You’ve carefully nurtured your precious seedlings, checking on them every day, lovingly watering them and watching them grow. The time has come to plant them out and you gently tuck them into the soil, wishing them well and looking forward to the future harvest. The next morning, however, disaster strikes. Those young plants are almost stripped bare, there are hardly any leaves left on their tender stems. You look more closely and notice the slimy trails crisscrossing the vegetable bed, the tell-tale sign of that nocturnal plant muncher, the historic enemy of the gardener, the SLUG.
It’s really disheartening when all your hard work becomes dinner for those pesky slugs and snails or when your brassicas are devoured by some hungry pigeons and there are as many different approaches to dealing with garden pests as there are frustrated gardeners. As a wildlife-friendly gardener, my own approach is as much about adopting a different mindset as it is about the control of unwanted garden critters. I aim to work with nature, rather than against it, observing and learning about the relationships between different living things in order to design healthy gardens, filled with a diversity of plant and animal life. There’s no talk of controlling the enemy and it’s not a war on pests. Instead, the wildlife-friendly approach seeks to bring the garden ecosystem into balance, so that there are plenty of natural predators to keep the populations of slugs, snails, aphids, and other creatures in check. It also focuses on growing healthy plants that will be less susceptible to pests and diseases.
Here are ten organic and wildlife-friendly ways you can protect your plants.
Chemicals are generally a bad thing in a wildlife garden as they have impacts across the whole food chain. When you use slug pellets containing pesticides, they don’t just kill the slugs, they also poison the slug’s natural predators, including birds, frogs, hedgehogs and toads. Plants treated with pesticides poison bees and other pollinators. Our gardens have such potential as wildlife havens, to provide food and habitats for many wonderful creatures and the first step to creating a wildlife-friendly garden is to put down the pesticides and adopt organic gardening methods.
Instead of seeing the problems as too many slugs, or too many aphids, try seeing the problem as a lack of natural predators. The solution is then to attract more predators (of said offending creature) into the garden. You want as many birds, frogs, hedgehogs, toads and beneficial insects as possible. So creating habitats for these creatures is important, a pond for amphibians, undisturbed undergrowth for hedgehogs, natural food sources and nesting sites for birds.
To deal with aphids, grow plants like yarrow, dill and coriander that will attract hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds. I remember my first year on a new allotment site, feeling quite concerned after discovering rather a lot of blackfly on the broad bean plants. I needn't have worried though. The next time I visited, there were lots of ladybirds on all of the plants, feasting away on the aphids for their dinner. The profusion of herbs and flowers, the wild patches of nettles and the myriad of little ponds dotted around the allotment site as a whole, meant that there was an abundance of wildlife to assist with the plot-holders' growing endeavours. The Permaculture Research Institute has a fantastic article detailing plants you can grow to attract beneficial insects.
Top Tip: As well as attracting natural predators, removing the tips of broad bean plants after the plants have grown several trusses of flowers, is also a good way to limit the damage caused by blackfly which prefer the tender young growth found at the tips.
Several bird species, frogs, toads, some spiders, slow worms and various species of ground beetle all eat slugs, so turning your garden into a wildlife haven will mean that there are plenty of natural predators, happy to provide their pest control services for free. I know several gardeners who keep ducks for their slug eating services, their view of the problem being not too many slugs, but rather a deficiency of ducks.
Organic gardening works on a “prevention is better than cure” basis. Healthy plants will be much less susceptible to pests and diseases so taking care of soil health and making sure plants have the right conditions for healthy growth is key. Feed your soil an organic diet, adding plenty of organic matter to promote long-term health and fertility and to keep those lovely worms and microorganisms happy! Find out about the requirements of different plants - what type of soil do they need, do they need full sun or some shade, how much water do they like? Giving your plants the TLC they need will make them stronger, more robust and more resilient to pests.
Young plants with their tender new growth are particularly susceptible to pests. For slugs and snails, a copper barrier can be very effective. It gives any approaching molluscs a harmless electric shock so they don’t like to climb over it. You can buy copper rings to place around plants and also copper tape to stick around plant pots and growing containers. It’s also possible to fashion your own barrier out of old pieces of copper piping, as long as it completely encircles the plants you want to protect. If you leave a gap, slugs and snails will soon find the “doorway” you have left them.
Old plastic bottles with the bottoms cut off and lids removed are another effective barrier, useful for individual plants, such as beans, cucumber and squash. Old 2 litre bottles are fine for beans, for larger plants the 5-litre water bottles work well.
