We’ve been fortunate to have had quite a bit of rain here in the Northeast, consequently the soil is moist and the plants are green. The garden looks pretty good for late August, except for the slug bites evident on many of my leafy plants. It is definitely slug season out there: every morning I awake to slime on my brick paths and pockmarked plants, evidence of their nocturnal feeding frenzy. I didn’t turn over the soil enough in the spring (to disrupt their larvae), I didn’t encircle my hostas with copper wire over which the slugs cannot slither past; I let them in and now there are really there. Now my only hope is beer (or better yet, stout) traps placed throughout the garden, as the salt method is a little too intense (face to face) for me.
Or is it? I hunted for some good slug-slaying advice and found plenty in my stack of gardening books and on the web. I particularly like the “Slug Fest” post from The Medieval Garden Enclosed, the Cloisters Museum and Gardens’ blog, and this article contains a great description of the effectiveness of nematode worms. They sound great, but do I want even more slimy things in the garden? I like to seek solutions to practical problems in the past, so I also turned to my treasure trove of early modern gardening texts. For the past few years, I’ve been writing a book on practical expressions of Renaissance culture in England, and have found that “how-to” gardening guides really exemplify the spirit of what I am trying to capture. Three authors in particular, Thomas Hill, Leonard Mascall, and William Lawson, have something to say about garden pests in particular and slugs in general.
None of these guys are offering new and original advice; in typical Renaissance fashion, they borrow heavily from classical authors and their continental counterparts, but they are all very practical, offering step-by-step instructions on how to plant, cultivate, and harvest a garden. They claim to be exposing long-lost horticultural “secrets” via the new medium of print. Hill, born about 1528, is the earliest of the authors, and his two garden books, The Profitable arte of gardening (first published in the 1560s) and The Gardeners Labyrinth (1577 and after) are among the most popular of all English books in the sixteenth century.
Hill proposes a multi-phased defensive plan against slugs and other “creeping things”. Seeds should be soaked in various herb waters in the shell of a snail, dried in the shell of a tortoise, then planted. Young plants in the garden should be protected by the presence of plants that repel creeping things, including mint, fitch (not sure what this is, but it is always referred to as “the bitter Fitch”), rocket, garlic (vampire slugs!) and onions. If the slugs still appear, Hill recommends applications of ashes (preferably from a fig tree), and a pungent mixture of Ox or Cow urine mixed together with the “mother of oyle Olive”. As a last resort, the gardener should “fix river crevisses with nails in many places of the Garden”. Impaling slugs sounds like an icky, though satisfying, option.
Leonard Mascall disappointed me with his slug solution, which basically amounted to hand-picking slugs off the plants in the very early morning before they go into their dark hiding places for the day. I was disappointed because Mascall is becoming the hero of my book due to the sheer diversity of practical information he dispensed in the latter part of the sixteenth century: he published tracts not only on horticulture but also on animal husbandry, fishing, health, and even stain removal. It was his Booke of Engines and trappes to take polcats, buzzardes, rattes, mice, and all other kindes of vermine and beastes whatsoever (1590) that gave me hope that he might have some sort of secret weapon against slugs, but no. Apparently slithering creatures are difficult to catch in traps.
In the seventeenth century, William Lawson’s popular New Orchard and Garden, with its companion volume (and one of the first gardening manuals to be addressed specifically to women), The Country House-Wifes Garden, recommended coal ashes and “sharp gravel” as slug preventatives; Lawson clearly did not want his “house-wifes” to get their hands dirty. So that’s it for my Renaissance experts: it is not until the next century that lime and the “cabbage method” (slugs love cabbage leaves, so lay them out at night for the slugs to “pasture” on, then scoop them up in the morning) appear, and much more toxic methods in the centuries that followed. I think I’ll stick with the beer.