Gardening

Slugs are back. You know what to do.

Two pests reared their heads in the email this week. Both are familiar. One is an extreme example of a subject we like to ignore. The other is simply a perennial problem we have to deal with.

Let's start with the "sudden" appearance of this year's batch of slugs. It's a funny thing. You don't think about slugs much until after a few days of rain in the middle of the summer. No matter how hot or dry it has been, out they come.

Of course, these very same slugs have been here all summer long, underground for the most part, quietly rasping away at dead organic matter, breaking it up and making it more available to the bacteria and fungi that finish the job of decay.

Ah, but all of a sudden they are everywhere above ground. Heck, I have had tons of reports of slugs in birch trees, which is pretty much as far from the soil a slug can go without flying. I don't know if the rain makes the soil so unpleasant to them that they have to come up for air or if they simply get sick of underground fare and need a change of pace. For whatever reason, right now they are foraging the stuff you value.

You know the routines to keep them in check: beer or yeast water in shallow containers (placed outside the garden, not in it), organic commercial slug baits that contain iron phosphate, barrier of copper, sand, diatomaceous earth or ash (these sand and ash barriers must be dry to work) and, finally, hand picking.

You can enhance your hand-picking experience by hunting after dark — not so easy this time of year — or by making traps using boards, shingles, plates or similar flat items that are simply placed on the soil to provide a shelter to the slugs during the day. Check them when it is hot and dry. Improve your catch by raising your traps off the soil just a bit so the slugs have an easier time getting under them. Half an inch will do. They can duck if they need more room.

Speaking of ducks, they love slugs. So do chickens. And, ammonia, not salt, is the preferred drug for slug executions.

The next pest is a plant, specifically bird vetch, or Vicia cracca. This is an introduced plant that hit the tipping point about 30 years ago here in Southcentral Alaska. I understand it is in the Fairbanks area and all up and down the highway system. It thrives everywhere you look along highways, bike trails, hiking paths and even undisturbed woodlands.

There are so many ways I could approach this problem. The first could be as a botany lesson in describing a plant with pinnate leaves and eight to 10 pairs of leaflets and purple/blue flowers born all on one side of a raceme. I won't. You know it as the pea-like plant with blue/purple flowers that has tendrils that latch onto any plant near it. It grows and continues latching on, eventually covering and smothering the poor support plant.

I approach it as an ecological issue. These are nitrogen-fixing legumes and agricultural scientists introduced them as an experiment for cattle fodder. Oops. Big mistake — especially here in Alaska where pioneer nitrogen-fixing plants are needed and thrive. The escape of this introduced plant is a gross example of that discussion gardeners do not want to have: Should we be planting anything that is not native (especially in relatively pristine Alaska)? I'll save that for a deep-snow, cold winter day — if we ever get deep-snow, cold winter days again.

Maybe I should just stop being a jerk and talk about the problem directly. Bird vetch is very invasive. The plant will grow anywhere: after a fire, in a manicured lawn, out in the woods where nothing has been disturbed, everywhere. You could kill it with a dangerous herbicide, but shouldn't because of the even more serious damage that would do. In fact, do not even think about it, But if you do, please understand that once the plant starts to flower, it is too late to do any good as the seeds will be viable. So, put down that sprayer.

The only real solution to bird vetch is to control it. First, do not let it get established. That means you need to make sure it doesn't flower. Seeds are viable for five years. Mowing and weed eating will cut it down so it won't flower. Pick flowers by hand if you must. If you have areas where it is established, cover with black plastic during the season and smother out those plants.

This is clearly one of those plants you do not want to give any kind of chance. Get it before it flowers. Once it flowers, get it before the flowers go to seed. It's just too bad that slugs don't thrive on it.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

Wine in the Woods: Aug. 11 from 6:30-9:30 p.m., at the Alaska Botanical Garden. Local wineries, hors d'oeuvres and live music. Purchase tickets here or for more information call 907-770-3692.

Harvest: What are you waiting for? Things that are ready to eat should be harvested. Nothing should rot in the garden. If you don't want it, someone else will. Food banks, soup kitchens, Bean's Cafe, neighbors?

Compost: Does that pile need turning? Has it stopped heating up? More green?

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