So my veggie garden is still under four feet of snow — does that stop a keen gardener from planning for a new planting season? Heck, no!

One of the first plantings that will go in (when Spring eventually arrives in Atlantic Canada) will be the salad garden of mixed mesclun greens and spinach and lettuce, not to mention some tasty lovely snow peas. These are all vegetable crops that prefer cooler air and soil temperatures, and will quickly fade when summer sun grows warm.

decorative iron plant crown around lettuce plant

Stretch the Summer Salad Days

Did you know that you can grow salad greens in containers, if you don’t have a patch of earth for a garden? They look quite lush and lovely growing in pots, too.

Keep the harvest going by snipping off just the outside leaves, rather than the entire head of your lettuce plants. The plants will keep producing from the centre, and you get super-fresh salad for days and days on end!

Lettuce and spinach and other greens are easy to grow from seed. So easy, in fact, that I never seem to learn to scatter the seeds thinly enough — I’m always making allowances for seeds that might not germinate, and I end up with a crowded planting of tiny plants struggling against each other for light. Not so good for the air circulation, either, and some of my lettuce can end up composting itself if we get a few days of rain.

No big deal, though: just get in there with the scissors and thin it out. Cut off some of those tiny lettuce plants right at soil level when they’re just a few inches high, and start the salad season early. Thinning out will let the remaining plants grow better and avoid those nasty damp-related problems.

Slugs and Snails, Oh My!

Slugs and snails are the biggest threat to a nice salad garden, and you’ll have to be on your toes to keep ahead of them — they sneak out at dusk and can eat their way through a great deal of salad in one night, leaving silvery slimy trails all over the ragged green leaves, while you’re sleeping peacefully and all unawares… Unpleasant!

Some stores sell various kinds of “snail bait” and “slug powder” — but those are just another name for poisons. Nasty ones. And much as I find slugs to be one of the more disgusting creatures on the planet, I have no interest in sprinkling toxic chemicals around the vegetable garden. No amount of washing the lettuce would convince me that it’s not tainted. Some people swear by the new products made with iron phosphate, but I have no experience of them so you’re on your own there!

Here are two earth-friendly solutions that work for me to keep slugs and snails out of the salad garden:

One is the traditional trap baited with beer. You set a shallow dish into the garden soil just so the lip of it is even with the top of the ground, then pour in some beer. (Feel free to use the stale dregs left in the bottom of bottles after a barbecue — no need to waste the good stuff on your slugs and snails!) During the night, the slimey crawlies will come out and head for the lettuce… but they’ll get distracted by the beer, slip in for a drink, and drown. Ha!

The other solution is physical control — and no, I’m not going to suggest going out with a flashlight and hand-picking your slugs and snails out of the lettuce. Although I do know some people who actually do that. Ugh.

No, we’re talking about slug prevention here.

First, you make sure there’s not a lot of litter in the salad garden, such as fallen leaves and such, for slugs and snails to hide underneath in the daytime. Then, you put a little barrier around each lettuce plant.

A sprinkling of “diotomaceous earth” — ground up fossils, as I understand it — will scratch their little slug bellies, so a ring around the lettuce will keep slugs at bay. But I always worry about the cats and dogs getting into it and then licking their paws, and the white granules are not particularly attractive in the garden. Also, I’m not 100% convinced that diotomaceous earth is the way to go from an environmental perspective: surely there’s a finite supply of fossil bones to make it? And what’s involved in the processing and packaging and transportation?

I don’t know the answers, but these are questions that keep coming to mind — and I’d prefer not to do too much in the way of deep thinking when out playing in the garden.

Wood ashes work the same way as diotomaceous earth, by the way — and some gardeners swear by coffee grounds, cornmeal, and natural bran — but all of these barriers will only work if they’re dry. One good heavy dew in the late evening, and the slugs and snails can move right back in. Crushed eggshells and cedar chips are more effective, as they keep on working in all types of weather, but how many eggs can you eat? I don’t use cedar chips mostly because they keep the ground from warming up, and in this short Canadian growing season we really need to let the sun reach the soil as much as it can.

decorative iron plant crown around lettuce plant Generally, I just put a low collar of some sort around the lettuce plants. Cardboard won’t do it — the slugs and snails will just laugh merrily and climb right over it. What you want is a strip of copper. Slug slime reacts in some way with copper to basically electrocute the slugs. Ha!

And that’s where this iron plant crown (from Wisteria) comes in.

Granted, the crown is supposed to be for decoration — perhaps to make the lettuce plants feel important? at $39.00 per, they should! — but I say, if you’re going to have slug barriers around a bunch of garden plants, why not make them in a whimsical shape? And if, like me, you like to put the occasional pretty ruffled lettuce plant in among the garden flowers, too, a decorative iron crown might be the perfect finishing touch.

To make the crown a useful slug-proofing solution, however, just plain iron won’t do. Fasten a strip of copper around it to repel the slimy pests.

I’ve also had pretty good luck with previously-enjoyed tinfoil (aluminum foil) in place of copper. Now, I won’t swear that it will work for you, because tinfoil isn’t mentioned in any of my gardening books, but I first tried it because (a) copper can be pricey, (b) I am almost pathologically thrifty, as gardeners go, and (c) I had a slug emergency one year — and it works for me.

Crumple up your scraps of tinfoil left over from kitchen and barbecue use, and make a tiny obstacle course for slugs and snails to struggle across on their way to your plants. And if you hide the tinfoil inside a lovely crown, looking like something out of a garden fairytale, no one will be any the wiser to your frugal trick!

[Thanks to The Finer Things for finding the crown!]

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. domestika

    @Lawrence, sacrificial plants sounds so cold-hearted, but it’s an idea with merit – I’ll have to give it a try.

    @natasha, yes, the beer trap is my first choice – but only when there’s dregs around, not wasting a full new bottle on the slugs!

    @Jean, hm, ol’ Peter Rabbit set a bad example there for untold generations of garden-raiding bunnies. Maybe borrow Lawrence’s idea of sacrificial plants (outside the fence)? Or, hey, it might be worth trying some of the tips for repelling deer in The Desperate Gardener and the Homemade Deer Repellent — and if any of that works, want to send me a few of your slug-eating frogs? I’ve only got toads – do toads eat slugs? If so, mine seem to be lazy…

  2. Jean

    My problem isn’t slugs as we have so many frogs. No, rabbits are my problem and I really don’t know what to do! Fence is pretty good but the little wretches eat through the wire!

  3. natasha

    i hear that a little bottle of beer will do em in. they go in, get drunk, drown. happy.

  4. Lawrence

    Sacrificial plants are a good idea too, just plant more than you need so the slugs get a feed away from your stock, and leave an open space between those and yours were the sun can dry them up. I made the mistake of putting down old planks as walk-ways between beds and this gave them a shady path ( under the planks ) to move around the garden even in the height of summer.

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