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22 Aug 2008

What on Earth Happened to my Garden?


I am feeling a bit like a Head of State who has gone away from his/her well-ordered country, only to return two weeks later to find complete anarchy, breakdown, looting, gangs in control and the country’s infrastructure in tatters. When I left to go away for two weeks, my garden was a model of neat and tidy vegetable production. On my return a couple of days ago, it was a picture of carnage, laid low by the the Four Horsemen of the Gardening Apocalypse, slugs, caterpillars, torrential rain and bolting.



For those of you outside the UK, the last two weeks have featured pretty much constant rain, the kind of morale-sapping, spirit crushing grey dampness that just feels interminable, and which leaves one scratching around inside one’s memory trying to recall what that round, yellow hot thing in the sky used to be called (apparently, I wasn’t here, although I am getting a taste of it now I am back…).

It is perfect slug breeding weather, offering their ideal conditions. When I left, the slugs were kind of slug sized, now they are the size of puppies. Horrible, revolting things that you have to literally wrestle off whatever they are eating. Not content with eating whatever leaves they could find, they also have started eating my carrots, the roots, wrapping themselves around the top and working their way down! That’s not fair! That’s against the rules!

What's left of my kale and broccoli

What's left of my kale and broccoli...

Then there are the caterpillars. My kale and my broccoli were both doing so well. Staples of the winter garden, great sources of iron, beautiful plants they were when I left. I got back to lacework outlines of what they had once been, covered in caterpillars munching happily. A scene of utter carnage. Although I had netted them before the cabbage white butterflies arrived, somehow they had got in, and once the caterpillars emerge from the eggs, they move fast. I am now on a daily regime of caterpillar removal and egg smushing, but still, I wonder if what remains will actually survive. How the mighty (and I have no difficulty using the word ‘mighty’ in relation to a 3ft purple kale plant) are fallen.



Then there was the wet. Everything sodden. Paths, soil, plants. Great pools of it all over the place. Made me yearn for the nice dry polytunnel I used to have in Ireland. A leisurely walk round the garden has become a skidding, sploshing, perilous venture. And for the bolting, well all my lettuces have gone (those that the 4ft slugs left intact), in fact most of my salads have bolted. Its usually excessive dryness that causes plants to bolt, I guess in this case they must have sensed that they were in imminent danger of drowning, and decided to go to seed while there was still hope. The plant world’s equivalent of gathering animals into the Ark.



So now I’m back I have imposed martial law on the garden. My first strategy is ruthless deslugging (a couple of months ago, to return to our gangs analogy, I had to police them at night as they didn’t come out during the daytime, now they are so huge and it is so wet that newly emboldended, they just graze all day, necessitating 24 hour patrols). Then I am pursuing a vigorous no-caterpillar policy. I also did a lot of clearing away of any diseased or dying vegetation, as it creates an attraction for the slugs. Order is slowly being re-established, but there is a way to go yet.



Serves me right really, for going away at such a critical period. Ridiculous that the time most of us are actually able to go away is the time when our gardens need us most. In more agrarian societies, if everyone buggered off somewhere else at harvest time, it would be disastrous. Yet we do the opposite. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Perhaps a couple of days of good sunshine would make everything look a bit better…

Categories: Food, Permaculture

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22 Aug 8:28am

“For those of you outside the UK, the last two weeks have featured pretty much constant rain, the kind of morale-sapping, spirit crushing grey dampness that just feels interminable, and which leaves one scratching around inside one’s memory trying to recall what that round, yellow hot thing in the sky used to be called”

Gosh Rob, That’s exactly the weather we’ve had here in Downunderland, and it’s winter here so we should expect it. For you over there, where it’s supposed to be summer, it must have come as a shock.

Anyhow I sympathise with you and the snail and caterpillar problem. Lacy kale and broccoli leaves do make you want to cry don’t they? Still you’re more fortunate than me it seems; I’ve got rabbits here too!

The joys of vegie gardening, eh?

22 Aug 1:32pm

Totally sympathise. I’ve been at home during this weather but haven’t exactly been enticed out into the garden to do all the ‘pootle around & tidy up tasks’, so the situation is very familiar.

