Natural Born Slug Killers

I know that many gardeners have real slug problems. Horror stories abound, these slimy munchers of all things desirable in the garden; modern day monsters now that the bigger beasts of myth and legend have been destroyed. Well, I am not a “real” gardener, but I have vanquished my slugs, and all through happy accident.

You see, I am a frog lover. As a child in Northern Ireland, I would be sent out to find frogs, and spent many a happy day searching for these most wonderful of creatures, to the point where my eyes would imagine a frog in any pattern that past my sight and worth another look to make sure. The humble frog is one of my most favourite of creatures and I love him for what he is, a secretive prince of nature, green against green, the same heat as the cool rocks and puddles of his castle, waiting there for who knows what. 

As a child, of course, he was waiting there for me. A country walk with my grandfather involved him educating me in the names of the trees and birds. We’d walk along the river, the Fermanagh wetness ensuring a greenery that dazzled in its variety, and past a narrow ditch where my wandering hand would search past the sodden grass to a cavern and energe with my frog. The frog for the sake of the frog.
But beyond what I love the frog for, I discovered that he is also king when it comes to eliminating slugs. While I am not much bothered by slugs, certainly not bothered enough to do anything about them, I live in London and, before the frogs arrived, my garden was host to a whole variety and size of slugs. But slugs there are no more. 

I will tell you how I achieved my slug eradication, and you can too. And best of all, it’s easy, natural, an environmentally friendly way, and, as a vanquishment, it is thoroughly efficient. The frog is your a prince. If you let him be king, the emerald empire that is your garden will thrive…

I have lived in my house in Battersea, Zone 2 London, for 12 years. I had always wanted a pond, and one weekend, I found my spade in my hand and a hole being dug. I had not planned or prepared, and so I dug the hole before even thinking about lining the pond, and certainly before investigating how a pond might be created. After all, surely a pond is just a hole in the ground, filled with water? It turns out not!

Lesson 1: Research ponds before starting! There is a shape to them that is easier to start with than create after the event!

Hole dug, I then went to Her Majesty’s Internet to ask the questions that might have been more relevant before starting work. Mistakes? It turns out I had made a few. I strongly recommend anyone else to not do as I did. However, after purchasing a liner (£35), and edging this first lake of mine (watch this space, grander things to come) with a discarded sleeper found whilst beachcombing the Thames, I had a 2 foot by 12 foot centre for the future of joy in my garden. 

Lesson 2: Sleepers are treated with chemicals that wildlife doesn’t like and might kill your pond. I was lucky, and this sleeper had spent so long in the Thames that is was disintegrating and had been so “cleansed” by the river that it’s now, a few years later, covered in plants and moss. But I was lucky.

From the house it looks like it might be a stream, running from the next door garden to mine and beyond, and on one end of it I have placed in an ancient looking fountain. The sleeper edging had been so sodden and decayed from the river that it gave the pond a mature feel from the off, and I’d banked the soil from the pond itself up in a slope on the far side of it, and then covered it in lavendar plants. I loved my pond, and now it needed life!

Lesson 3: Lavender, while not needing much, does need water, and it definitely doesn’t like shade… That bank was ok for the plants for a year, but would not qualify for the description “success”.

On my next trip home, I spied what I was looking for; the spawn of frogs, again in my Mother’s pond. They do say not to move frog spawn as frogs will get to a pond if it is suitable for them. However, my garden is enclosed by an 8 foot high wall, the other side of which is a concrete parking lot, and beyond that, there are no other ponds in the viscinity. My pond was not going to populate itself.

Lesson 4: Most of what you read about frogs on the internet, from some very august bodies, is wrong or incomplete. And while these sites purport to care about frogs, their belief in the “natural cycle of death” means many fewer frogs survive than they might if you do give your friendly slug munchers a helping hand.

My pond now had pond weed and spawn, and the spawn quickly hatched to tadpoles. There were the clumps of spawn, the tadpoles of which were to become frogs, and the strings of spawn, which were to become true tadpoles (or poles of tads, AKA toads). I was fully aware that my pond was unlikely to have enough food for the thousand odd globes-with-tails that zipped around like tiny black, comets through the night coloured water. Back to the internet then to find out what these creatures ate so they didn’t starve!

Very quickly, the tadpoles had stripped the pondweed of all greenery. Young tadpoles are vegetarian, and my pond had had only just enough food. But I was aware that they would soon want meat, and tadpoles are so far down the foodchain, they even eat each other. So, the easy answer was dog food! However, too much, too soon would have polluted the pond, so I just put a few pellets of dried dog food on a submerged rock, and waited until I saw the tadpoles starting to eat it. Then I just fed them. Not much, but enough that there was always a little food. And so my tadpoles grew, becames froglets with tails, then froglets without tails, then started to leave the pond.

Lesson 5: Tadpoles eat algae to start with, then pond weed, and finally graduate to meat. So, pond weed then dog food will keep them alive.

Lesson 5a: If you do not feed your amphibians, they will starve. The key to vanquishing the army of slugs is to have an army of frogs, so don’t let nature starve them, your pond and garden is hardly a natural environment anyway. You are the general to your army of frogs, so remember what Napoleon said, an army marches on its stomach!

This being a very new pond, starvation was my first enemy. Further enemies, as the pond became more mature, were to await in future years… 

That first year, I had quite literally hundreds of froglets in the garden. I had to keep the grass mown short so they wouldn’t make it their home, as mowing it longer would have led to a frogocaust. And every night, I would see tiny shape popping across the garden. So many survived that they were everywhere, in my own garden and those of my neighbours, and where you might think a neighbour wouldn’t like frogs, it turns out people love wildlife in their gardens.

