Slugging It Out With Slugs

THE REAL DIRT

October 02, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Garden slugs are gross. At night, the wriggle through the yard, chomp on my favorite plants and leave silvery trails of slime behind. At dawn, they disappear under sticks and stones so I cannot break their little bones.

(I know, I know. Slugs don't have bones. They sure know how to get my goat.)

I've hunted slugs for 20 years, from spring through fall. I've stalked them at midnight, skulking around the yard in my jammies with a flashlight in one hand and a pail of soapy water in the other. I've set countless traps, from wooden planks (a favorite slug hide-out) to plates of beer (their beverage of choice).

The good news is: The traps do work. The bad news? The slugs keep coming -- by the hundreds. They're out there right now, asleep in my woodpile, smacking their little slug lips as visions of lettuce leaves dance in their heads.

Slugs thrive in mild, moist climates, and so have flourished in the cool, wet summer hereabout. I've found them hiding in tall grass and under shrubs and fallen leaves.

I've also found slugs squooshed between my toes, the price one pays for hunting barefoot after dark. Ever try to wash off that gunk? Soap and water don't work. Your skin feels icky for days.

Here's what to do to get rid of slug goo: Roll it into a ball and pick it off, as you would rubber cement. "Works every time," says David George Gordon, a man who should know.

Gordon is author of "Field Guide to the Slug," a fascinating and often hilarious tribute to the lowly mollusk that has aggravated gardeners for centuries.

The book is the consummate look at the slug's (ecch) private life, from eating habits to mating rituals. Gordon leaves no stone unturned, to wit:

* The slug is not Olympic material. At a speed of 0.025 miles per hour, the slug would complete the 100-yard -- in 9 hours, 15 minutes.

* For every slug that's caught, 20 more are not. One acre of suburban soil may contain as many as 72,000 slugs.

* Slugs have two eyes, one foot and thousands of razor-sharp teeth, with which they devour plants, fungi, insects and other slugs that encroach on their turf.

* Slugs eat continuously, consuming several times their weight each day. (The biggest slugs are quarter-pounders.) Although they enjoy munching on cultivated plants, much of their diet consists of rotting garden matter, making slugs one of nature's best recyclers.

* The most humane way to kill slugs is to scoop them into a plastic bag and place it in the freezer, where the slugs "just drift off to sleep -- unless there are teen-agers in the house, in which case someone will unknowingly try to eat them."

* Slugs are real escape artists. They can slither across razor blades and broken glass, hang onto a wall for hours and lower themselves from shrubs to the ground via a remarkable "slime cord" that would do James Bond proud.

In addition, says Gordon, slugs trapped in plastic containers "have been known to push with sufficient force to pop the lid off."

In effect, Gordon says slugs deserve our respect.

"Look at all slugs can do without opposable thumbs," he says. "They are more than animated little balls of snot."

Witness the three "pet" slugs Gordon carries with him on book-signing tours. They sit on his forearm or peer over his shoulder while he signs autographs.

"They have amazing balance; they've never fallen off," he says.

Autograph seekers respond with mild surprise and curiosity.

"No one has jumped up on a chair," he says. "Some people even ask if they can hold them."

Gordon captured the slugs near his home in Washington state, where he keeps them in a terrarium on his porch and feeds them cat food and table scraps. Since they are members of the banana slug species, their names are Chiquita, Dole and United Fruit.

"They all seem to have different temperaments -- though, technically, slugs don't have brains," he says.

As pets go, says Gordon, garden slugs are "right up there with tropical fish. They won't get your slippers or newspaper, but they're great fun to watch."

Come winter, however, he'll probably set his slugs loose. "They were born free," he says. (Slugs can live up to six years).

There's just one hitch: Gordon has grown accustomed to their faces.

"When you look at them up close, you can see that those little black dots are eye spots," he says. "When you realize that slugs have faces, suddenly they're a whole lot cuter."

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