Stalking Midnight Munchers

THE REAL DIRT

July 04, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

It's dawn, and I'm a wreck. I'm bleary-eyed, I smell like a brewery, and I spent half the night in a strange bed.

I'm not fit to be around.

I stumble down to breakfast, unshaven, rumpled, exhausted. I crawled in at 2 a.m. I hardly slept at all. I've been out late all week, and the night life is taking its toll, on both me and my wardrobe. There are beer stains on all of my T-shirts.

My wife is bemused by my appearance. My daughter is not.

"You look gross, Daddy!" says Beth the Sixth-Grader.

My approval rating is low with everyone but the dog, who is licking my T-shirt.

I feel like a slug. In truth, I'm hunting them. Garden slugs, that is. I'm stalking them with platefuls of beer.

Slugs aren't my only prey. I'm also hunting cutworms and earwigs and rabbits and deer.

These critters, and others like them, are turning my garden bed ** into a salad bar for wildlife. I've got to stop them before they ruin my plants.

The trouble is, the enemy strikes after dark, making midnight raids at my expense. The critters have beheaded three pepper plants, five zinnias and 10 cucumber seedlings. Overnight, they razed an entire bed of strawflower plants and a 20-foot row of young carrots.

The tomatoes, though battle-weary, should survive their wounds gaping holes in the plants' leaves. Not so the green beans, which I've replanted already.

Nothing escapes these midnight munchers. They even stripped the leaves off the marigolds that border the garden. Marigolds are supposed to deter garden pests. Mine served as an appetizer.

Sometimes my plants disappear overnight, as if planted in quicksand. Others are reduced to mere stumps, as though attacked by tiny chain saws.

Meanwhile my losses, and blood pressure, keep mounting. It's maddening to spend months raising plants from seed, only to have them destroyed in one bite by an unseen foe.

I've tried to stop the intruders. I've fought back with a fury, but the slaughter continues. At best, I've slowed the carnage of crops. Yet the critters keep coming.

Fences don't stop them. Neither do any of the organic insecticides with which I have doused the flowers and vegetables. I've tried them all, from familiar controls like pyrethrins and rotenone to more exotic (and expensive) remedies such as sabadilla and diatomaceous earth. Most of these old-time sprays and dusts are derived from plants themselves. They've always worked before. Not any more.

Of all the pests that steal from my garden, I fear slugs the most. Slugs can destroy a fledgling garden overnight. These topless snails are voracious plant eaters that hide under rocks and leaves by day, and slither out to forage at night.

DTC If slugs have a weakness, it's their willingness to party. Research has shown that slugs are attracted to beer, and will drown themselves in a saucer of booze placed on the ground at night.

I bought some cheap beer and treated the back yard to a six-pack. The garden smelled like a college fraternity house. The next morning, I'd caught 10 slugs. I'd also lost three more plants.

Earlier in the growing season, I had surrounded the garden with barriers: wood ashes, crushed eggshells and lime. At night, I covered the smaller plants with tin cans, flowerpots and old sheets. This worked for a while, until one morning when I forgot to remove the covers, and several plants fried in the heat.

Desperate, I decided to stake out the garden at night. That's why I'm a wreck. I've been prowling the beds in the dark, armed with a cranky old flashlight that works only if held at a 45-degree angle.

This makes it difficult to see the plants on the ground, not to mention the tin cans and flowerpots that litter the beds. I keep tripping over pots and sprawling in the garden. But the plates of beer break my fall, hence the stains on my T-shirt.

Have the stakeouts paid off? I've chased a rabbit, squashed two cutworms and crushed four slugs. No doubt all the din has discouraged bigger game.

On the flip side, my feet hurt from kicking cans, my backside is sore from all those spills, and I think I'm catching a cold.

The garden has become a minefield for me. Why can't it be so for these pests?

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