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Question of the Week © 2017 Mike McGrath
Note: Hundreds of Mike's informative articles are available (in alphabetical order!) right here at the Gardens Alive website. To find Mike's answers to your specific garden problem, Click here and find your topic (like Weeds, Worms, Rhododendrons...) in our complete alphabetical archive of Questions of the Week.
Special Summer Double-Header;
Two different questions this week?! What's up?
Two different reasons. It's clear from my emails that lots of new people are coming on board who haven't heard a lot of the basics—especially concerning things we haven't mentioned in a while. And there are some topics—like these two—that we should cover every season at the right time of year, no matter what. So let's bask in some double-down basics!
1)Using Grass Clippings Wisely….
Q. My wife and I have always composted our lawn clippings, but recently moved and our new backyard backs up to a golf course (with a creek and about five yards of wooded area in between). The previous owner says that the lawn is untreated, but the golf course obviously treats their turf heavily. Will we be able to continue to compost our clippings, despite the potential for run-off and cross contamination?
---- Evan in Philadelphia
A. First, I'd worry much more about my water supply. If you're on a well, get the water tested ASAP, as agricultural chemicals can travel great distances underground. And I hope that the golf course exercises caution near that creek; herbicides and chemical fertilizers can wreak havoc in aquatic areas.
And no matter where you live, don't compost your grass clippings!
…Because those clippings are 10 percent nitrogen by weight; that's the perfect food in the perfect percentage for lawn grasses! Removing the clippings after you mow literally starves your lawn of its most natural food. If you have a good quality mower with a sharp blade, you won't ever see any of the pulverized clippings, but your lawn will get a free gentle supplemental feeding every time you mow.
And people tend to overload their compost piles with nitrogen-rich green materials like grass clippings at this time of year, which can lead to a stinky mess.
But even if you have saved large amounts of shredded fall leaves to balance out those greens, you should still let the clippings fall back on the lawn. It's good for the grass—and less work for you.
And let us stress that you should never ever try to compost grass clippings alone; and never ever ever try and compost clippings from a lawn that has been treated with herbicides; the resulting compost can kill any plants that aren't grass.
2) Controlling Slugs
Q. Do you have any expert advice on how to control slugs? They have eaten the beans I planted, killed my flowers and are now on my basil leaves. I put a pie plate of saltwater out, but fear the problem will just get worse thru the summer as the veggies grow. Is there any commercial product I should be using around the garden?
---Deanna in Eastern Montgomery County (near Philadelphia)
I'll change tactics and directly answer that last part of the question with a simple yes: Non-toxic slug control pellets. Sold under brand names like "Sluggo" and "Escar-Go", the pellets attract the nasty slimers with a yeasty bait that is hugely attractive to slugs, but they also contain iron phosphate, which slugs can't metabolize. Although deadly to slugs (and snails), iron phosphate is harmless to people, pets, earthworms, and perhaps most importantly, frogs and toads…
…Because toads eat slugs, and lots of them; partially because both creatures are active at night, and because both like to live in the same kind of moist, shady environments. And it's easy to get slug-eating toads to live in your garden. They only need two things from you…
1) Don't use chemical pesticides! Amphibians like toads have porous skin that makes them very susceptible to pesticide poisoning.
2) They also need a 'toad abode'—a damp shady spot to hide out in during the day. The ideal 'abode' is something like a board propped up on bricks in a heavily vegetated area of the garden—like under some big hostas or large shrubs. Put some old carpeting, dirt or mulch on top of the board to keep it moist and cool inside the abode.
Speaking of mulch, you should consider raking away any heavy mulches until you get your slugs under control. Heavy mulch provides a perfect hiding place for slugs in the daytime.
And/or lay boards down around the affected plants. When the sun comes up, go out with a five-gallon bucket with some soapy water in the bottom, lift up the boards and scrape all the slugs hiding on the underside into the soapy water. Very satisfying.
…As is installing copper barriers on your raised bed frames or around the tops of your containers. Copper is 'shockingly toxic' to slugs.
You can also put small containers of fresh beer—NOT 'stale beer'—out in the garden at sunset. (Not early in the morning—the beer will go bad during the day.) They'll be full of dead drunken slugs in the morning.
But 'salt water'?
Like Rick in Casablanca, our listener has been misinformed. If you go out at night and sprinkle just the tiniest bit of salt onto a slug, it will quickly shrivel up and die. But, alas, they will not hurl themselves into a miniature ocean for you.