up, and we’ve had a great run on basil this year, with lots of fresh eating and jars of dried basil for winter soups and our favorite: marinara sauce.

With the nighttime temps dropping, along with our new water system, the turf is looking good and is really greening up. The tomatoes are coming on strong, as well, since cooler evenings have allowed more blooms to set. It’s a great time of year.

Our rhubarb has performed well, with the plants rebounding from ongoing harvests.

Maggie has added to her repertoire by not only making a fantastic rhubarb-strawberry-orange rind pie, but she has now perfected both a rhubarb-strawberry and strawberry-blackberry crumble. Both are decadent.

But, we aren’t the only ones harvesting the rhubarb. Grasshoppers like the leaves, and they have selected a plant or two to make their main meal. When I can, I catch them (man, those buggers are fast) and provide them to the poultry.

The hens know a good meal when they see one. This gives me a bit of twisted satisfaction after what they do to the pie plant.

Slugs and snails also like rhubarb. I suspect they really like it as it provides a moist and cool habitat and a source of nutrition all in one place. I come across these pests in different places around the yard, but I can count on finding them at the base and the undersides of lower leaves and stalks when I’m out in the garden during the day.

Those of you who have been at our home know that we have a sizable front porch that has a flower bed on two sides of it. Recently, we sat out on the porch in the evening and enjoyed reading the paper (yes, this one), having a bit of conversation, and taking a peek at social media. It got late, and we turned in without bringing the paper in from the table that sits out there.

During the night, a breeze came up and blew a section of the paper into the flower bed. Shortly after, our irrigation came on and thoroughly wet the paper.

Maggie retrieved the sopping newspaper the following day and when she did, she discovered five sizable snails on the underside. They were keeping cool, enjoying the moisture, eating some of the paper and apparently keeping up on local news.

Being the true country woman that Maggie is, she found this all to be quite intriguing and brought the little fellers in to show me.

That provided entertainment for about an hour. We stacked them on each other, held snail races (if it can be called that), named them and posted a couple of videos on Maggie’s Facebook page. Though initially yucky, they can be quite endearing.

I found that when they are feeling safe, they start extending themselves, and the head, mouth, tentacles and eyes all come into view. If you touch them, they will retract momentarily. Shortly thereafter, they come out again, begin gliding on their foot, constantly on the move.

Once the snails got comfortable with us, one of them glided across the top of my hand. As it did, I became aware of a slight rasping sensation. I was being sampled as a potential food source.

Remember, the main activity for most wild creatures is looking for food. In the case of the snail, it uses rows of tiny teeth to rasp and scrape food into small pieces before it is swallowed.

Out in the garden, that constant search for food, and the need to control temperature and moisture, is what makes snails so detrimental to many of our plants. Slugs don’t have a shell, while snails do. Slugs will dry out faster, so they need to dig into the soil when it’s hot or dry.

It’s estimated that about 90 percent of the slug population goes underground when summer arrives. Snails can tough it out longer, by retracting into their shell to stay moist and shaded.

One pleasing aspect of being a gardener and creating a landscape is the fact that you create a habitat that is alive. That life includes birds, earthworms, insects, small mammals and, yes, slugs and snails. Those last two enter your yard from adjacent areas, as well as in egg form within the manures, mulches, composts and soils you bring in.

Most snails and slugs are hermaphrodites, meaning that each has both male and female reproductive organs to produce both eggs and sperm. While they can self-fertilize, they tend to reproduce the “old-fashioned way.” When they do reproduce, they add a significant number of offspring.

Little snails have small, fragile shells that grow along with their soft body parts. To create a sturdy shell, which is mostly made of calcium carbonate, the snail must eat calcium. A slug or snail, depending on the type and conditions, can live for 1-5 years, and yes, they do hibernate.

The eyes of these creatures can only detect light and dark. They have no hearing, but taste using the two lower tentacles. Like you and me, they breathe oxygen using a lung (that is why they can drown). Using a rudimentary brain, they have excellent memory related to their immediate surroundings, which allows them to get around in a small area.

So, if the habitat is favorable, they tend to stay put and not move far from their birthplace.

They like to eat a variety of things. In fact, as they move along the ground, they will eat just about anything digestible, including decomposing plants and insects and even dead animals. They cause us problems in the garden because of their tendency to eat tender young plants, or large, moist, tasty leaves.

They will also ingest bits of compost, fungi, and many types of rotting or wet materials, even paper (as our personal experience shows) or cardboard. So, as inconvenient as they are, slugs and snails play an important role in nature, just like earthworms, breaking down decaying matter and recycling it back into the soil.

Even so, we don’t go to all this work in our food plots and ornamental beds just to feed the snails. There are some controls that we can use.

Picking them by hand is a highly effective method of eradication. Either early morning or at night is the best time to go hunting. If you have a strong constitution, you can use your hands. If not, use a pointy stick, or other sharp or tweezer-like tool. If you like, you can drop them into a solution of soapy water to drown them and then dispose of them.

If you have chickens, they will most likely eat them — skip the soapy water step and feed them directly to your birds.

Beer traps can be used, as well, for slugs. Use a shallow dish like a plastic cottage cheese or margarine container. Punch holes with a paper punch around the top rim, fill the container halfway with beer and snap the lid back.

Place the traps under or among plants that are getting damaged. The pests will crawl into the container and drown — but what a way to go. Empty and refill as needed until the weather turns cold.

Jay Cooper can be contacted at jay@dirtfarmerjay.com or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.

Jay Cooper

Garden Spot Columnist at Tooele Transcript Bulletin
Jay Cooper is a new contributing writer for the Garden Spot column. He replaced Diane Sagers, who retired in November 2013 after writing the column for 27 years. Also known as Dirt Farmer Jay, Cooper and his wife have been residents of Erda since 2001 after moving to Utah from Tucson, AZ. A passionate gardener and avid reader of horticultural topics, for several years he has been a member of Utah State University’s Master Gardeners Program, and served as chapter president in 2013. Cooper says Tooele County has an active and vibrant gardening community, and the Garden Spot column will continue to share a wide range of gardening, landscaping, home skills and rural living themes.

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