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Slugs-a-plenty

Posted: Sunday 15th May 2016 by My-Wild-Garden

Philip Precey

With the warmer weather finally here, late April and early May see plenty of activity on Sue Bradley’s wildlife-friendly allotment.

I’m not sure which of us was the more surprised when I stuck my fork into the ground and dug up a slow worm. There he was, minding his own business, when I scooped him up amongst a mass of grass and weeds.

Suffice to say I was relieved to find that this handsome legless lizard had escaped the vicious prongs and, after checking his metallic-brown scaly body to make sure he wasn’t wounded, I introduced him to the hot bed that I’ve made for my pumpkins.

Hopefully he’ll feel right at home in the heat of the decaying weeds and horse manure and gorge himself silly on any slugs he comes across ahead of the arrival of plants that I’ve been lovingly growing at home.

It’s certainly proving to be quite a year for slugs: the warmer than usual winter enabled these maddening molluscs to have a head start and I’m going to need the assistance of scores of hungry slow worms to keep them at bay, together with toads that I hope will be attracted to the small, damp piles of old wood and stones close to the pond, and, should I be lucky enough, hedgehogs, which are always welcome to hang out in my compost heap.

These allies are the reason I don’t use slug pellets, which can be fatal if ingested by some species; but that’s not to say I don’t have a few other strategies up my sleeve to save my crops from being eaten prematurely should my mollusc-munching mates fail to perform.

These include:

  • Bringing on crops in pots: many plants that are irresistible to slugs are best sown in pots in a sheltered spot before being transferred to their final growing place. Repot them a couple of times as they grow to ensure they’re larger, tougher and less tasty when finally planted out.
  • Put down beer traps, the smell from which can lure slugs to a place where they won’t bother you again.
  • Scatter crushed egg shells over seeds sown directly into the soil: slugs don’t like sliding over uncomfortable surfaces.
  • Grow tender plants on mounds of soil, insert a cut-off fizzy drinks bottle in the ground close by and water directly into it so that the roots get plenty of moisture but the surrounding soil doesn’t, making it less likely for slugs and snails to reach the leaves.
  • Go out during the evening and despatch any slugs you find heading towards your crops.
  • Keep the grass around the edge of your vegetable beds short.

I have also been experimenting by putting a wall of spent coffee grounds around groups of young plants, hoping that the smell might deter slugs and snails, but I’m not convinced this works given the number of slugs I found within this boundary during one particularly damp and drizzly evening. I’m keeping an eye on it and, even if this has no effect on the slugs, it will still do wonders for the structure of the soil. Be careful not to scatter coffee grounds too closely to plants, however, as they can bind together to form a crust that prevents rain from reaching the roots. Look out for supermarkets giving away free spent coffee grounds to gardeners, such as Waitrose and Whole Foods Market.

Seed sowing has been going on apace at home. Courgettes, runner beans, sun flowers and pumpkins are all coming on well and early-sown broad beans, peas and chick peas have been transferred to their final growing spots.

Many seeds benefit from a spot of ‘bottom heat’ to germinate, which means several of my radiators are being pressed into service as temporary heat pads!

This year I’ve been experimenting with homemade propagators and am especially pleased with one that started out life as a case for some profiteroles and a tomato punnet.

While it’s been a busy time for indoor seed-sowing, the prolonged colder weather has meant I’ve had to hold back and wait for the soil to warm up before trying the likes of beetroot and various other vegetables.

Still, the arrival of warmer weather early in May has meant the allotment is starting to look a bit more established: the tulips I moved out of pots and into the soil last autumn have put on a great show and provided some early pollen and nectar for the bees, while a few patches of purple-flowered Phacelia tanacetifolia should be ready to take over very soon.

The garlic and onion planted last autumn is growing well and it looks as though I’m in line for plenty of strawberries and raspberries, which are both flowering well. Forget-me-nots growing under the raspberries are already attracting lots of bees and I hope they’ll move on to the raspberry flowers next.

Carrots sown in dustbins, along with salad leaves grown under fleece, are coming along nicely and it looks as though I’m in line for a bonus crop of purple spouting broccoli that must have been in the homemade compost I used. I’ll carefully transplant these seedlings in due course.

Inevitably there are also plenty of weeds in among the carrots and lettuce, which I’m carefully pulling out, along with many more on the allotment itself. On a dry warm day there’s nothing more worthwhile than grabbing the hoe and getting to work, with the dying weeds earning their keep as a useful mulch as they disappear into the soil.

It’s at these times I’m often joined by my friendly robin, always on the lookout for a tasty worm, while overhead house martins are busy hoovering up insects by day, with bats taking up the hunt after dusk. Ladybirds, a formidable tool to fight aphids, are also putting in an appearance.

Along with weeding and seed sowing, I’ve also been building up new compost heaps using grass cuttings from home, nutritious comfrey leaves, vegetable and fruit waste, cardboard and other bits and pieces.

While the warmer weather has led to more visits to the allotment, April and May are also the months when flower shows get underway. My show season started with the RHS Cardiff Flower Show, at which I picked up a great tip for keeping sedum stems straight using a framework of twisted willow.

There were also plenty of ideas for incorporating wildlife-friendly planting into gardens, including a children’s tunnel with a grassy top sown with wild flowers.

The idea of embracing wildlife in the garden was also much in evidence at the RHS Malvern Festival. Mark Eveleigh’s gold-medal-winning Macmillan Legacy Garden was full of naturalistic planting and wildlife-friendly features such as old tree roots, dry stone walls, nettles for butterflies – I wonder how many people knew the identity of the somewhat grand-sounding Urtica dioica on the plants list! - and foxgloves, which are particularly useful for the garden bumblebee Bombus hortorum, which has a particularly long tongue.

This garden was also awarded the ‘Best Show Garden’ accolade, with judges describing it as “quiet and modest but with moments of beauty in the detail”.
The Woodcutter’s Garden by Mark Walker also made great use of dead wood, both in terms of its log pile and fencing, with sunny dandelions and celandines taking their places within the planting scheme. 

As always, the school gardens were full of great ideas, especially when it came to recycling plastic milk bottles to grow salad leaves and strawberries.
All in all it’s been a busy few weeks on the allotment, but it’s also a time full of promise for a bumper harvest in the months ahead.
 

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