Slugs are one of the main topics of conversation for gardeners in the UK. Indeed they feature so much that the British Isles could easily be re-named the Sluggish Isles, so great is the population of these slithery gastropods. It is thought that there could be around 200 slugs and snails living per cubic metre in our gardens - no wonder we encounter them so often!
Slugs are not well liked, but despite their understandable reputation for eating all of our homegrown veg as soon as our backs are turned, they are a vital and valuable part of our garden ecosystems.
A food source for many wild creatures, including birds, mammals, reptiles, insects and slow worms, it would be an environmental disaster if slugs disappeared. They are a crucial part of the natural balance between predators and prey in our gardens, with many of the creatures who prey on slugs themselves being a vital food source for larger mammals and birds further up the food chain. Slugs are part of the circle of life.
Slugs are nutrient recyclers and scavengers. Most will eat all kinds of decaying organic matter, including rotting fruit, fallen leaves, dead animals and poo. Imagine a world without these helpful creatures, clearing and recycling dead vegetation etc. Once digested by the slugs, this increases organic matter in the soil, improving the soil biology, which in turn feeds our plants. In the compost heap, slugs help to break down the garden and kitchen waste, to create beautiful rich crumbly compost.
Burrowing through the soil, it is thought that slugs help to spread fungal spores. They are also, strangely and marvellously, incredibly slow pollinators, gradually moving pollen from one flower to another. This is called Malacophilous pollination.
Some varieties of slugs also eat insects, maggots and other creepy crawlies, reducing some “pests” in our gardens. Some are carnivorous and will eat other slugs.
It is worthwhile celebrating slugs and the impressive role they play in our gardens and the wider environment, but it is true that they have a great enthusiasm for eating our veg. There is a myth that slugs only munch on plants that are diseased or otherwise unhealthy. Whilst they are attracted to such plants, being nutrient recyclers, slugs will also eat perfectly healthy thriving plants.
It’s all about creating balance. We want and need slugs (and other creatures generally considered pests, including snails and woodlice) in our gardens, but ideally not living right next to our homegrown veggies. As a wildlife friendly organic grower, I never use any kind of slug pellet, not even those which claim to be eco-friendly. All are harmful to the soil life, the environment and to other wild creatures who have the misfortune of eating a poisoned slug.
Never salt slugs. This is a cruel and horrible death, and the salt will harm your soil too. Beer traps likewise are best avoided because they are indiscriminate killers, drowning not only slugs but also other wildlife including beetles.
There are plenty of ways to coexist with these slimy creatures without causing harm. The key is to reduce habitat for slugs in the main growing areas, and create habitat in the wild spaces.
Here in damp UK, Land of the Slug, uncomposted mulches such as grass clippings, hay or straw can create the perfect environment for slugs, plus snails, woodlice and rodents, too. These are perfect mulches for hot, dry climates where slugs are not much of an issue. During extended periods of very dry weather here (like last summer) when slugs retreat awaiting wet weather, they are fine as an extra mulch on potato beds to help retain moisture.
Composted mulches on our beds however are ideal because they don’t create a cosy place for slugs to live. This can be any composted organic matter: well rotted manure, wood chip, homemade compost, or bought bagged composts such as Dalefoot. Here in my Welsh homestead I’ve used Dalefoot green “veg” compost on some of the beds. The composted mulches are gradually incorporated into the soil by the soil life, and this in turn feeds our plants. The compost mulch also helps to reduce weeds, it is very easy to hoe, and helps the soil retain moisture.
Composted mulches are an amazing habitat for all kinds of wild creatures, including black beetles which are predators of slugs, and they create a wonderful foraging ground for hungry birds. As I am writing, there’s a robin and blackbird searching for food in the compost mulch of my back garden beds, and a thrush visits there every morning.
Creating wildlife areas, including piles of fallen leaves, logs and other natural debris, increases biodiversity and the balance of predators and prey, including those that feed on slugs. These spaces, the wild edges around my garden, also offer a helpful place to pop any slugs that are found.
Routine slug checks, especially during damp weather, can significantly decrease their population. I regular check under modules trays in the greenhouse, a favourite hiding place for slugs. Placing a plank of wood adjacent to your growing area provides a cosy home for slugs, who will slither under there for shelter. Simply lift up the plank, pop the slugs into a bucket and re-home elsewhere.
Coexisting with even these slimiest of creatures helps to create a happy, thriving garden. I hope you now can see the benefits of the humble garden slug.
Roasted ‘slugs’ - a recipe
This sounds like every gardener’s nightmare - roasted slugs for dinner?! The name came about when I was experimenting with different ways to use up the cucumber glut. These roasted cucumbers are so delicious but they do look a little like slugs….
Honestly, they are lovely. If the name is too gruesome, call it “Roasted Cucumber Salad” instead.
2 cucumbers, peeled if necessary*
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp cider or wine vinegar
1 tbsp lemon balm, lemon verbena, dill, mint, parsley or basil, finely chopped - plus extra to serve
4 spring onions, sliced
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 180 C fan
* some cucumbers have very hard quite spiny skins, and are best peeled. Others are fine cooked whole.
Cut the cucumbers into 6 cm lengths. Cut these in half lengthways and then each half into thirds.
Place in a baking tray with the spring onions. Drizzle over 1 tbsp olive oil, season and roast for 20-30 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the dressing. Mix together 3 tbsp oil, 1 tbsp vinegar and the herbs.
When the cucumbers are cooked, remove from the oven, pour over the dressing and leave to cool.
Place with all of the juices into a serving dish - the juices are lovely to dip bread into. Sprinkle with fresh herbs.
This is tasty cold, too.
STEPHANIE HAFFERTY - The Half Acre Homestead
One of the UK’s leading experts in no dig gardening, Stephanie Hafferty is an award winning organic garden and food writer, edible garden designer, event speaker and host, and homesteader. She is a feature writer for national and international magazines, and delivers inspiring talks and workshops on growing your own and homesteading skills, in the UK and worldwide. Her work is featured on many TV channels including BBC Gardeners’ World.
Stephanie has created and worked in kitchen gardens on large private estates, community gardens, market gardens, for restaurants and art galleries, as well as allotments and home gardens. In 2021 she project managed and co-designed the RHS No Dig Allotment Demonstration Garden.
From her half acre homestead in West Wales, Stephanie explains how to grow year round using climate friendly regenerative organic gardening methods for abundant harvests and fewer weeds, working harmoniously with wildlife, and what to do with your harvests, from seasonal meals to preserving, homemade body, home and garden care, remedies and natural dyes. Follow her gardening and homesteading life on You Tube, her blog or social media.
Gardening Courses with Stephanie: https://nodighome.com/talks-workshops/
You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/@stephaniehaffertyhomesteading