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Learning to live with slugs and snails


Staff member
Mar 21, 2024
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Learning to live with slugs and snails

Generally thought of as among the gardener’s worst enemies, almost up there with vine weevil (but not quite), slugs and snails are notorious for their persistence and their infuriating ability to make plants disappear overnight. As a customer once raged to me, in despair over the ravaging of her precious delphiniums, ‘You go out there in the morning and all you find is a stick.’ Sometimes it feels like a constant battle. Some outdoor spaces are always more prone to attack than others – there are gardeners who can grow delphiniums with impunity. But our slippery friends seem to have been particularly enthusiastic so far this year, presumably in part because they just love a rainy day.

There are over 44 species of slug and 90 species of snail in the UK. However, it’s not all bad news. Only about a quarter of UK slug species actually feed on living plants. In fact both slugs and snails are beneficial as well as annoying, chomping through and recycling dead organic matter like plant material. This means they’re essential to your garden’s ecosystem, enriching the soil by adding precious nutrients and improving its structure, helping it to withstand drought as well as draining more easily. And they’re an important food source for many of the creatures we welcome. Frogs, hedgehogs and song thrushes all feast on molluscs.

Did you know?

  • The speediest slug is Deroceras invadens, the tramp slug, which can set a cracking pace of 17.6m an hour.

  • The leopard slug (Limax maximus) has a tendency to cannibalistic behaviour and is said to prey on other live slugs.

There’s a veritable smorgasbord of anti-slug and snail products available but a much more positive, enjoyable and rewarding approach is to grow plants they generally don’t like and encourage the other wildlife that eats them.

Unpalatable plants

There are many more of these than you might think and far from being dull, they’re frequently stars of bed and border, some with real flower power and, as a group, the perfect mix of foliage shapes and textures. It’s wisest to think of them as slug and snail-resistant rather than slug and snail-proof as nothing is guaranteed in the garden! But these are plants the adversary prefers to avoid rather than target.

Shrubs and grasses are generally safe. Look too for plants with:

  • Tough, thick leaves which are harder to chew than deliciously soft, sweet, floppy foliage. Try ferns, spiky, blue-flowered eryngiums, tall, airy Verbena bonariensis and winter and spring-flowering hellebores.
  • Hairy leaves and stems: for instance gorgeous silver, velvety Stachys byzantina (lamb’s ear) and white or neon pink-flowered Silene coronaria.
  • Strongly aromatic foliage, like rosemary and lavender (whose leaves are also narrow and tough) and nepeta. All three have blue or purple flowers which are very popular with bees.
  • Toxic leaves: stunning architectural plants, euphorbias have a milky sap which is an irritant to human skin. It seems it irritates slugs and snails too, or that it has a bitter taste which they don’t like. Similarly, foxgloves contain digoxin, used in heart medication but poisonous to humans in the wrong quantities. It’s possible that it upsets garden molluscs as well, but it could also be that they dislike the thick, hairy leaves. Either way they stay away!

Other plants that are generally not to their taste include versatile and long-blooming hardy geraniums, strap-leaved, fiery-flowered crocosmia, plume-like astilbes and pollinator-friendly astrantias. Slugs and snails are also said not to be keen on plants with an oniony or garlicky smell, like alliums. But slime-trails on and holes in my potted chives indicate that this isn’t always the case. In the end it’s a question of trial and error – find out what works for you.

You’ll find more lists and tips here:




Encouraging wildlife

Hedgehogs, slow worms, ground beetles, frogs, toads and newts, song thrushes and blackbirds, shrews, mice and moles will all make a meal of slugs or snails. And foxes, notably unfussy eaters, aren’t averse to a slithery snack if they come across one. That’s a significant number of predators, a substantial workforce out there willing to help if we give it a little support.

  • ‘Sunbeds’ made from wood or corrugated iron will attract slow worms, who love a hotspot. (You may come across them in the compost heap too for the same reason.)
  • Shrubs, hedges and trees will all encourage birds, particularly if they bear autumn and winter berries.
  • A wildlife pond (even a small one) will attract amphibians. (Make sure it has a gentle slope at the edge so that other creatures can get in and out.)
  • Piles of logs and leaves and long, rough grassy areas will provide homes and hiding places for shrews and ground beetles.

Their rarity means that attracting hedgehogs is a little more complicated but hedgehog runs, feeding stations and water are all important: https://www.countryliving.com/uk/ho...ttract-hedgehogs-into-garden-hedgehog-houses/

Additional tactics:

Look after your plants: happy, healthy specimens are more resistant to slugs and snails (as well as other pests and diseases) than weak, unhappy ones.

Raking over bare soil will help to expose slug and snail eggs for the birds to pick off.

It’s often suggested that clearing away debris – fallen leaves and twigs – will help but this is a tricky one. Whilst debris does offer ample opportunities for slugs and snails to hunker down and lie in wait, it also provides the same for friendly insects like beetles, woodlice and ladybirds (whose larvae eat aphids)

Facing the challenge head on

Slugs and snails adore fresh, young growth and this can be a challenge if you propagate your own seedlings or when buying plug plants, as well as if you’re a keen salad grower. You may also wish to grow some of the plants that aren’t slug and snail-resistant. The choice of deterrents and killers includes mulches of wool pellets, egg shells, coffee grounds, sharp grit or bran, copper rings, garlic drenches, Vaseline, slug traps, slug nematodes and even hand-picking. All used with varying degrees of success – there are considerable differences of opinion. However, some or all of the deterrents can be deployed and may help to create a relatively mollusc-free zone. The old, super-toxic metaldehyde pellets are now banned and the ferric phosphate ones, although certified as organic, are not necessarily safe for wildlife or pets. Salt will undoubtedly kill slugs and snails too but also changes the soil or compost chemistry and it then becomes poisonous to plants.

Other tried and tested tips:

  • Use mesh or fabric at the base of pots so slugs and snails can’t come up from below.
  • Delay planting out if you can until seedlings are relatively mature.
  • Scatter potential targets around and mix them with other plants. Spreading them out means that diners will have to work harder to find them and may be drawn to something more accessible.
  • Feed plants in moderation in spring to avoid an abundance of leafy growth.

The truth is that no single method is likely to work. A strategic approach that uses a range of tactics is your best bet for keeping slugs and snails and the damage they do to a manageable, tolerable level. We can’t get rid of them, and nor should we want to. Like all creatures, they’re part of the food chain and the network of connections between plants and animals, life and death that forms the ecosystem of this extraordinary planet on which we live. So it seems sensible to learn to live with them, and to make the most of the opportunity for creative gardening that this offers.

If you’re interested in the knotty question of how humans and other animals can live together on disputed territory, listen to gardening guru Monty Don’s radio series Shared Planet. It’s a thoughtful and fascinating take on an age old problem.


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