That first year, I had fewer slugs than normal, but I wasn’t really noticing. However, the following year, I still had many frogs all over the garden. They were still immature, so no frogspawn (they take longer to mature than you might think, 2 to 3 years before their first spawn), but present. And no slugs. In fact, no slugs to such a degree that my strawberry plant, that has suffered so badly from slugs that I didn’t believe the slugs could possibly have trashed the strawberries so and had blamed the birds, that strawberry plant gave a full harvest, and not one strawberry was touched!

If you want to vanquish your slugs, give a leg up to your frogs.

This is all well and good, and doing the above will help for a new pond. However, in year three, the frogs spawned! I even saw a gang bang in the pond! (This is not me being crude, this is something frogs do, where many frogs form a sexy ball, and I had it in my garden). 

Now, as I have already mentioned, tadpoles are right at the bottom of the food chain, and while my pond doesn’t attract larger predators such as herons or ducks, my additions of plants has brought a host of leeches.

Lesson 6: Tadpoles are right at the bottom of the foodchain. If you don’t protect them, they make amazing vol-au-vents for many other creatures.

Don’t freak out at the leeches. The medicinal leech is the only one able to pierce a human’s skin, and they are exceptionally rare in the UK now (blame the Victorians). The varieties you get in your pond won’t be able to latch on to you, and mainly feed on invertebrates such as water fleas, snails – and tadpoles. You may also end up with other creatures who also eat tadpoles, such as newts, or even other frogs in the pond. 

How do you ensure most of your tadpoles survive? I take a large, builder’s rubble bucket, fill it with water, and put the frogspawn into it. The spawn matures to tadpoles in about 3 weeks, and it is better to move it there sooner rather than later. Then take plenty of pondweed, and add it to the bucket – but before you do, make sure not to bring the earth that is in the roots of some pondweeds, as that is where the leeches live in greatest abundence.

There in the bucket, safe from predators, plenty of plant food, you have your frog nursery. Keep an eye out for leeches, and if you spot them, squish them with your fingers or remove them. If the small tadpoles eat all the greenery, grass cuttings seem to be a not-brilliant-but-passeable substitute, and I have heard that some people put peas into their ponds. However, remember, your tadpoles will soon want something more substantial. Dog food is next. When they are ready to eat it, you will see several tucking in to it.

My suggestion is to keep the tadpoles in the buckets for a few weeks, until they have become froglets. At this stage you have another risk. You see, frogs that cannot get out of the water, drown. Yes, you heard me, drowning frogs. You must provide them with a ramp so that they can get out if they want to.

Lesson 7: If a frog cannot get out of water, it can drown trying. Always provide them with a place to get out of the water.

Finally, you want somewhere for the frogs to live when not in the pond (most of the time). Most gardens have sufficient places, compost heaps, cracks in walls, a damp patch of the garden such as under a pot. It is likely that you will not have to do anything, but having some part of the garden that is not “cared” for is ideal, the frogs (and other wildlife) will love it.

From there, they will venture out and eat all the baby and small slugs, all the offspring of any slug that happens to be around. Bizarrely enough, I’ve also had many fewer clothes moths this year too. It may be the frogs, it may not be, but I was going to protect my frogs in any case, because my garden is a better place for this king’s presence.

And there you have it. You will now have an army of slug killers. Keep this up each year, and your from population will increase. They in turn will feed the larger creatures, the foxes and birds, but much like protected areas of the sea, your protected area will ensure that all the areas around you also benefit from more frogs also, so that not only will you not have any slugs or snails, but your neighbour won’t have any to chuck over your wall into your garden because he won’t have any either!
* Frogspawn and tadpoles are at the bottom of the foodchain. If you don’t protect them, they will be eaten.

* If you do protect your frogspawn and tadpoles until they have matured enough to embark on dry land, you will have an army of them, an army several orders of magnitude large than would survive without help.

* Frogs eat small slugs and slug eggs. Large numbers of frogs means very small numbers of slugs.

* The biggest risk to tadpoles is them living in a natural environment full of predators. These include birds such as ducks and herons; fish; newts; and invertebrate such as insects, snails and particularly, leeches!

* Taking frogspawn and putting it in a bucket will protect it until your tadpoles have become froglets.

* A tadpole nursery should be protected from predators:

– wire mesh over the top of the bucket if water birds are a risk

– clean the roots of pondweed if you are putting it into the bucket. And keep an eye out for leeches. They will gather on the side of the bucket where the tadpoles gather, so squish them when you see them, while trying not to squish the tadpoles.

– obviously don’t add fish or newts to the bucket!

* Tadpoles need food:

– young tadpoles feed off vegetable matter, so an old bucket with algae on the side is perfect for them, or a water butt, so long as it has no leeches. Add pond weed and maybe grass cuttings or other bits of vegetable matter. Keep an eye on it, if the tadpoles have stripped the pondweed, make sure they have food.

– older tadpoles need meatier food. Dog food works for me. But add it too early and it will pollute the bucket. Put a small amount in, maybe a pellet, and wait until you see your tadpoles eating it. When you do, start putting in larger amounts, but always be sure not to put in too much, just slightly more than they are eating.

* Frogs will drown if they cannot get out of a pond. Make sure they have a ramp or at least a rock to clamber onto.

* Once froglets are mature enough to leave water, you can return your bucket of them to your pond. If you have fish, this is still not safe for them, but if this is your only pond, then that is what to do. Continue to make sure they can get out of the pond.

* Frogs need a habitat. They will venture away from your pond and be very happy, but if you want them to be most efficient at killing the slugs in your own garden, do allow for enough places for the frogs to survive. Places they like is under pots, in cracks in walls, and anywhere there is longer grass and plant life. They will love your flowerbeds and veg patch, and if you have a tunnel, they will thrive there.

Good luck!!

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