Slugs are one of the most common garden pests, though unlike most other leaf-munching critters you find in your garden, they aren’t insects. Instead, slugs are land-dwelling mollusks that are more closely related to clams than beetles or caterpillars. Facing a slug infestation is serious business, filled with slime trails, damaged leaves, and missing seedlings. Figuring out how to get rid of slugs in the garden without turning to harsh synthetic chemical slug baits, is a task ripe with old wives’ tales and useless homemade remedies. But, the truth is that effective organic slug control is both manageable and affordable, when you’re armed with the following tips and information.
Why is figuring out how to get rid of slugs in the garden so challenging?
Let’s start with the obvious: slugs have a major ick factor. They’re slimy and pretty darned disgusting. Most species are decomposers who feed on decaying plant and animal wastes. But, there are a handful of slug species that prefer to feed on living plant material, making them the bane of many gardeners. If you’re here to figure out how to get rid of slugs in the garden, these are definitely the species you’re dealing with.
Unlike snails, slugs don’t carry a shell on their backs. Instead, they have a small, saddle-like plate called a mantle. Because they lack the protection of a shell, slugs tend to feed primarily at night or on rainy days, when they’re protected from the sun. During the day, they tend to hide under rocks or in other dark, moist locations.
Garden slug control can be difficult because many times the problem is misdiagnosed and the damage is blamed on another garden pest. Since slugs feed primarily at night, gardeners tend to notice the damaged plants, but they can’t find the culprit when they search the garden during the day. So, the cause of the damage becomes a mystery and the gardener might choose to spray the plant with a general insecticide in an attempt to kill the bug, which is useless, of course, against a mollusk like a slug.
Aside from frequent misdiagnoses, getting rid of slugs in the garden can be problematic because good old hand-picking is both disgusting and super-challenging. Unless you’re a night owl who loves roaming the garden with a flashlight and picking up slime-covered mollusks and dropping them into a bucket of soapy water, hand-picking slugs is no fun on so many levels. It’s easy to see why so many gardeners opt for skipping it all together.
If you really want to know how to get rid of slugs in the garden, you first have to learn how to properly identify the damage they cause. Then, you have to understand how to target the slimy buggers effectively and efficiently based on how they feed as well as how they breed.
What does slug damage look like?
Slugs are notorious for decimating young seedlings and many different tender-leaved plants. Here are some sure-fire signs that a garden slug control program is called for:
• If you come out to the garden in the morning and nothing remains of your seedlings but leaf mid-ribs and stumps, slugs are a likely culprit.
• Perfect, round holes in tomatoes, strawberries, and other soft fruits can also indicate a need to learn how to get rid of slugs in the garden.
• Ragged holes in leaf edges and centers is another sign of slugs.
• Slime trails on plants, walls, rocks, or mulch are another tell-tale sign of slug troubles.
How do slugs feed and breed? (I know, I know…. TMI)
Slug mouths are lined with tiny, grater-like teeth that shred leaf tissue before digesting it. This type of feeding creates holes with jagged edges, rather than the smooth-edged holes often left behind by leaf-chewing beetles or caterpillars. Slugs move on an excreted mucus trail that serves to both protect their body from desiccation and message other slugs about their presence (apparently slime trails can help you find a mate…).
Most slug species are hermaphroditic, which means they have both male and female reproductive parts. Thankfully, slugs aren’t capable of fertilizing themselves, so they have to find a partner to breed (imagine all the little baby slugs there would be if slugs could fertilize themselves… yikes!). Slug mating is actually really fascinating; leopard slugs in particular. It involves a pair of glowing blue reproductive organs and a nocturnal tryst while hanging mid-air on a thread of slime. And, no, I’m not joking.
Each slug is capable of laying hundreds of eggs over the course of its lifetime, though the eggs are laid in clutches of about 30. The eggs are laid in moist soil, under mulch or rocks, or beneath leaf detritus. They’ll sit dormant if the weather is too hot, too dry, or too cold, waiting for just the right moment to hatch. If you live in a rainy region, such as the Pacific Northwest, you’re all too aware of why learning how to get rid of slugs in the garden is so important.
Now that you understand a bit more about these garden pests, it’s time to look at some ways to keep slugs out of the garden naturally.
How to get rid of slugs in the garden: 8 organic methods
1. Prevent slug damage with cultural practices.
This first strategy doesn’t involve products, traps, or barriers. Instead, it involves the actions you take in the garden.
Slug prevention techniques involve things like:
• Avoid using loose mulches where slugs are prevalent. Skip straw, hay, and shredded wood mulches and opt for compost or leaf mold instead.
• Avoid watering the garden late in the day. Since slugs (and their eggs) thrive in wet conditions, always water in the morning so the garden dries by nightfall.
