Blue Ridge Naturalist: The Unloved Slug

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Seal slug. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

But slugs deserve far more respect than gardeners and others give to them. These invertebrates have the very important job of helping to recycle organic matter, returning it to the soil ultimately for the benefit of growing plants.

If you think that these critters exist to destroy your plants, then you have been misinformed. Unfortunately, it’s easy for that to be the case. University extension websites across the country perpetuate this very mistaken notion, and a book was even put out several years ago titled 50 Ways to Kill a Slug.

I read a review of this book that, in my opinion, should never have been published.  It was totally out of touch with the real world of slugs and what they do.

The reader was told that slugs “are guaranteed to infuriate, [they] parade through the garden, munching on tender plants and leaving slimy trails that will always seem to be concentrated in areas where your bare hand will be most likely to touch the greatest surface area of slime.”

In spite of having gardened for more than half a century, I cannot relate at all to these comments. Why is that? What makes my gardening experiences so totally different from those of other long-time gardeners?

The answer is not a mystery. Simply put, I live in agreement with the natural world.

I love nature and I have embraced it virtually all of my life. Spending as much time as possible in the out-of-doors as a child and as an adult, I have seen first-hand, and often documented by way of photography and handwritten journals, the roles that various organisms play in the natural world.

If you took one of my classes or attended one of my slide presentations, you would stop thinking of slugs as “pests” and instead recognize them for the very important animals that they truly are: Mother Nature’s recyclers.

It’s vitally important for all organic matter (the remains of organisms that were once alive) to be recycled back into the environment. That’s because all living things, including us, are composed of recycled organic matter. This is the reason discarded vegetative scraps and inedible animal parts should never be sent to a landfill where it will be locked away and wasted rather than reused.

Slugs feed upon all kinds of things, from dead animals to sickly plants to animal droppings. By doing so, they recycle nutrients that your garden needs to grow well.  In other words, they fertilize your plants so that you don’t need to spend time, effort, and perhaps money to do so.

Yet gardeners are constantly told to kill all—yes, I said all—of these lowly-yet-oh-so useful animals. This advice is nonsensical, so why does the gardening community take it to heart?

The problem is that the study of horticulture does not include learning about the natural world. Therefore gardeners are often not familiar with the actual roles that all organisms play to keep the environment—including their gardens—functioning properly.

The reality is that unless you understand how the natural world works, you simply cannot garden well. Gardening involves knowing about the lives of the animals out there so you can comprehend how they interact with plants and each other.

A slug—there are many species—is typically a fat little animal that looks damp. It reminds me somewhat of a miniature seal, only without the feet. And like seals, slugs are usually found where it is wet.

These animals will die if they dry out. Thus they tend to avoid direct sunshine, staying among and underneath plant debris on sunny days and only venturing forth into the open on cloudy or damp days.

If someone tells me that he has a slug problem, I tell him that he must be keeping his garden too wet. In nature, cause and effect is always logical. But in order to determine what is causing the effect observed, you must investigate exactly what the gardener is doing and how that affects the behavior of the animal in question.

For example, sometimes a gardener over-waters his garden, or perhaps he has applied so much mulch that it never dries out. When organic matter remains constantly wet, it starts to rot. That means microorganisms have begun to recycle it.

If plants are growing so close together that they don’t have enough air circulation to dry them off, they too will start to rot because conditions aren’t right for the plants to remain healthy. Mother Nature wants to remove such plants from the environment as quickly as possible because they are not likely to be able to reproduce. If plants are not going to help perpetuate life, they are wasting precious real estate.

Therefore Mother Nature sends in slugs that can recycle the rotting, sickly plants more quickly than the microorganisms are capable of doing. This action opens up the space sooner for new plants to grow that may perform better than the previous plants in that location.

Sadly, gardeners see the slugs and blame them for destroying their plants when, in reality, the slugs are correcting a cultivation “wrong” performed by the gardener. So this is why we have slugs: They tell you to change your gardening ways so your plants can grow well and strong instead of sickly and weak.

Don’t buy into the gardening prejudice against these fine animals that demands they be put to death instead of thanked for the work they do and the advice they provide you—if you pay attention and learn to speak the language of Mother Nature.

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