I’ve been reading up on permaculture over the last few weeks, starting from a position of complete ignorance. I got the impression that complaining about slug attack was a bit woosey – you’re supposed to add to the problem & throw your scraps on as a mulch rather than clean up dead vegetation. Can’t see how this is supposed to do anything other than attract slugs! Should one capture some frogs & let them loose in the veg box? Can’t do this myself as I have a massive frog-o-phobia, but maybe it’s the recommended course of action? Any ideas? Have I just been reading books by particularly hard line permaculturists?

Azura Skye
22 Aug 1:45pm

I HAVE been home, but due to the spirit dampening rain, I’ve been indoors, leaving my garden to the rampaging catepillars : (

My sympathies to you!

I’m hoping to get some chooks on board helping me trawl through the garden looking for peskies.
Good luck with your garden policing : )

Bev Doherty
23 Aug 10:01am

Yes Rob, living as I do in sopping wet Donegal, I arrived back from a lovely warm dry July in the UK (doing a bit of Transition immersion)to discover my broccoli,kale, sprouts, cauliflowers and even red cabbage had turned to lace by the aformentioned puppy-sized slugs. I watch them in action at 11.30pm burrowing right through the kohlrabi and out the other side and gnawing at the onion tops before sliding down the inside of the leaf where they are impossible to get at without damaging the foliage. The leaves then fill with rain and rot off. Whole plantings of pak choi and chinese cabbage just disappear overnight.
After 4 rounds of our 1/4 acre plot prising the puppies off the brown chewed remnants of the cauliflower heads, (why bother, I’m not going to eat them anyway – too far gone) and playing party pooper to the various slug orgies, I emerge with a bucket full, unable to stand straight and heartburn from being bent double for 2 hours. It’s all too much!
Don’t dream too much about Irish polytunnels. Every night our slugs and snails skate on the inner plastic cover before picking a lettuce each to get stuck into. But at least we get some kind of a crop under cover. I’ve given up trying to grow lettuce outside…
Good luck with martiel law; I’m running out of steam this side of the Irish Sea!
I must just say that the Totnes Edible Garden Crawl was the most inspiring part of our month away!

Stephen Watson
23 Aug 2:49pm

Can someone remind us again – what exactly is the point of slugs? Or is that just speciesist …

23 Aug 10:25pm

Stephen, according to wikipedia, “many species of slugs play an important role in ecosystems by eating dead leaves, fungus, and decaying vegetable material”. They are decomposers in other words.

Mind you, the same piece does also say “In a few rare cases, humans have contracted parasite-induced meningitis from eating raw slugs”. Eating raw slugs. If anyone eats raw slugs, sorry, but surely something has already gone somewhat wrong somewhere… meningitis is the least of their worries surely. Why on earth would anyone eat raw slugs? Might they out picking a great big sticky slug off their broccoli, be about to toss it over the hedge, and think, “hmmm, I wonder….”. And to think, you might be sitting next to such a person on the bus next week…

Bev Doherty
24 Aug 10:24am

The thing is, if slugs play such an important role, how come everyone’s garden and allotment do so much better without the blighters? Vegetation seems to be able to decay anyway without their interference.
You know… slugs are snails without shells. I ate snails once in France, albeit cooked in garlic butter. Overrated. Getting a slug down raw might be a good emetic though!

Stephen Watson
24 Aug 6:35pm

Thanks Rob – sadly it seems that most slugs I’ve encountered have obviously neglected to read their orders in Wikipedia and have just gone straight for the fresh new stuff instead of the old, manky dead stuff. Well, wouldn’t you?

barb allen
25 Aug 3:22am

I live in a state in southeast USA that is experiencing severe drought for the second summer – if the rain brings the slugs then let there be slugs!! The exchange above is very amusing and reminds me that it’s always better to laugh than cry, particularly with the slug invasion just described. Keep up the gardens and the good work!

25 Aug 8:40am

You don’t have an excess of pests. You have a lack of ducks.


Seriously, ever thought of getting some?

Graham Burnett
25 Aug 7:56pm

Rob said: “Eating raw slugs. If anyone eats raw slugs, sorry, but surely something has already gone somewhat wrong somewhere… meningitis is the least of their worries surely.”

I was once told a tale of some bushcrafting type who tried to impress this woman he fancied by eating a big fat juicy slug in front of her to show how ‘hard’ he was. Apparently he had the slime stuck to the roof of his mouth for weeks afterwards. And I suspect the woman he was trying to woo was not best keen on giving him a great big snog after that. So that plan failed then.

