Snails eating your starts? Be smart and Strategic.

AndyAlphabet(9)April 18, 2013

It used to drive me nuts that nearly every seed and new plant I would put in my garden would get eaten up before they ever really got going. Why just feed the slugs and snails? Over the years I've started to have some good success, and there are some hints I'd like to share that may help others out as well. I use a variety of techniques, and try to be strategic in how I use them. Here's what I do


I rarely plant seeds directly in the ground anymore. I plant everything in flats or peat pots in a safe location such as a table where bugs can't easily get at them. I raise them there until they are big enough to stand up to the pests a bit, then I plant them. My thinking is, I won't catch every pest, and the plants have to handle a little bit of abuse. If I can get the plants big enough and healthy enough before they get exposed to the dangers of the garden world, then they will be able to handle a moderate attack and go on to provide me a bountiful harvest. Once big enough, the pests won't matter so much.

So I keep the smallest plants up until they are going well, then when I plant them I take measures to protect them as best I can. For both my young sprouts I grow from seed and the veggies I get already started from the nursery, I make use of recycling to provide an cheap and very effective protection for my young plants. How do I do that?

I take plastic containers that used to contain things like salads and cookies, then I cut the bottom out of them. (See photo)

Next, I run a copper band around the outside of this plastic container, and it provides a wall against snails and slugs to keep them off my plants until they get big enough. I plant my plants in the ground, and they have this protective wall around them, which is very effective. Snails generally won't cross the barrier, and the young plants are secure until their leaves and branches get big enough that they hang over their plastic castle walls and come close enough to the ground that the snails and slugs can get at them. By that time, the plants have safely matured and are not much affected by the pests. The growth rate of leafy matter should be fast enough that it will more than replace the amount pests will consume at night. But just to make sure, I take other steps as well.


When I put my plants in the ground, I start thinking in terms of reducing the slug and snail population to a level that it will be manageable. So I consider how big my overall population is, and how to bring the level down to the point that by the time my plants grow over their castle walls, they won't have a huge onslaught to deal with. I think in terms of removing the maximum number of pounds of slug/snail biomass that I can from my yard in a short frame of time. Pellets may seem to get a number of the critters, but if you come out at night and see them in action, you may realize, as I have, that you only are getting at the tip of the iceberg. Besides, I have pets I love that I don't want to endanger, and if I can use organic effective methods that is much my preference. In my experience, the best way to decrease the overall population of slimy critters is to clear them out of their hiding places by day, then run the sprinklers so they are happy and gather pounds of them at night. I use containers I can close up to put them in, then I just throw in the trash. I pick up snails by their shells and slugs with chop sticks so I don't have to touch them. After doing this a few times you should soon find that you get a much diminished number of critters. You have brought the population down to a level that it won't overpower the plant growth.


More slugs and snails will of course come. Some you miss, some migrate from neighbors, and some will emerge from eggs and mature. But after doing population decimations a few years I have found my baseline critter population is much lower--fewer slugs and snails to keep laying eggs.

But there will be some and I don't want to be doing night raids forever, so how do I further reduce the population and protect my veggies with minimal effort and maximum safety? I am willing to use organically approved pellets that are safe for pets, but these quickly become ineffective when wetted and are not as tempting to the critters as my tender leaves. I have set out beer traps, but in coming out at night, I have found that only a few actually drown in the beer, while numerous others flock around it to sip at my fine brew then go away from the party and live to eat another day. Ahhhhh, but combining these elements has a much bigger effect. I put out little temptations of beer in tuna cans at soil level in the garden. THEN, I surround the beer with a ring of organic pellets. The critters flock to the beer and go right past my plants, but then nibble on the ring of pellets on the way to the beer party. Organic pellets are slow acting, so they go off to their homes to die, so you probably won't see a bunch of them lying around afterward. But you will notice a big drop in the slimy critter population. And your veggies will be able to grow in relative peace.

So be strategic and smart in how you attack your snail and slug problem. Stack the odds in your favor. Maximize your chance of success by getting plants big enough they can handle some attacks. The plastic rings with copper tape on them work well for this, and I rarely ever lose a plant. I am able to reuse the rings year after year so your initial time and expense in setting them up will easily be made up for in the long term.

And then combine strategies so you reduce quickly the slimy population threat and then continue to keep it under control by using minimal effort to produce maximum population decrease safely. Good luck!

