They’re sneaky and they’re slimy, they make your plants look grimy, you want them to die timely… the slug ‘n snail family! Can you tell that Halloween is right around the corner? Well, just like ghosts and goblins, snails and slugs do their best work at night – and can cause gardeners quite the fright! If you see shiny mucus trails, decapitated seedlings, and munch holes in leaves, it sounds like you have a scary snail problem. Yet the good news is, it’s fairly easy to stop snails and slugs in an organic manner. No need to get supernatural!
Read along to learn 10 ways to organically control snails and slugs in your garden. While it may not be possible to eliminate their presence entirely, there are plenty of preventative measures, traps, barriers, and organic products that can help to manage their populations enough to keep your plants looking fresh and slime-free. Spoiler alert: a couple of common snail control myths will also be exposed!
Don’t worry – despite my silly opening, these snail control tips will work any time of year.
About Snails and Slugs
Slugs and snails are common and frustrating garden pests. They are especially prevalent in climates with ample moisture or humidity, and exhibit peak activity during the wet seasons of the year. Yet even in the driest months, a well-irrigated garden provides snails and slugs prime habitat! During the daytime, snails and slugs take cover in dense shrubs, leaf piles, under logs, or other damp and dark locations. They can also survive freezing conditions if they hide well enough. At night, they emerge and feed!
Snails and slugs are part of the Mollusk family of animals – alongside clams, octopus, scallops, oysters, squid, and chitons. The primary difference between slugs and snails is the hard exterior shell that snails don for protection. Slugs and snails are further classified as ‘gastropods’, which literally means stomach and foot. That description couldn’t be more fitting, seeing that these garden pests slide along on a muscular foot while munching on everything in their path! In addition to being ferocious eaters, snails and slugs rapidly reproduce. If their populations are left unchecked, they can cause serious destruction to your garden.
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Plants Snails and Slugs Are Attracted To
Snails and slugs aren’t picky eaters. They feed on both fresh and decaying matter, and will go after pretty much any tender herbaceous plant in the garden they can find. However, lettuce, cabbage, young seedlings, strawberries, beans, zucchini, cucumber, pepper plants, basil, and other leafy greens seem to be snail favorites.
Many flowers and ornamental plants are also highly attractive to snails and slugs, including marigolds, larkspur, dahlia, hostas, zinnia, sunflowers, succulents, and more. Soft new sprouts or leaves that are in contact with the soil or mulch layer are especially easy targets, though snails and slugs slither up into taller plants to graze on tender new growth as well.
What don’t they like?
In general, snails and slugs avoid tough, prickly, bitter, and/or highly aromatic plants such as rosemary, catmint, and lavender. Apparently, they’re also not big fans of ferns, geraniums, columbine, hydrangeas, euphorbia, yucca, wormwood, begonias, or Japanese anemone. If you struggle with slug and snail control in your ornamental garden, choosing less desirable plants could be an easy solution!
How Snails and Slugs Damage Plants
The first telltale sign that you have snails in your garden is the silvery, slimy trail of mucus they leave behind. As they feed on plants, snails and slugs chew large holes in leaves. The holes are typically irregular in shape, and may appear in the middle of leaves or around the edges. In large established plants, snail damage to the outer leaves is unsightly – but the plant can usually bounce back. However, if snails and slugs eat the centermost part of the plant where new growth is formed (also known as the terminal bud), it could halt plant growth completely.
Young tender sprouts and seedlings are especially at risk, and may be consumed in their entirety in one night! In high enough numbers, snails and slugs can take out a whole bed of just-sprouted or freshly-planted seedlings. Unfortunately, that is the kind of damage you can’t bounce back from… That is why it is especially important to keep the snail or slug population under control in your garden, and to have tools and techniques to manage them ready and waiting come planting time!
10 WAYS TO STOP OR GET RID OF SNAILS AND SLUGS
1) Reduce Slug and Snail Habitat
We used to have tons of snails in our garden! They lived in a large swath of ice plant that lined the side of our driveway and bordered our front yard, just about 10 feet away from our raised garden beds. Every night, they’d venture out from the ice plant towards our garden in droves. We eventually removed the ice plant to expand the front yard (it was invasive and messy anyways!) and our snail problem went away.
Now, this option clearly won’t be feasible for every situation. But if there are thick bushes or other snail hotspots right next to your garden space, consider taking measures to thin them out. Remember, snails love to hide in damp, dark places during the day. Your choice in mulch can even make a difference. For example, a deep fluffy bed of straw or leaves are more snail-friendly than a layer of compost or fine bark mulch. Eliminating those types of micro-environments in close proximity to your tender edibles may help get rid of snails and slugs.
