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Gardening | GARDENING Q&A

Fighting Back Against Attack of the Killer Snails

June 01, 1997|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

QUESTION: I have been struggling with snails since I purchased my house three years ago. I sprinkle pellets to kill them, and they disappear for a while but then come back.

A friend suggested I sprinkle salt on the flowers and it will kill them just as effectively. Is this true? Does my watering the garden automatically at night attract snails?--P.S., Woodland Hills

ANSWER: Don't ever put table salt on the garden--it harms, even kills, plants. There is a new product that contains a different kind of salt, from coconuts, that deters snails.

Gardens Alive (5100 Schenley Place, Lawrenceburg, IN 47025, [812] 537-8650) is selling something called Slug-Out slug and snail barrier. You spread a 2-inch-wide band around susceptible plants (a $13 bag makes 96 feet of barrier), and slugs or snails will not cross it.

The maker of Gardens Alive do caution that it should be outside the root zone, because even this kind of salt might affect the roots of some plants. I haven't tried it, but they say it lasts, even when wet, for about three weeks, that it is much more effective than diatomaceous earth (another snail and slug barrier) and that it naturally biodegrades. Copper strips available at nurseries are another kind of barrier.

Recent research in Ventura County also suggests that mulching plants with organic matter hampers the mobility of snails.

However, your garden sounds like the perfect candidate for predatory decollate snails. These snails with pointy, conical shells eat brown garden snails (though not slugs) and seldom nibble on plants. Mary's Decollate Snails in San Marcos, (760) 744 9233, is one source, and owner Mary Borevitz recommends buying one snail for every square foot of landscaped garden.

It will still take two or more years for them to control the brown snails, but you won't have to buy any more poison pellets and will probably notice a decrease sooner.

In the meantime, you could try a barrier (wood ashes can be used, at least until they get wet, as can bands of crushed eggshells) to keep snails away from the plants that are most under attack. Be sure to stop using the pellets at least six weeks before releasing the decollate snails.

Watering the garden at night probably does attract snails since they like to travel on moist ground, so you might try switching to early in the morning so the ground dries by evening.

Ashes, Eggshells Are Good in Moderation

Q: Are ashes (from the fireplace) useful in the home garden? How about eggshells?

--J.B., Lake Forest

A: Lots of people are cleaning out their fireplaces about now, and the wood ashes can be used as a kind of fertilizer, high in potassium (as much as 7%), with some phosphorous and lots of calcium. But they can also be toxic to soil microorganisms, so use the ashes with restraint. A light sprinkling (no more than one-quarter pound per 100 square feet) can be worked into the soil with a cultivator.

Turf Grass Is Best Solution for Parkways

Q: As a new homeowner, I am learning to cope with a lawn for the first time, but I find it pretty boring. In trying to come up with a prettier and more environmentally friendly yet relatively low-maintenance solution for my curb strips, my fiance suggested a wildflower seed mix for a mini-wildflower field. Do you think this would work?

--A.B., Northridge

A: Though people grow all sorts of things from gazanias to vegetables in parkways, only turf grasses are legal. There are good reasons: It makes it possible to open the passenger door on cars, reduces the work of cleaning up litter and dog droppings and it doesn't block the view of motorists. It also give neighborhoods a unifying look.

Now that you're properly forewarned, yes, you could grow wildflowers there, but the seed can only be sown in the fall, and the soil must be prepared as if you were going to plant vegetables or a flower garden. Wildflowers are never as tough as weeds, and you can bet there are plenty of weed seeds lying in the soil.

The other problem with wildflowers is that they are annuals that die in spring, so you would have nothing all summer and well into fall. The California poppy is the one wildflower that lingers longer, even several years, but they look worse each season. Otherwise, you need to start fresh each autumn.

A better plan might be to grow drought-resistant, low-growing perennial grass-like plants that you either don't mow or mow very high. Berkeley sedge (Carex tumulicola) is one native grass-like sedge that we've grown in our parking strip, in sun and deep shade. Better nurseries can order it for you from Native Sons Nursery. We don't mow the foot-tall blades, but I know some people who do.

There are many other tough, spreading sedges, even one with gray foliage, and there are a number of grasses that would also do well, including the native elymus and various fescues and muhlenbergias. Buffalo grass would be another candidate and it has "the kind of funky look" you mentioned in your letter if it isn't mowed. It's available as seed, even as sod.

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