To the Trenches, Mates, for the Annual Hosta-Slug Fest

Great shot by Jeff Hahn

Yes folks, we have revolutionary new weaponry to combat slug-attacks on hostas. It’s safe for us humans and safe for the environment. It recycles natural resources, and it’s readily available in many gardens, so there’s absolutely no cost. What more could we gardeners want?

It’s called the gumball bomb strategy. For those who are uninitiated (happily, trust me) to the reproductive habits of the sweet gum tree, it spreads its genes by bombing us with countless spikey balls that give everyone the grumbles. (Everyone, that is, except for creative recyclers who spray them with gold paint and use them in wreaths for the holidays.)

Gumballs on a sweet gum stump. Top two show wear and tear. Bottom two are worthy of gilding or weaponry

Either we roll on gumballs when we walk, or the gumballs scatter like marbles when we rake. According to something I think I have read recently, slugs, too, share our dislike of gumballs, not because they roll and scatter, but because their spikes are a bed of nails that pierce the crawlers’ bodies and cause dehydration and death.

Bob is not as enthusiastic as I about the gumball treatment for hostas, but he is a good guy. This being a banner year for all three: gumballs, hosta, and slugs, he collects gumballs for me in a pickle pail. (No, I’m not pregnant and we don’t eat pickles for breakfast. We get the pails from a local sandwich market whose owners believe in recycling and re-using.)

Immediately I begin my campaign. I could see that this is going to be a bad season for slugs.

Bob is a purist and collected only the best. I threw in the pine cones–heck, they’re spikey, too. and they add volume.

Then I stop short. How, exactly would this work? I had assumed I could just throw a few spikey balls helter skelter around the plants, and that would be that. But wouldn’t any self-respecting slug simply slither around the gumballs to get at the prize–literally, since slugs only go for those hostas a gardener prizes most.

I realize that I am beginning to think like a slug, which is probably not very different from the way I usually think. If I were a slug, would a single necklace of gumballs around a hosta be enough to deter me? Or would double, even triple rows be needed? Armed or unarmed, hostas planted near fences would be easy chewin’, since I could detour along the rails.

This is clearly getting complicated, too many decisions to make, too much planning to do. I am beginning to be impressed by how thoughtful slugs must be.

Enough of this analyzing, my slug-brain chides, get to work. After I arm five hostas using a variety of thoughtful approaches, my back aches, my knees are sore, and my brain is buzzy. I had gone through half a pail of gumballs and I still had about fifty or sixty hostas to arm.

I do lightning-fast calculations based on my version of Einstein’s theory of relativity, you know, E=MC squared, where E is my energy, M is my mass, and C is my interpretation of the speed of light. At this rate, in round numbers, I would need a million gumballs in five hundred pickle pails, and it would take me a thousand hours to collect and spread them. That may be a small exaggeration.

My high-tech supplies. The bag is several years old but the contents are still good.

Then it hit me. I’d heard only one testimonial about these weapons of slug destruction, and I couldn’t even remember the basics of the story: who, what, where or when. What kind of sluggish thinking was this? Why am I not using the perfectly adequate remedy that is sitting in my garden shed?

Spreading diatomaceous earth on soil has always worked well for me. Why am I bedazzled by the latest magic bullet? Why? Why? Why? Because I am a gardener-addict? Because I love experimenting? Because the lure of a new idea is a siren call I can’t resist? Because the stuff in the shed is old hat? Maybe another gardener knows the answer.

Diatomaceous earth is a fine powder ground from fossilized diatoms, exquisite, tiny phytoplankton, each wrapped up in a silica case. DE works the same way as the spikes on gumballs. Smooth to my fingers, the sharp silica is lethal pins and needles to a slug.

Diatoms under the microscope. These exquisite phytoplankton are the critical foundation for all life in our oceans. NOAA photo

It doesn’t take much to be effective. Applicators are available but they have moving parts that don’t seem to work for me and clog, so I settle for a mayonnaise jar with holes punched in the lid, which also clogs but only has one moving part that stays put. I do a combination of banging and shaking, usually on a dry, windless day, or I let light breezes float the DE to rest. (One is advised to wear a mask and safety glasses to avoid silica in the lungs or eyes. I think one should always say these things these days.)

Every time I operate in de-slug mode, I get the bright idea that one of those utensils for sprinkling confectioners sugar on cakes might solve the clogging problem. Since that would require me to hunt for, purchase, and store yet another gimmick, in a nano-second I forget I even had such an idea.

Besides, one application every few years in spring to get slug babies seems to knock our slug population down. The coarse leaf and twig mulch we use, which can include spiny holly leaves, may deter slugs, along with the phalanx of hungry box turtles that roam our garden. Hey, maybe this is my version of the gumball bomb strategy, with tank troops for good measure.

This path in our woods takes us through sweet gum, hickory, ironwood, hophornbeam, pine, holly, persimmon,  an old oak, and blueberry bushes

DE is not poisonous, like metaldehyde bait, and it’s not messy or smelly like beer, and you don’t have to go prowling around your garden with a salt shaker in the dead of night. It’s safe and dependable and doesn’t seem to bother earthworms. (To be scrupulously honest, I must qualify my crowing by acknowledging that, unlike our friends in the Northwest, we here in the Southeast do not have slugs that will carry off a house.)

As I come to my senses and pitch the rest of the gumballs into the compost pile, I ponder the one-sided view we gardeners have of the sweet gum tree. If you look beyond the gumballs, it really is a good guy.

Who can deny the utter beauty of this luna moth. Photo from Lifeinthenorthwoods.com

Its resin has been used for medicines, soap, glues, and chewing gum. Its wood became furniture for colonists and plywood for barrels and boxes. It is the host plant for spectacular moths, including the lovely Luna Moth, which we once found napping on our front door, antennae folded, like eye shades against the sunny morning.

And those pesky gumballs! Why, they provide dinner to all manner of small birds on a cold winter’s eve. Acrobats on gumballs–chickadees, titmice and finches–they never fail to delight this woodland watcher.

And now I must tell you the rest of the story.

The rabbits ate the hosta.

To the Prize!

Once handsome, now devoured by the pair above. Note gumballs arranged thoughtfully in litter. Two days later the leaf on the left was slugged.

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