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I guess you are in a region with a serious slug problem. Some years they get a bit bad here in a late wet spring but even then the damage is not huge. They mostly go after lettuces.

Damage to seedlings is rare for me. I direct-seed as much as possible, only starting things that get a big advantage from an early start or cannot be grown here without starting indoors, such as tomatoes.

    Bookmark   April 18, 2013 at 12:27PM
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edweather(Zone 5a/b Central NY)

I've battled slugs for years. I thought containers solved the problem......but they climb them. How do they know where the food is?

    Bookmark   April 18, 2013 at 7:40PM
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We seem to have lots of snails here in the California Central Valley--especially if you have vegetation for them to hide in and sufficient moisture.

I don't know about how they know where the food is, but they sure seem to be able to smell the beer!! I've watched them at night and they make quite a beeline for it!

As far as containers--I find they help some, but if you wrap them with copper tape they are far more effective. Rarely do I ever have snails cross the tape. Earwigs, however, are another matter. But going on, you should be able to get some copper tape in the garden section of your local home supply store or local nursery. I find this my best protection strategy. The photo here shows one brand and how I wrap a container.

    Bookmark   April 18, 2013 at 11:43PM
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edweather(Zone 5a/b Central NY)

I'm going to try that. I heard about the copper thing, but didn't know it was sold in such handy rolls. Is it pure copper? The tape you are using looks really wide. Is that the Correy's tape? They sell it at Home Depot.

This post was edited by edweather on Fri, Apr 19, 13 at 0:31

    Bookmark   April 19, 2013 at 12:15AM
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Do you think they can actually sense the element of copper and are allergic to it, or is it the extreme slickness of the surface, I wonder?

    Bookmark   April 19, 2013 at 7:35AM
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The copper conducts electrical current and there is something about the slug/snail slime that causes them to get shocked when they touch the copper. The copper does have to be wide enough that the critters can't bypass it, and substantial enough that it can conduct well.

I wonder if gluing a couple rows of pennies to the side of your "castle" (or above ground pot) would have the same effect? A good scrub with a wire brush each year should make sure corrosion didn't inhibit the conductivity.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2013 at 9:35AM
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The electrical current from the copper is the key. The brand copper tape I used in this case was Corry's, but I have no preference. It is easy to apply--comes with an adhesive backing like regular tape. I haven't had to "freshen up" the copper yet. However, once the plants get big enough to drop over the edge and provide a pathway to the snails, I generally remove the "castle wall" and put it away to be used the next year. So they really aren't out for more than about a month and then are saved to be used the next spring. Once the plants are big enough to drop over the wall they are big enough that the snails won't kill them.

I don't think I'd use pennies. For one thing, it would be more costly. For another, it would just be a lot of work, and likely less reliable. I have heard of people using copper pipe as a barrier in their gardens. I have a raised bed of strawberries that in surrounded by treated 4x4 posts where I just ran the copper tape around the sides. I really like copper as a strategy because I'm not putting animals at risk or putting poisons around things I am going to eat, and it has been very effective for me in saving plants and money. If you consider how much you spend on plants at the nursery, the copper is cheap insurance to preserve that investment, particularly if you reuse your protective walls year after year.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2013 at 6:41PM
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nancyjane_gardener(Zone 8ish North of San Francisco in the "real" wine country)

Sounds expensive! Wow, to surround all of the plants in my 4 4x8', 2 3x6', 2 3x3', and now my new 3 3x8'beds sound expensive!
I use sluggo around the outer edges of all of the raised beds and all is well! Nancy

    Bookmark   April 20, 2013 at 9:12PM
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I use sluggo as one of my strategies. If that works for you and is sufficient, by all means, do that alone! I use it in combination with beer traps to keep my slug/snail population in check once it has been brought down to a manageable level. In my situation it was not sufficient in itself and my plants were leveled before the sluggo began to take effect. Others likely have had similar experiences. My goal is to give those people some more tools that will work.

As far as expenses, a 2.5 lb container of Sluggo at Home Depot will run you about $16. That is slightly more than it costs for 2 15 foot rolls of copper tape. That will make me about 20 protective containers that will ensure the life of 20 plants this year, and for other plants for years to come. If I just used it for 3 years it would come out to about a quarter per plant. If you spent 2 or 3 dollars on a 4" plant at the store and typically end up with several decimated by snails, you break even if you save only 5-8 plants! How many of us lose that many plants in a single year? Certainly over 3 years many of us do.