2) Create a Distraction
An alternative to reducing habitat is to create a designated ‘sacrificial bed’ for slugs and snails. Plant some of their favorite things all together in one area (listed above), away from the plants you hope to protect. What you do thereafter is up to you. You could let them run wild in ‘their’ new area, but keep in mind they will only increase in number. Or, the sacrificial space could be used as a trap – and then you can employ the other slug and snail control methods listed below in a concentrated area.
3) Use Drip Irrigation
Reduce overhead watering and sprinkler watering, and switch to drip irrigation where possible. The less water available or pooled on the surface of plants and soil, the better! Drip irrigation delivers water directly to the soil level, or even under a layer of mulch. Even better, try to use drip irrigation to water closer to sunrise – rather than in the evening when snails and slugs are most active. Like number one above, this tip reduces desirable habitat for slugs and snails. Not to mention, drip irrigation is more efficient and sustainable than overhead watering anyway!
Clearly, this organic snail control method won’t make as much of an impact in areas that receive regular rain year round. But in climates with extended dry periods like ours, it can make a big difference! Come to think of it, right around the time we removed the ice plant from our driveway area, we also removed the very last of our front lawn and converted the traditional sprinklers to drip. No more snails!
4) Manual Collection at Night
Manual collection or hand-picking is a very simple, effective, and organic way to get rid of snails or slugs. On a damp evening or after watering, head outside with a flashlight or headlamp an hour or two after dark. Take a look around the plants or areas you usually see evidence of snail damage. Chances are, you should be able to find many – dozens even!
Collect the snails or slugs and put them in a bucket or trash bag. Then, you can either relocate them elsewhere or dispose of them. It’s up to you. One way to kill snails and slugs during manual collection is to drop them into a bucket of hot soapy water. Or, a container with salt – which will also kill them. With plain cool water, they will simply crawl back out. Play it safe and wear gloves to collect snails and slugs. Some species carry parasites and pathogens that are harmful to humans.
We used to keep collected snails in a bucket with a lid overnight and then feed them to our chickens the next day. I have since learned that snails, slugs, grubs and earthworms can carry roundworm and gapeworm parasites that are harmful to chickens. Our girls eat plenty of insects and worms as they naturally forage in our backyard, but I no longer collect those things to feed them in large numbers.
5) Beer Traps
Did you know that snails and slugs love beer? Actually, it is the yeast they’re attracted to – and can smell it from a good distance away! The best news is, they’re cheap drunks and prefer basic inexpensive beer over the quality craft beers we prefer to drink here. Something like Budweiser or Coors should work great. Truth be told, setting up beer traps may be one of the easiest ways to get rid of snails in large numbers all at once!
To create a slug and snail beer trap, simply fill a wide shallow container with an inch or two of beer and set it out in a high snail traffic area. You could use saved tuna or cat food cans, though if you’re trying to control a large snail or slug population, a bigger container may be best. For instance, a pie tin, old sandwich-size tupperware container, or similar. Specialized snail trap containers are also available to buy and fill!
Some gardeners say to bury the container slightly, so that the rim is level with the soil. Others say simply set it out on top of the soil (near your plants) and let them crawl in. Try both and see what works in your garden! For the best results, put out a few traps in different locations. Once the slugs and snails enter, they should be trapped and drown in the beer. Empty and refill the snail beer traps every day or two as needed.
6) Cloches & Collars
You can use different types of physical barriers to prevent snails and slugs from accessing your plants, including cloches and collars. Cloches are small domes that go over individual plants, which can block garden pests as well as protect them from frost. These are ideal to guard small seedlings against slugs and snails, especially since the pests cannot crawl up and over them. You can purchase pre-made cloches, or make DIY cloches from used plastic 2-liter bottles or milk jugs. Keep in mind that plastic cloches can create extra heat and condensation inside (like a mini greenhouse) so avoid using them on hot days.
Like cloches, collars can buffer access to individual plants from pests cruising along the soil surface. Collars can be made from plastic bottles (cut into rings), by cutting out the bottom of used yogurt or cottage cheese containers, or any other material you can fashion into a raised circle around the base of the plant.
Snails and slugs typically choose the path of least resistance and therefore can be deterred when they come across a collar. But because collars are open on top, there is a chance they may simply crawl right up and over. Collars that have a bigger lip or rim create an additional obstacle, and are usually more effective. You can also line the rim of a collar with vaseline or copper tape for further snail control and protection, explained more below!