Graham Burnett
25 Aug 7:57pm

Hey Rob, you could always dry your slugs out in a low oven and sew them into trousers… I saw an article in Permaculture Magazine about it once…

Bev Doherty
25 Aug 8:17pm

Thanks for your comment Leanne. However, I don’t know about you Rob,but I’ve had total lack of success with ducks.
Some years ago we put some duck eggs under a broody hen and got 6 ducks. Apart from making their “mother’s” life a misery by making for any source of water at every opportunity,they disgraced themselves on their very first day in the veg garden by flattening all the crops with their big feet. We persevered for a few days but the net result was endless broken plants and no detectable reduction in slug population whatsoever!
We’ve offered the slugs to our hens, but unlike the well behaved hen on page 136 in Rob’s book,ours won’t touch slugs with a forty foot pole!

26 Aug 6:50am

Can anyone tell me how to remove the caterpillars without resorting to chemicals and insecticides? There are now far to many to remove them manually and the prospect of buying veg this winter is soul-destroying after all my work in the garden early in the year.

Belgian Ann
26 Aug 10:38am

Hi Rob

My condolences, I know what it feels like to come back to utter devastation. It’s not slugs that are a problem in my garden, I think I’ve got that one sorted by allowing a good amount of “groundcover” weeds, lots of rotting matter and the like to remain in my beds and thereby providing a heaven for assorted amphibians and “easy” food for slugs. Although just recently we discovered a slug so big(15cm x 1,5cm) we nearly gave it a name and kept it as a pet!
When we came back from spending a week at Glasto, we found that squirrels had eaten every brassica in the garden, kale, kohlrabi, pakchoi, the lot, gone. Also all the apples of my two apple trees, gone. Strawberries? Must have been pudding! And to finish off: two beautiful mature silverbark birch stripped bare from 4 meters upwards. I have now joined the squirrel hating society and been busy trapping and relocating them, veggie ten year old daughter preventing squirrel pie being on the menu. My worry now is this: if a gardener manages to deal with one pest succesfully, does it mean the next test is a bigger kind of pest, due to its’ size capable of greater devastation?

27 Aug 10:08am

I also have a terrible slug problem partly because my main beds so far are in terraces with dry-stone walls which slugs just love. I’ve done the bucket-at-midnight thing but it’s very off-putting when you head back in at 1am only to find a whole new batch sliming it’s way out of bed and into the brocolli.

I’ve been experimenting with uses for old car tyres round the garden this year and grew very successful and happy lettuces, squashes and kale protected by inside-out tyres. If you cut both rims out with a really sharp Stanley knife it’s very easy to turn them and the slugs didn’t seem to be able to smell what was inside them.

Darren Woodiwiss
27 Aug 12:47pm

I hear that the Japanese have a delicasy of “Crunchy raw sea slugs”, maybe not the same as land slugs… maybe we should ask them to try.

With regards to natural pesticides you can soak Rhubarb leaves or Crysanthamums (sp) for a week you get a natural poison that bio-degrades, it will however kill the good guys as well.

On a programme here a couple of months ago called “Catch it, kill it, cook it” they produced a dish called “Squirrel in Plum sauce” basically the duck dish with squirrel. If you can’t beat them… Eat them :o)

Fred Hopwood
29 Aug 9:38pm

Just got back from the beautiful (but presently unsustainable) Isle of Colonsay, only away for ten days. My Broccoli and Cauliflower have been decimated by caterpillars…..tried to pick them off…… hour later just as many again !

Next door to me lives a greedy man in a bungalow set in an acre of beautiful garden, who has recently consulted a developer with a view to demolish bungalow , flatten garden including mature trees and build a small housing estate ( he has since withdrawn planning permission due to pressure from local resident’s outrage.)
Do you think I should hoover up the remaining caterpillars and eggs and re-house them in his vegetable garden, as he is obviously not to bothered about it’s outcome,or would that be too naughty?

Regards fred.

Fred Hopwood
30 Aug 8:46am

My lettuces bolted up to about three foot high while we were away. Not even the most intrepid caterpillar scaled the heights. Hope they didn’t make a mental note to return when they’re butterflies.

30 Aug 8:47am

Apols previous comment was mine – doh

10 Sep 6:36pm

You need chickens, stat. Borrow them if you need to, but you should probably get your own. They will be delighted to help you with your slug problem, as I find they’ll almost always go for animal protein (all your slugs, caterpillars, and ants) before vegetable protein (the garden’s leaves).