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Cool, wet year has snails munching Utah gardens

By Flint Stephens

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Aug. 15 2011 4:21 p.m. MDT

Garden snails cause a lot of damage in Utah home gardens, and this year's weather has created ideal conditions for them.

Flint Stephens

They are slimy and destructive, and thanks to a wet spring and cool summer, snails and slugs are a bigger-than-usual problem for Utah gardeners this year.

Snails generally do not like Utah's hot, dry summer weather, so they are not a big problem for commercial growers. But irrigated yards and gardens can create ideal localized habitats, and snails can wreak havoc in home gardens.

Snails feed on many vegetables, such as lettuce, beans, cabbage or almost any plant that is young and tender. They also like low-growing fruits and can be especially damaging to tomatoes and strawberries. Ground fall apricots, peaches, plums, apples, etc., are desirable snail meals.

In the spring, they feast on seedlings. They can eliminate whole rows of newly sprouted peas, carrots, radishes, etc. When gardeners set out new tomato, cucumber or squash plants only to find them completely missing the next morning, chances are good that snails or slugs were to blame.

These universal garden pests are mollusks, not insects, so insecticides are not effective. The University of California Integrated Pest Management Program recommends a multifaceted approach for effective control.

During the daylight hours, snails seek cool, moist shady areas. In Utah, they are particularly fond of dense ground covers like vinca or ivy, but they can thrive in any vegetated area like a garden or even a weed patch. They also seek shelter under rock piles or stacks of wood, or almost anything that offers shade.

Effective methods of organic control include hand picking and traps. Hand picking is simply finding snails and destroying them. They can be collected in a bag or container for disposal, dropped in soapy water, or just stepped on and crushed. Sprinkling the target area right before dark will bring them out of hiding. Disposable plastic or latex gloves make the task less nasty.

Traps attract snails and slugs to specific areas where they can be collected for disposal. Simple traps include inverted flower pots or elevated boards. Just raise the pots or boards an inch or two above the ground with rocks or small pieces of wood. The snails will crawl underneath to escape daytime sun and heat and they can be collected anytime during the day.

Some people use salt to kill snails and slugs, but salt or salt water has the potential to ruin the soil and kill desirable plants.

Garden centers and nurseries sell a variety of poisoned baits that can be effective in killing snails. But some are extremely toxic to pets and should not be used if there is any chance of exposure to dogs, cats or small children.

Baits that rely on iron phosphate will kill snails and slugs without toxic effects for non-targeted animals. The iron phosphate interferes with the snails' digestive process and kills them within a few days.

An Internet search for garden snail control will turn up a wide range of home-made baits, traps and methods that may or may not be effective. Some of the more common include placing copper strips around areas to be protected, spreading coffee grounds as a deterrent and using dry dog food as bait.

For those who like escargot, common garden snails like those found in Utah are edible. Once again, an Internet search will produce a wide range of preparation methods and recipes. The process involves several days of cleaning and purging their digestive systems, so don’t be tempted to try them straight from the garden.

In addition to protecting this year’s crop, Utah gardeners who embark on a snail control campaign now are likely to reap rewards next year because adult snails can lay several hundred eggs between now and the onset of cold weather.

Flint Stephens has a master's degree in communications from Brigham Young University. He has been an editor and journalist for newspapers in Utah and Illinois. His blog is www.utahvalleydad.com.

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