Derek – Friday 11th June 2021

Snails. Wet weather increases their number, and we had the rainiest May, followed by a few days of sunshine, and then a deluge last Friday. I came in on Saturday to look at Americana, our display of food plants from the continent of America. And the snails had been at them. Snails are very selective. Some plants they’ll leave alone, others they’ll devastate. The plants they have been munching in Americana are the sweet pepper, the butternut squash and the sunflowers. The latter two are in the raised square bed near the greenhouse. There are two small butternut squash plants, in the ground less than a week, and sunflowers just a few centimetres high. In a few days, there could be nothing left of them if the snail attack continues.

What to do?

There are chemicals on the market but the community garden does not sanction them. Some gardeners use beer traps: a little beer in a lid is supposed to attract them and, once in the vessel, kill them. There are various barriers too. I thought of coarse sand. Might that work? Snails move on a single foot on a layer of slime. The scratching of sand might stop them, except we didn’t have any. Snails feed mostly at night, another like the one before and the plants could be wiped out.

What did we have in hand?

My daughter Lia suggested copper mesh. She had bought some pot scourers in Bereket, ten for a few pounds. They are copper-coated steel wire, and if you unroll one it elongates to around a metre long. We stretched them round the square bed, one on each side, held down by drawing pins. I filled in gaps in the bed with stones and broken pot pieces. There was one scourer left, and we put that round the box containing the sweet peppers.

I am writing this a week later, and there hasn’t been a snail attack. It’s difficult to prove a negative, but I am crossing my fingers that the pot scourer barrier will continue to work.

Slugs and snails like young, green growth. So perhaps I should have kept the butternut squash longer in the greenhouse. And got the sunflowers going indoors too. Or might they still have been attacked?

Metaldehyde is the widest-used chemical for killing snails and slugs. It is effective, but unfortunately it can kill dogs and cats too. Nor is it good for birds, children or me and you. Its use is also thought to be a factor in the low numbers of hedgehogs around. Farmers have fought to hang on to it because of the devastating effect of slugs and snails on young crops, but it is to be banned from March 2022. The alternative is iron phosphates which is less poisonous to us and other wildlife, but farmers say it is less effective as a slug killer.

I have a big fat book, over 1200 pages long, published in 1930 by the Daily Express, entitled The Garden for Expert and Amateur. Its remedies for getting rid of snails and slugs are drastic:

‘Dig naphthalene into infected land, dress heavily infected plants with soot and lime in wet weather. Heaps of bran mash poisoned with arsenic will kill many slugs, and many patent slug traps are also effective. Collect all winter masses of snails and crush. Protect and encourage thrushes.’

I have heard of people going out into the garden at night with a bucket of near-boiling water into which they drop snails. I shouldn’t be so appalled, I crush blackfly, and wouldn’t hesitate stepping on a cockroach. But the Daily Express book is so matter-of-fact with arsenic. Was arsenic still so available in 1930? I know it was used on flypapers. In 1911, Frederic Henry Seddon, living near Finsbury Park, killed his lodger Eliza Mary Barrow by arsenic poisoning, having got control of her money. It was thought he obtained the poison by soaking it off flypapers.

But it’s pot scourers and crossed fingers for us in this tale of snails.

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