Birds love many of the soft fruits, tree fruits and brassicas that gardeners grow. Netting around a simple wooden frame works well to protect brassicas, strawberries and other soft fruit crops. Small and medium trees like cherries can be protected with netting too. Make sure that the netting is fine enough that birds won’t get trapped in it. If you use an insect-proof netting for brassicas, it will also protect the crop from cabbage white butterflies who lay their eggs on
members of the brassica family. Carrots can be protected from carrot-root fly by using a horticultural fleece covering the crop or with a barrier of fine mesh or polyethene placed around the crop. Because carrot flies are low flying insects, the barrier only needs to be around 60cm high.
Talk to several gardeners and they will probably all have a different suggestion for what material to use as a slug and snail deterrent, ranging from coffee grounds and eggshells to sheep’s wool and human hair. The idea with all these deterrents is that slugs and snails don’t like to cross over them in order to get to your precious plants. Experiment with what you have to hand. If you have a wood stove, wood ash sprinkled around plants can be effective, though as with many materials, you do have to keep applying it regularly if it rains. Some gardeners swear by using a mulch of coffee grounds, so that’s a good one to try if you're a coffee drinker or if you live near a coffee shop and can procure a supply of used grounds.
For birds, try making a home-made deterrent by hanging up an old CD or DVD on some string. The idea is that shiny metal objects reflect the sunlight and keep feathered scavengers away. Birds are savvy though and they’ll soon work out that something isn’t dangerous. Try switching it up using different shaped objects such as scrunched up bits of tinfoil coiled into a spring shape or strips of white cloth. It’s also a good idea to hang these up at the last minute, just before the fruit is ripe for example. Put them up too early and their effectiveness will wear off before they’re needed.
Mix it up when it comes to planting and avoid ‘mini monocrops’. If you grow a whole bed of nothing but lettuces and slugs and snails come calling, without good protection the whole crop could be lost. You can grow alternate rows of different crops or use a ‘polyculture’ vegetable growing method where you grow several vegetables together in the same bed. With this method, if you lose some crops, you’ll still have plenty of others and having the plants all mixed up together makes it more difficult for the pests to find their favourite food. To adopt this method, you have let go of the idea of tidy rows or large blocks of a single vegetable in favour of an eclectic mix of plants. It’s a very effective approach that mirrors the type of plant diversity found in natural ecosystems.
Companion planting is another great way to help with natural pest control in the garden. Growing herbs and flowers among your vegetables can help to both attract natural predators and also deter pests with their scent. Try growing chives and spring onions alongside carrots to confuse carrot root fly who sniff out carrot crops with their keen sense of smell. Mint is a great herb to have in the veg patch for deterring flea beetles that eat small holes in brassica and salad leaves. Basil is a classic companion plant for tomatoes, its pungent smelling leaves helping to deter aphids (and of course basil and tomatoes go great together in the kitchen too!).
Picking off pests by hand and removing them away from your plants can help limit any damage caused. If you have a bad problem with slugs and snails, I recommend going out at night with a head torch when gastropod grazing is in full swing and simply picking them off into a bucket. You can take them some distance away and release them. It’s possible a few will find their way back, but I find collecting and removing, combined with a barrier method works well, especially for smaller gardens and containers.
My children adore snails and have recently been creating a snail and slug habitat at the bottom of the garden. They collect up any snails they find around the veg beds and put them in a shady, damp area where they feed them with chard, spinach and salad leaves that have been rejected from the kitchen. The snails are free to come and go, so time will tell whether this ‘collect and relocate’ method will be effective. In the meantime, the children are thoroughly entertained and learning about snails, a valuable bonus.
If you’re having problems with direct sowing crops because slugs and snails are hoovering up the emerging seedlings, try growing plants in modules or pots and planting them out when they have reached a decent size. If sown indoors, make sure you harden-off the young plants by putting them outside during the day and bringing them back in at night for a few days before planting them out. Slugs and snails love tasty young plants so use one of the barrier or deterrent methods discussed above for added protection.
It might sound counterintuitive but don’t try to eliminate garden pests. Instead, focus on creating a diverse garden ecosystem where natural predators keep those pesky critters in check. Plant lots of perennials to support garden wildlife and don’t be too tidy. Beneficial insects often overwinter in standing dead stems, so don’t clear these away from the garden in the autumn.
Slugs and snails get a lot of bad press. They’re the bane of many a gardener’s life. But these gastropods are also fascinating creatures that play an ecologically important role, recycling organic matter and helping to create a healthy soil. The organic approach is not about eradicating garden pests, but about creating a garden ecosystem that is balanced, biodiverse, and full of natural predators. It’s important to adjust our expectations and accept that we’re going to lose a few plants to the creatures we share our gardens with. Organically grown produce may have a few holes in it, but it will still taste sublime!
I hope this article has given you plenty of ideas for different methods to try in your garden. Using a combination of methods is often the most effective approach, so do experiment and find out what works best in your particular garden setting. Talk to neighbouring gardeners to find out their tips and spread the word about the dangers of pesticides and wildlife-friendly alternatives.