7) Copper Tape
Slugs and snails do not like to crawl across copper. When they do, it creates a biochemical reaction that feels unpleasant for them (like an electrical shock), so they’re usually deterred and turn around. Therefore, wrapping copper tape around the base of plants, the edges of pots, raised beds, and protective collars, or even around the trunk of a tree may prevent slug and snail access. Thin strips of copper won’t be effective since they can quickly scoot and stretch across it. Wide strips of copper (like this one!) are the most effective for slug and snail control.
8) Diatomaceous Earth
Diatomaceous earth, also known as DE, is made from ancient fossilized phytoplankton – called diatoms. To humans and pets, it feels like a soft silky powder (though is hazardous when inhaled) and is commonly used in food, cosmetics, and filtration systems. Yet when it comes in contact with small garden pests, the tiny diatoms act like miniature shards of glass and cause lacerations. Those little cuts eventually lead to death by desiccation – or becoming dried out. DE doesn’t work against all garden pests though. It is most effective at killing small insects with an exoskeleton – such as earwigs, mites, ants, millipedes, cockroaches, crickets, centipedes, and pill bugs.
Truth be told, I have read conflicting things about how effective DE is at killing slugs or snails. Their thick mucus covering likely provides a decent layer of protection; DE doesn’t kill earthworms for this same reason. But experiments show that they definitely prefer to not crawl over it, and will avoid it when encountered! Accordingly, dusting a wide ring of food-grade DE on the soil surface around plants or the perimeter of a garden bed may effectively deter slugs and snails. DE works best when it is dry, as it is rendered temporarily ineffective when wet.
Learn more here: “What is Diatomaceous Earth? How to Use DE for Garden Pest Control”
9) Encourage Natural Predators
Snails and slugs have many natural predators, including chickens, ducks, geese, mice, opossums, raccoons, toads, hedgehogs, ground beetles, snakes, turtles, and birds. Encouraging a diversity of native wildlife in your yard can often help keep pest populations naturally in balance, from pest insects to snails! Heck, if you have a known opossum presence, you could even try setting out some snails you’ve collected for them to dine on. Opossums also eat rodents, so they’re good friends to have around the garden. To learn more about creating a wildlife-friendly yard, check out this article all about it: “How to Turn Your Yard into a Certified Wildlife Habitat”
‘Sluggo‘ is a man-made product used to kill snails and slugs. It is OMRI-listed, meaning it is considered safe and acceptable to use in edible organic gardens. Sluggo’s primary active ingredient is iron-phosphate, which is reportedly safe to use around kids, pets and wildlife. According to the National Pesticide Information Center, studies show that beetles and earthworms are not negatively affected by iron phosphate, even in concentrations twice the allowable limits. Bee exposure is unlikely due to the way it is applied.
Organic or not, I suggest trying the other slug and snail control methods on this list before reaching for something synthetic. If you do opt to use Sluggo, simply sprinkle the small white pellets around problem areas – focusing on concentrated hiding places, such as under shrubs, or the areas they must cross to get to your garden. Slugs and snails are drawn to it, consume it, and then lose their appetite and stop eating altogether. It is best to apply Sluggo when the weather forecast is free of rain for a few days, as it begins to degrade once it becomes saturated. As the pellets break down, the iron doubles as a fertilizer for your garden.
Myth: Crushed eggshells or coffee grounds for snail control
You may have heard that sprinkling crushed eggshells or coffee grounds in a ring around the base of plants (or the perimeter of a garden bed) will prevent snails and slugs from crossing over to your plants. The theory is that they don’t like to crawl over sharp, pokey things. After hearing mixed reviews on how well this works, I decided to dig deeper. I found this experiment that showed snails and slugs don’t mind coffee grounds much at all, and also this myth-buster post about snails and eggshells. In fact, calcium is an essential part of a snails diet (to maintain their hard shell) so they may actually be attracted to the calcium-based eggshells!
So, it looks like coffee grounds or crushed eggshells will likely NOT adequately protect your plants from hungry, determined snails. Or, have you had success with this organic snail control trick? Let us know in the comments below!
And that sums up 10 organic slug and snail control methods to try.
Well, what do you think? Did you pick up on a few new tips? I hope so! Are there any slug and snail control techniques that work for you, that I failed to mention? Let us know, or feel free to ask questions in the comments below. With a little careful thought and diligence, I have faith you can protect your plants from these hungry garden pests. As always, remember that an organic garden is never a “perfect” one – and that is more than okay! Thank you for reading, and best of luck.
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