Organic Snail Control

Credits: Genevieve Schmidt & Ester the Chicken

Question from Tressa:
I love your month by month gardening book and have read it almost cover to cover.

My problem is armies (literally of snails) I live in Claremont, Ca. (new Pomona not San Diego) in the foothills and have snail attracting ground covers which I can’t easily remove. I have tried every organic method – my favorite was trays of beer which everything but the snails liked. I can pick buckets of snails every time I water. Sluggo works somewhat, but everything is eaten up. the only thing that really works is deadline or something other strong poison which I don’t want to use. do you have any suggestions?

Answer from Pat:
I am very familiar with Claremont, California and wonder if you live in Padua Hills? I graduated from Scripps College after four memorable years and a great college experience. (I was an English and Art Major.) My husband whom I married on graduation day, and I later lived in Claremont for a couple of years, during which I returned to Scripps as the Teaching Assistant in Freshman Humanities. (The History, Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture of the Ancient World, a double-credit course.)

I agree that organic controls for snails are not totally successful, whereas Deadline is highly successful, but I hasten to say I’m with you. I don’t use it any more. A few years ago before I returned to my roots and became so totally organic as I am today, I used to put one drop of Deadline on the base of every cymbidium flower spike as soon as it had grown tall, just before the buds opened. (Cymbidium blooms are a magnet for snails.) Also I climbed around in my large drifts of clivia (Clivia miniata) and put one drop of Deadline at the base of every bloom stem before the flowers opened. Dogs and cats did not come into contact with the Deadline since it was deep within the leaves, not in a place frequented by animals, but by doing this once every year in late February or early March, my snail problem was largely solved for the entire year. Since snails love cymbidium and clivia blooms better than almost any other plant, they acted like a traps, attracting snails from the entire garden. Deadline cut them off at the pass. Getting them early is what counts.

People who have an orange grove have an opportunity to use the trees as an organic trap. In areas of seasonal frosts every year, such as where you live, the snails on orange trees all congregate in winter in the center of the tree. If you have an orange tree yourself, just take a look in the crotches of the branches in the middle of the tree in December or January. This is where the snails go to hibernate, protected from freezing by the foliage surrounding them and by each others shells. Sometimes there will be fifty or a hundred snails or more all congregated together in the center of the tree. It is not a pleasant or easy job, but go in there wearing gloves and carrying a large sack, pull them off the tree, bag them, smash them, and send them to the dump and snail problems on orange trees are done for the year.

I do, however, have another suggestion of an organic control that really works, but I am not sure if you are going to like it, and that is ducks. Ducks eat slugs and snails by the thousands and then you would collect the eggs. (I find the eggs too strong for my taste, however.) But ducks are messy and they do want a bit of a pond to splash around in. Slightly less good as slug and snail control but almost equal to ducks at eating slugs and snails, and a lot less messy and noisy, are chickens. These days you can even purchase an inexpensive, ready-made, moveable chicken coop designed for moving around on a lawn, but why not on ground cover? Or make your own enclosure out of chicken wire. You would just move it around on your ground cover and the chickens would clean up the snails and give you simply delicious, nutritious eggs in return. If your ground cover is inside a fenced yard you let the chickens run free.

People these days are learning that chickens make very nice family pets. Children love them but so do grownups. When you are home you can let them out and they gladly clean up all the pests in the garden and give you delicious eggs to eat yourself and share with friends. Many good types are appropriate for family use. Rock Cornish hens are among the most popular right now but there are some other incredibly beautiful ones besides these and you can have lovely green and blue eggs from Araucana chickens if you want. If you introduce the chickens as chicks and keep them penned at first, smart dogs and cats will learn they are part of your pack. (Or at least they should. Only a very dumb dog won’t learn this, and unfortunately years ago I owned such a dog and lived on a farm so that dog had to go.) Also the coops with tops on them can protect your chickens during the daytime from hawks and such that might attack if you aren’t home. At night lock them into a compact but stoutly made chicken house so they are safe from foxes and coyotes. Chickens come home by themselves in the evening, since they can’t see at night. Kids love them and you will too.

