Garden attacks at a snail's pace

August 15, 2002|By Richard O'Mara

Snails are in my wife's garden. They are active throughout the warm months. But it is in late summer when they are much on the march. Forget the "dog days": These are the "snail days."

The snails come in the night and eat holes in the green hosta; they mutilate the caladium's delicate, flamingo-pink leaves; they nibble the climbing hydrangea and drain it of its desire to scale the arbor; they chew the blossoms off the impatiens, one of the few spots of bright color in our shady garden. Then they are gone, back to their damp hideaways, leaving silver trails going under the camellia bush.

They avoid the ivy, the camellia; they won't eat the glistening holly or acuba. We like the acuba, with its bright green leaves, like serrated knife blades, all sprinkled as if with yellow paint. But we can't have only acuba, or too much of any good thing.

We call these nocturnal vandals snails, but they are really slugs: mollusks without the architectural dignity of a shell, their own house to hide in.

Some people find them loathsome, repulsive. I try to suppress those responses, just as I trained myself to accept the big spiders around the place. When I see a large web, and it is not strung across somebody's likely path, I always leave it intact. Why condemn the spider to starve on behalf of biting flies? The spiders are on our side.

Of course, they are no help against the snails.

I wonder if snails have some useful purpose that I don't discern. But I wonder less and less as the garden continues to disappear.

Each year my wife's fiery determination to fend off the invasion of the slimy ones is rekindled, never dampened by memory of the previous year's defeat. It is not an easy war to wage. They are tenacious creatures, single-minded, you might say.

You can buy a poison, in the form of lethal pellets, to sprinkle around the plants the snails are fond of. But for the pellets to be effective you must wait for the rain to moisten the ground, according to instructions on the box. The rain this year has been slight, in favor of the snails. Also, if you use the stuff, you must make sure no small children are around, no dogs or cats.

Some years back, it was thought my son's dog had lapped up some of the pellets. She was rushed to the vet, who probed her, pumped her and filled her with remedy. Later it was decided she probably hadn't consumed the stuff at all. But the scare strengthened our sense of caution. Better snails on every side than sick dogs, we reasoned. There must be alternative strategies.

Recently I learned that turtles eat snails. Can you imagine it? Think of a cat pouncing and intercepting the lightning dash of a mouse. Now think of a turtle in breakneck pursuit of a slug. What a race!

There are turtles in a ditch near the house: box turtles, which are comfortably terrestrial, and now and then a snapper, which I won't touch. When I went out to recruit a few of the former, they had all gone to ground. Maybe they're lazy, I thought, or not hungry, content to eat earthworms.

Turtles are plucky creatures, noble the way they fight off the death that nearly always follows a close association with humans. There is much to admire in them, as recorded by Edward Hoagland, in his essay, "The Courage of Turtles."

To me they are inscrutable, and probably full of principle. Maybe they had a reason for dodging my conscription - why fight somebody else's war? I gave up the idea.

Later, a new weapon was recommended to us: beer.

Now, there's usually a lot of beer in our house, and of a certain quality. When my wife started distributing it around the garden in bowls, I quickly ran to the store and brought the cheapest brand I could find. I mean, they're only snails.

They plunged right in, literally. Every morning we found 10 or 20 drowned at the bottom of every bowl. It made me think of the crimson-eyed moth and its fatal attraction to light. Some experiences, to some living creatures, are just worth dying for, I guess.

We were quite complacent as we collected all those little flesh-colored bodies every day and buried them. I felt like a cold-eyed general with a weapon of mass destruction in his hand and a penchant for body counts. I looked at our victims closely, trying to identify their features for evidence of a blissful, sacrificial death. But slugs don't have features.

Also, after a short time we noted little abatement in the ravagement of the garden. Maybe we had more snails than I counted on.

"You do now," said the snail maven at the hardware store. "The beer brings them. You're attracting every snail in the neighborhood."

Argh! - as Charlie Brown used to say.

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign editor for The Sun.

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