Gardening and Snail-i-cide in Cornwall

One of my first posts was about slugs. I wrote it early in the growing season, when none of the new plants stand a chance unless I carry out mass slug-i-cide. And snail-i-cide. It’s disgusting, it’s disturbing, and it works, up to a point.

But the plants that don’t get eaten get bigger, and sooner or later I convince myself that I can skip an evening’s slaughter. Maybe because it’s raining. Maybe because it isn’t. There’s always a reason, and it doesn’t have to be a sensible one. Then, before I notice what’s happening, several days have rolled past, and then the weeks do the same thing, and eventually I decide that I don’t have to kill them anymore. The plants are established.

Irrelevant Photo: Late Summer Wildflowers

Irrelevant Photo: Wildflowers

Oh, happy summer. I declare a truce with the slugs and snails. This isn’t negotiated, it’s a one-sided thing. They still eat everything in sight, but now I look the other way when I see them.

Then summer passes, and right now it’s fall. Or autumn, if you’re of the British persuasion. A few days ago, I lifted the lid on the kitchen garbage can and found a snail glued to the underside. How did it get there? I suspect I found it when I was washing a batch of spinach I’d cut and I tossed it in as a sort of compromise: I won’t carry it sweetly back out to the garden to munch its way through more spinach, but I’m not killing it, am I?

The reason I say “I suspect” is that I’ve rearranged my memory so that I’m no longer absolutely the kind of person who’d do that. I probably am, but I have a small escape hatch. The snail might have moved in on its own: come in the back door, crossed the living room rug, crawled up the side of the garbage can, lifted the lid, crawled in. You know; it could happen if, I don’t know, the laws of physics changed or something. I’m just not sure.

I plucked it off the top and put it inside the bin again. Why? No idea. I don’t understand the workings of my mind any better than you, dear reader, are likely to. The next time I looked, it had climbed to the top of the liner and I left it there. Because by now it had become individualized. It wasn’t just some snail, it was almost a pet. And I’d tossed the poor thing in a near-empty, and dry, garbage can, with nothing edible and nothing moist.

Stop that, I told myself.

I didn’t listen. Instead I asked myself whether it was crueler to carry it to the pavement and crush it or to leave it where it was. This was, in spite of its absurdity, a serious ethical question, and a complicated one, which (like so many serious and complicated ethical questions) I haven’t answered to my own satisfaction. That’s another way of saying that I left it where it was but became conscious of every bit of edible junk I tossed in, and every smidgen of moisture. I made a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, which involved a lot of oatmeal landing on the floor. My recipes are like that: Take one handful of rolled oats and toss over your left shoulder. So I swept the oatmeal up and threw it in with the snail. Ditto the bits of dog treats I cut in half because the dog is small and the treats are big and she’d be chewing for half an hour if I didn’t cut them up.

Mmm. Snail food.

So here I am, the bane of slugs and snails, feeding a pet snail.

Eventually the garbage can will fill up and I’ll take the bag out, slug and all, and toss it in the trash. I know this. But like a mother who can’t bear to tell her daughter the goldfish died, I’ll tell myself it’ll be fine. It’s just going on a trip, darling, to a new home.


Summer evenings here in Cornwall are long and beautiful, and when night falls you’ll find me outside with a flashlight and a pair of scissors, slaughtering slugs.

I can’t begin to tell you how romantic it is living in the countryside. Like something out of a Victorian novel. I snip the poor horrors in half, because otherwise they’ll eat my lettuce, my bean plants, my flowers, and just about anything else we grow. They glue their suckery undersides to leaves, flowers, twigs, and their dead co-religionists (dead slugs are a good source of protein, I guess, and the live ones aren’t sentimental), and they ingest every bit of that except the twigs, which they’ll need as ladders the next night to reach another meal.

A slug. Photo by Peter van der Sluijs.

A slug. Photo by Peter van der Sluijs.

The first person who told me she snipped slugs in half was M. The name doesn’t tell you much, even if you live in the village, because every third person here is named M., but this particular M. is an expert gardener and a lovely and gentle human being, so it was hard to picture her doing that. I shuddered and said, “Ewww,” like a ten-year-old.

But that was before I started gardening.

You have to understand: The slugs here are the size of double-decker buses. Britain was once heavily forested, and people will tell you the trees were chopped down to make way for agriculture and to build ships and all that, but don’t you believe it. It was the slugs. Back in the golden age they ate the trees and now they’re reduced to attacking my lettuce.

Our first spring here, I started trays of plants from seed and the first time I set them out overnight the slugs came through like a line of combine harvesters, leaving nothing but the trays and the soil and the little plastic tags noting what no longer grew in them.

I’m not a stranger to slugs. We had them in Minnesota, but they were small, well-behaved slugs who nibbled but were too polite to gobble. Maybe it was the winters that kept them in check and maybe it Minnesota Nice—that cultural thing that makes Minnesotans say “that’s different” when what they mean is “if I see you do that one more time I’m buying a gun.” The slugs here? I’ve already told you: They’re not just carnivorous, they’re cannibalistic. What more do you need to know?

I should tell you at this point that I’m a vegetarian and that I don’t run around slaughtering things for fun. But I’ve come to understand that it takes industrial-scale slaughter to get in single leaf of lettuce to the plate. And if you’re growing your own, it’s up to you to do the slaughtering.

Some of my gardener friends sprinkle slug pellets or set slug traps, and I’ve tried both. They helped but not enough. And some pellets go on to kill the birds and hedgehogs that eat the dead slugs. Others are marked organic and safe for wildlife, but even so gardeners who use them tend to whisper about it. I don’t know how the pellets kill, but I doubt the slug has a lot of fun in the process. Slug traps tend to use beer, and you could argue that they at least die drunk, so maybe they don’t care.

The only method I haven’t tried is gathering them up and dropping them in salt water, where they fizz and die—or so I’m told. It sounds like a horrible death.

Oddly enough, I do care about that. I’m a vegetarian. I have this habit of imagining myself into other creatures’ places. So if I’m going to slaughter something, I want to kill it as quickly and painlessly as possible. Even if it happens to turn my stomach. So come nightfall you’ll find me crawling around in the dark with my flashlight and my scissors.

The snails are just as bad, by the way, but you can’t snip them. I put them on a rock and stomp them. Just like the heroine of a Victorian novel.