Keeping a few hens is fun and is all the rage right now among organic gardeners and with people who believe in eating healthy homegrown food. There are many books on keeping a few back-yard chickens and there’s loads of free and helpful information on the internet. You might even find helpful club in your area of chicken owners.

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  1. I have been told that a shallow basin of beer will attract and kill snails, it is worth a try.

    • The beer trick works best when a can with top removed or plastic cup is buried to the lip in soil and filled to the lip with beer. This does seem to attract and drown slugs and snails, but works best when a can with top removed or plastic cup is buried to the lip in soil and filled to the lip with beer. I find it a lot of work. The shallow container did not work for me. Twenty-five or thirty years ago when I first heard of the “beer trap” for slugs, I filled a tin pie pan with beer (this is what I heard worked) and put it into the garden next to a row of lettuce that had a slug problem. The next day it looked as if we might have had a few drunken skunks in our garden during the night but not one drowned slug or snail. After that I used other traps. I find upside down grapefruit skins easier to use. You put them out in the garden in the evening and often they are full of slugs the next day, just toss out the whole thing.

      Damp boards flat on the ground and upside down flower pots work too, but it’s yucky scraping off the boards and cleaning out the pots.

  2. I had the snail problem killing most of my entire new landscaping, and have solved it with baby powder, and also food grade diatomaceous earth, which works the same.

    First I spent two weeks going out mornings to pick off as many snails as I could find and drowning them in a soapy bucket of water. When I had reduced the population, I surrounded each plant with cheap baby powder. It totally worked, and also works with ants, both in & out of the house.

    Once out of baby powder, I bought diatomaceous earth on-line (Amazon) – 10 lbs. – which may last for at least a year, as it seems to withstand watering & light rain. I use a “Pest Pistol” duster to spread it evenly.

    I just have to check on moist mornings for snails coming in from neighbors’ yards where leaves the snails like hit the shared fences.

    If you have dogs as I do, this is a great solution compared to anything toxic or plates of beer.

    • Thank you so much for sharing these tips and hints for snail control. I’d like to add another idea also, which is to release African decollate snails into ground cover. These small snails will build up their population and truly will gradually control large snails and keep one’s snail population under control. Eventually they will protect the entire garden, but they also may eat at few seedlings.

  3. I’m new to gardening. As I was reading the benefit of having chickens, I couldn’t help thinking that chickens work during the day and snails work during the night. So, at what time do I let out the chickens to my vege garden? Thanks.

    • Chickens wake up at dawn. Snails are still active until the sun comes out. Let the chickens out at dawn. However, this logical answer does not solve the problem of how to tell your chickens that you’d like them to eat snails, slugs and bugs and not touch your veggies. You can try letting the chickens out if you want and see what happens—perhaps you will be lucky!—, but my experience indicates that chickens will peck at lettuce any other leafy crops they especially like. They also will scratch away all the mulch. During my teens I lived on a farm in Pennsylvania. Our biggest cash crop was two thousand chickens. All our broilers were in range houses spread out at intervals on a field of alfalfa, planted for the purpose. We let the chickens out early in the morning and, after our farm dog had herded them back into their houses, we locked them up again into their range houses for the night so foxes couldn’t get them. During the daytime these young growing chickens ate all the bugs they could find and munched down the alfalfa in a gradually widening circle surrounding each range house. When the alfalfa was mowed down to its roots and the area around the range house looked about scratched to death (though it wasn’t!), my older brother would hook up each range house to the tractor and haul it to a fresh spot of alfalfa so the original circle could re-grow. The upshot is I doubt you are going to like eating lettuce or other tender crops that have been pecked by chickens. Some gardeners have found solutions to these problems by putting some crops into wire cages and covering tender roots with large rocks. Problem with this is that it gives slugs and snails places to hide, but some gardeners feel it’s worth the time and trouble.

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