A big upside to slugging it out with that persistent pest

Sheila Toomey

You won't believe how "normal" the weather was in July.

No joke.

After starting out as the coldest July in recorded history, we ended the month with a average daily temperature of 55.5 degrees, tied for seventh place with several other years.

And guess what? It hardly rained at all.

A mere 2.14 inches fell in Anchorage during the whole month, more than the 1.83-inch average for July but strictly ho-hum to record keepers.

That's what the National Weather Service reports but, with all due respect, we Anchorage yard jockeys find it hard to believe.

The garden, which we visited only sporadically, is waterlogged. Peony petals litter the ground, anything taller than a foot that wasn't staked or fenced has been beaten to earth and chickweed abounds.

But the weather has improved, so what great gardening adventures can we look forward to?

Bugs. Especially slugs.

The cool spring temperatures and all those rainy days shouldn't seriously affect the amount of irritating, insects taking up residence in our yards but it delayed things a little, said Michael Rasy, the bug guy at the Cooperative Extension Service.

However, "We're probably going to have a tremendous amount of slugs," said Rasy.

Slugs are relatively recent to Anchorage, having shown up here in the 1980s, he said, brought in on soil and new plants, he said. They like cool, wet, and dark.

Welcome to Anchorage. Welcome to 2012.

"Some years are more favorable but they're always around, a ubiquitous garden pest," Rasy said. And if you're already seeing them, it's too late for anything but remedial measures. We're seeing them. It's time for war."

It seems like every experienced gardener has a favorite slug weapon: copper foil strips or eggshell barriers can keep them away from specific plant beds.

But remember, unless you kill them, they'll just go somewhere else.

Sluggo is a pretty good product, but is best used early on, when slugs are small, Rasy said. Meaning, it's probably too late.

The yuck factor of picking slugs off plants, killing them and tossing them in the garbage sealed in a plastic baggie is high, but Rasy and Master Gardener Jane Baldwin both recommend it as effective. It's especially good when combined with barriers.

Slugs can carry harmful bacteria, so wear gloves, Baldwin said.

If you don't want to squish them, you can drop them in a 50-50 water-ammonia solution or spray them with it.

There are various kinds of slug traps and baits on the market that aren't toxic to people and animals but be sure to place them away from valued plants since they attract slugs ... but don't kill them immediately. This includes the popular bowl-of-beer, which gets mixed reviews from people who have used it.

Slugs like it when you mulch their territory, Rasy said. So rake away their eggs before you mulch in the fall, and remove the mulch quickly in the spring.

If you can't beat 'em, feed 'em. I have slugs, but they stay in the backyard, far away from flowers and vegetables I care about, because I've given them a big rhubarb plant to gorge on.

This is called a "trap crop" and is recommended by organic farmers. My trap crop was an accident.

Years ago I noticed slugs liked the rhubarb. I don't, so I left it for them. It works, maybe because it's such a long walk from the rhubarb to the garden -- for a slug.

Chervil and French Marigolds are also recommended trap crops for slugs.

Trap crops are inevitably a hit-and-miss proposition and should be combined with other control measures.

Baldwin calls it "the full scale assault approach." Most important and ultimately most effective is what Rasy calls "sanitation."

Deprive slugs of breeding and hiding places by keeping the garden clean.

Keep ahead of weeds, pick veggies when they're ripe, don't leave dead flowers on stalks, remove all leaf-plant litter, wood chips, logs.

Check whatever you're using as edging. Slugs will hide anywhere: Have you looked under that sodden cardboard box lately? Under your pretty planters? And, bad news, look under your pavers.

And rake, rake, rake. You must destroy the eggs, which are typically small translucent or pearl white clusters, deposited in early spring or "at the start of late-summer rains," according to the Cooperative Extension Services.

Gardener's winter nightmare

(Or: I knew I should have dispatched more slugs last year.)

From Master Gardener Jane Baldwin

The following example assumes perfect conditions exist (winter, weather, temperature) and presumes that every single egg hatches and every new slug survives. Not realistic, but it does make a point!

• One slug lays 30 eggs that survive the winter and hatch toward the end of May.

• 30 sluglings reach reproductive maturity about the end of July and each lays 30 eggs. • 30 x 30 = 900 slug eggs.

• 900 slug eggs hatch about the end of the first week in August.

• 900 slugs reach reproductive maturity about the first week in October in time to each lay 30 eggs if the ground isn't frozen.

• 900 x 30 = 27,000 slug eggs.

• 27,000 slug eggs overwinter to begin reproducing the following July. Even a single slug dispatched can make a difference!

Daily News correspondent