The math works out well for me, and I am sure it will for others. But what really works for me is getting to enjoy my plants and a bountiful crop, instead of having the disappointment of being defeated by slugs and snails over and over. That is worth a lot to me.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2013 at 1:31AM
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flora_uk(SW UK 8/9)

20 protective containers may be excellent protection for a few precious plants but it doesn't help protect entire rows of vegetables. I use a sprinkling of pellets but also hand pick. Egg shells are completely ineffective when you have a real slug/snail problem. I have no trouble picking up either slugs or snails in my fingers and then they are dropped in a pot of salt water. I am picking scores of them at a time. Using chopsticks must take hours ... or at least it would with the numbers I am dealing with. A minute spent checking the runner bean trellis where the snails congregate in the day time yields this:

    Bookmark   April 21, 2013 at 2:49AM
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Flora--I love the photo! Yeah, I pick up snails with fingers too. And I completely agree that hand gathering them is absolutely the best way to get rid of big bunches of them. When I first started gathering snails this spring I would gather up more than a full salad clamshell in one evening--probably 2 or 3 pounds I would guess. It struck me when I went out at night how the advancing ranks of snails reminded me of the lines of tanks advancing in desert storm! I wish I had taken a picture of that!

I only use chopsticks for the slugs-they gross me out. Chopsticks are one suggestion I got from another site online. If you are somewhat proficient with chopsticks, it takes no longer than fingers. But I am not suggesting that everyone has to do things exactly as I do. Nor will every situation equally benefit from the strategies I am suggesting--but some people will find them helpful--and if others benefit from my suggestions then I have reached my goal.

If you have long rows of veggies, then you probably don't want to individually protect plants. That wouldn't completely eliminate copper from your strategies, though. If you have raised planters for some of those rows, for instance, adding a strip of copper to the edge of the planter may fend off those offending hoards enough that it is worth your while. I find my plastic containers especially great for plants that are spaced out quite a bit, such as zucchini, cucumbers, and melons.

If others decide to give these ideas a try, let me know!

    Bookmark   April 22, 2013 at 1:10AM
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These plagues of one type of pest to me must indicate something really out of whack in the immediate environment. For instance, for a lot of years the imported cabbage moth was overwhelming in my garden, to the point where growing anything Brassica seemed like a total waste of effort. Gradually though, the system seems to have balanced and now that pest is in a tolerable range.

Knock on wood.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2013 at 6:35AM
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I don't think this amount of snails and slugs is all that uncommon for our area. People have fairly large yards with lots of healthy vegetation. Your established shrubs and flowers provide a nice breeding and hiding place for the population to grow over time. It's California--so the winter is mild-so they just keep populating. Then spring comes along and I plop a bunch of tender young plants where they can get at them, and they come marching out to get the good stuff. That's why I find it so crucial to be "smart and strategic" in this kind of an environment. For many of us here this is the normal.

I went to my dad's house a short distance away for a family gathering a short time ago. He had planted rows and rows of tomatoes, squash, melons, okra and other plants. He has a small farm with 5 acres of walnuts, so he has plenty of room to grow things. I would say about half his plants were eaten down to nubs. That's the kind of thing I see happening all the time. And that's why I was so frustrated myself. I'd take several trips to the nursery getting plants and just replacing them after they got eaten down. It got expensive and frustrating. I really wanted to get a nice vegetable garden, but it wasn't happening very easy. So I read a bit online about my enemy, and started studying what happened with various strategies I used. Just throwing out some bait at night and hoping wasn't working. I got so frustrated that I even spent a night in the garden, camped on our trampoline so I could wake up every few hours and go around with a flashlight to study how my various attempts were working out and see the extent of the problem. (It was actually a very nice experience-beautiful stars above, chirping of crickets, fresh air and quiet thinking time.) So I developed some strategies on the basis of what I had read and experienced.

That's when I started experimenting with copper, beer and pet safe snail baits. I realized any lasting success would have to greatly reduce the overall population. Hand removal at night was far more efficient than poisons and beer, and so I made that a practice a few nights a week before going to bed. I'm about a month after planing now, and instead of a salad clamshell of snails, I get maybe a blackberry clamshell--around a quarter pound. Still enough to do some damage, so the other strategies kick in to fill the gap. For people that have very adverse snail and slug situations, having a strategic, proven plan can be a life saver. Lots of sites offer advice. Put out egg shells. Coffee grinds. Diatomacious earth. Drown them in beer. Those kind of things can be part of the plan. But I think you need to think in terms of strategy, and how these pieces may contribute and which ones play what role and how much of a role in preserving your garden. The combination I suggest works. By the way, you may enjoy the link below from youtube showing a snail trying to cross a copper barrier.

