Plant pests Slugs and snails

Two Green Thumb Rules

Man with a green thumb

Photo: depositphotos

By Larry Hodgson

I’ve lectured extensively across Canada and the United States over the years and each talk is inevitably followed by a question and answer period. This is an opportunity for the participants to empty their hearts about everything that is going wrong in their garden. Often these are questions about basic horticulture: when to sow a particular plant, to plant it, to prune it, etc. But even more often, I am asked for solutions on how to deal with the enemies of home gardens: insects, mollusks, diseases, mammals, etc.

In general, I play along: I try to come up with a realistic solution to eliminate or reduce the impact of the predator in question. But often I feel a bit guilty. Would I really have put this method into practice at home if I were going through the same situation?

Because, if truth be told, I very rarely apply pest treatments. I tend to let Mother Nature take care of it, especially when it’s a minor issue. 

The 15-Pace Rule

When it comes to whether I should react to a pest or disease or not, I have a rule that I like to apply: the 15-pace rule. 

The truth is that many garden infestations really aren’t worth treating. Ill.: www2.scouts.ca, thenounproject.com & worldartsme, montage: laidbackgardener.blog

I take 15 steps back: if I don’t see the problem at 15 paces, then there is no problem. I can therefore just ignore the situation.

This may sound a bit simplistic, and yet most of the “damage” that gardeners see on plants—holes, lumps, spots, etc.—is minor, doesn’t affect the plant’s health in the long or even medium term and is quickly hidden by the plant. Why react when the plant is going to be fine anyway?

So remember that: the problems you can’t see almost always are ones you can ignore.

For Harder Cases, Apply the 3 Strikes Rule

But I have to admit that some predators are more stubborn, coming back year after year or doing more noticeable damage. Surely they deserve treatment? 

Then again, my little laidback gardener brain does some mathematical calculations. If I treat today, will that fix the problem once and for all? If so, yes, I would probably react. But if not, will I have to repeat the treatment over and over again, possibly for years to come?

Baseball players.
In baseball, three strikes and you’re out! Apply that rule to the garden as well. Photo: depositphotos

There it’s no longer the 15-step rule that I apply, but the old baseball rule: “3 strikes and you’re out.”

If, after 3 attempts at eradication, the problem is still there, I consider that it’s not the predator that is at fault, but the plant. A plant that requires so much care doesn’t deserve a place in my gardens: it’s a simple as that. After all, no gardener can grow everything and there is likely a no-nonsense replacement for any plant that really won’t thrive under my conditions. So, I yank it out.

Slug damage to hosta leaves
Slug damage to hosta leaves: do you really want such a plant in your garden? Photo: Photo: John Zvirovski, amestownsun.com

The 3-strikes rule can be very effective! Many years ago, when I got sick of squashing slug after slug on my hostas without actually eliminating the problem, I went out and dug up the offending hostas (note: not all my hostas, because some are never eaten by the slugs) and I tossed them all into the compost bin. Results? Not only did the remaining hostas remain beautiful, but the slugs left my property in droves, for there was no longer anything of great value for the gluttonous little mollusks to eat. 

The slug population in my yard remains minimal even today, decades later: it was the hostas that were nourishing them. Without their favorite food to push their population to the maximum, even my vegetables—and some can indeed be slug fodder!—rarely suffer from them at all.

Lily beetles on lily leaves.
Control lily beetles by pulling out your lilies. Photo:: Max Pixel

I likewise pulled out all my lilies (Lilium spp.). Not because of slugs, but because of Asiatic lily beetles. Those elongated orange beetles always seemed to find my lilies no matter what treatment I tried. Well, with the lily plants gone, the lily beetles left. I largely replaced my lilies with daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), with similar-looking blooms, but of no interest to lily beetles. Such a simple solution!

The bottom line is that, when I apply these two rules—the 15-pace rule and the 3-strikes rule—, I work much less in my garden, yet have better results!

Long live laidback gardening!

11 comments on “Two Green Thumb Rules

  1. Christine Lemieux

    I am surrounded by woods and have tons of slugs. I think I will cry “uncle” and pull out the worst of the hosta. I find lots on other perennials, but the damage doesn’t show. They love campanula and candytuft!

  2. Good advice. With so many plants to try why fiddle with the finicky ones.

  3. Great advice. My third rule is “Don’t buy it”. I have a real problem with Japanese Beetles and sadly had to get rid of my Oak Leaf Hydrangeas. Since then before I buy anything I do the research, there are so many good resources out there. I do similar for all my other favourite pests.

  4. Patricia Evans

    If I follow the 3 strikes rule I will be eliminating almost half of my garden including a number of sizable shrubs (lilacs for instance). And that’s exactly what’s most likely to happen as I am done trying to fight the deer. I’m done spraying and putting cages around half my plants. As they devour different things, they won’t be replaced. My oriental lilies have been gone for years ( but I still have red lily beetles) and the day lilies don’t work, again thanks to those dang deer. After a lifetime of gardening, I’m going to hang up my tools and look at photos of flowers on Instagram.

    • Nearly 20 years ago, I promised myself I would remove 3 plants a year that were not performing, and that promise included a few poorly chosen shrubs. Today, I’m ever so glad I did.

      • marianwhit

        My rules are, have it, killed it three times, or don’t care for it.

    • marianwhit

      I have been taking photos of plants my whole life for the exact purpose you stated. Enjoy! If gardening is no longer fun, why do it?

  5. Annie Brelih

    What about the slugs that go into the composter? I’ve got loads in there.

    • Where they are actually your friends, because they help in decomposition. And they’re unlikely to go elsewhere, since you regularly give them fresh food.

      • Annie Brelih

        BUT, they will go into the flower beds with the valuable compost! I will sift for their bodies, but will most certainly miss their eggs. (By the way, I put a large number of them into a bucket of soapy water last summer and they all
        merely climbed out.)

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