Here is a link that might be useful: Slugga Snail and Slug Copper Barrier Tape

    Bookmark   April 23, 2013 at 2:52AM
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flora_uk(SW UK 8/9)

I agree with AndyAlphabet - if you live in real gastropod country they are just a fact of life, not a symptom of anything 'out of whack'. In a damp leafy region with mildish winters you just have to work on them constantly with traps, bait and collection. Here's another portion. This time from the garden. The clothes peg is not for collecting them - just for scale.

I read a couple of years ago that research has shown that baby snails remain small all the time they meet slime trails of mature snails when they go out foraging. If the mature snail trails disappear the youngsters start to grow to fill their niche. So you need to collect them constantly.

No till and mulching aid them as their eggs are not exposed to birds as they are when you stir up the soil.

And throwing them next door doesn't work either. They'll come back. See link.

Here is a link that might be useful: Snails' homing instinct

    Bookmark   April 23, 2013 at 3:10AM
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Well, I guess we get just enough cold temps here to keep them under control. Certainly winters are mild by new england standards, but apparently much colder than southern england or most parts of CA.

    Bookmark   April 23, 2013 at 12:29PM
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hementia8(8 MS)

When I find a heavy population I spray the entire garden with 10 percent ammonia in the fall and again prior to planting
This does real well in exterminating them
When we had ducks and chickens we turned them into the garden after everything was harvested
We had some very fat and happy ducks and chickens and no slugs

    Bookmark   April 23, 2013 at 3:16PM
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edweather(Zone 5a/b Central NY)

I really like the copper tape idea. Like you say, it's only for when the plants are young. I shy away from any kind of bait because I don't want to attract every slug in the neighborhood. I also have used diatomaceous earth. It has to be freshened up often, but they won't make it through that stuff. A bag is cheap, and it lasts forever.

    Bookmark   April 23, 2013 at 9:52PM
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Wow, I have never heard of the ammonia thing. Is that concentration safe for plants?

Flora, my snail density looks like yours :).

I've found that sluggo is as effective as beer, and less bother. And hand-picking is necessary! Copper does seem awfully expensive, for several hundred starts.

I grow the especially-delicious seedlings like beans and squashes really huge before I plant them out. Like a 6" pot for a squash plant. It's absurd, but if I put out one that is just outgrowing its 4", the plant is cut off at ground level the next morning.

As for balance, the slugs and snails here are mostly introduced species, so they don't have the normal array of natural predators. Though I have seen a raccoon eating them.

    Bookmark   April 23, 2013 at 11:12PM
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hementia8(8 MS)

In the fall and early spring we have very few vegatales growing except a few cole crops
We try not to get the ammonia on the plants and it does not seem to hurt the weeds much
I understand it breaks down into available nitrogen
Flora those are some large snails
Are they edible?

    Bookmark   April 24, 2013 at 11:30AM
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I haven't dropped in on GardenWeb in a few years! Flora, I recognize you :) My slug and snail problem is as bad as ever here in south Wales. I've used two big bottles of organic slug pellets this month, and that has really helped with the slugs, but the snails are just out of control! It's a wonder the garden doesn't crunch when I walk on it from all those shells. In the past week I've pulled 1400 snails out of my little garden. 1400. In one hour we got 600. And it's been fairly dry this week, weather-wise. I haven't tried copper tape, but I've tried everything else I've ever heard of and still can't grow morning glories, sunflowers, sweet peas, or a hundred other things. Handpicking is, in my opinion, the only way to go when you live in an area with nearly Biblical plagues of these pests.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2013 at 7:35PM
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AiliDeSpain(6a - Utah)

omg on the amount of snails and slugs you all are having to deal with.
Is sluggo harmful to pets like cats?

    Bookmark   May 7, 2013 at 12:26PM
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purple1701(5B Chicago)

Does anyone know if tinfoil or aluminum foil works to repel slugs and snails? I am trying out this method (details in the link) where you use pieces of tp rolls and wrap them in tinfoil then place it around the base of your plants. (not my idea or blog, someone else's)

Here is a link that might be useful: Slug collars

    Bookmark   May 7, 2013 at 1:17PM
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