• Switch from overhead irrigation to drip irrigation which targets water at the root zone and keeps plant foliage dry.
• Plant resistant plants. Slugs dislike plants with heavily fragranced foliage, like many common herbs. They also dislike plants with fuzzy or furry foliage.
• Slugs are a favorite food of many different predators. Encourage birds, snakes, lizards, toads, frogs, ground beetles, and other natural predators to make a home in your garden. Building a “beetle bump” is one of the most effective ways to control slugs naturally (find out how to build one in this article).
2. Stop using pesticides on your lawn.
Firefly larvae are one of the most prevalent predators of newly hatched slugs, and putting synthetic pesticides on your lawn doesn’t just kill the “bad” bugs, it also kills beneficial insects, such as fireflies, that live in the lawn and help you control pests like slugs. Instead, switch to organic lawn care techniques and let these good bugs help you control slugs naturally.
3. How to get rid of slugs in the garden by trapping them.
This is one of my favorite tricks for how to get rid of slugs in the garden, especially the vegetable garden. Lay 2×4’s between crop rows at dusk and then the following afternoon, when the slugs take shelter beneath them to avoid the sun, flip over the boards and collect the slugs or cut them in half with a sharp scissors. You can also easily trap them underneath inverted watermelon rinds placed throughout the garden.
4. Use wool to control slugs.
If you want to know how to get rid of slugs in the garden, you shouldn’t ignore the power of wool pellets. It’s been discovered that slugs are just as bothered by itchy, rough wool as humans are. They don’t like climbing over the coarse texture. Slug Gone pellets are made from natural wool that’s been compressed and formed into pellets. The pellets are spread around the base of susceptible plants and then watered. The pellets quickly expand, forming a thick mat of wool that slugs refuse to climb over. It lasts for a very long time and can even help suppress weeds.
5. How to get rid of slugs in the garden with copper.
The metal copper reacts with slug slime to cause a mild electric shock and send the slug packing. You can purchase copper tape here and surround susceptible plants with a ring of copper. This is an easy technique if you just want to protect a few hostas, but it’s more challenging for larger garden areas. However, one easy way to keep slugs out of raised beds is to make a copper collar around the outer edge of the whole bed by stapling or nailing a strip of copper tape or copper strips around the top of the bed’s frame. This also works for containers where the copper tape can be placed just inside the upper rim of the pot. There’s also a copper mesh called Slug Shield (available here) that can be used in a similar manner and is reusable. It’s a bit easier to wrap around a single plant stem than copper tape or strips.
6. Set up a slug fence.
Believe it or not, you can make an electric fence for slugs. Yep, that’s right. Here are plans to make a tiny electric slug fence to place around raised beds and protect the plants from slugs. It runs on a 9 volt battery and zaps the slugs when they come in contact with the fence. It won’t hurt humans or pets and is a great way to protect a raised bed or other small garden.
7. Set up a slug bar.
You know I had to mention everyone’s favorite/least favorite slug control: beer-baited traps. Yes, no list of tips on how to get rid of slugs in the garden is complete without a mention of beer traps. Plastic traps like these or these are baited with beer (non-alcoholic works best). The yeast in the beer attracts slugs who then fall in and drown. It works, but it’s also incredibly gross. In order to prevent a festering pile of slug corpse-infused beer, be sure to empty and re-bait the traps daily.
8. Use an organic slug bait.
When figuring out how to get rid of slugs in the garden, organic slug baits are a must. However, be smart about this method because not all slug baits are the same. Many traditional slug baits used to control slugs in the garden are poisonous to pets and other wildlife in addition to slugs. Do not use slug baits that contain methiocarb or metaldehyde as their active ingredient. Metaldehyde is extremely toxic to mammals (just a teaspoon or two can kill a small dog) and methiocarb isn’t much safer.
Instead, turn to organic baits for garden slug control. Look for an active ingredient of iron phosphate. These slug control products are safe for use on even certified organic farms. Brand names include Sluggo, Slug Magic, and Garden Safe Slug and Snail Bait. Sprinkle the bait on the soil surface around affected plants. The slugs eat the bait and immediately stop feeding. They’ll die within a few days. These baits can even be used in the vegetable garden around food crops, unlike traditional slug baits.
A few more tips on how to get rid of slugs in the garden
In addition to these “power 8” ways to get rid of slugs in the garden naturally, there are a few other tricks you can try, though their effectiveness is debatable.
• Diatomaceous earth has long been touted as a great slug control. It’s a fine powder that is very sharp microscopically and the edges easily cut through slug skin and desiccate them as they crawl over it. The trouble is that as soon as diatomaceous earth gets wet, it’s rendered useless. I don’t know many gardeners who have time to make a circle of dust around every plant and then replenish it after every rain or heavy dew.
• A hearty sprinkle of salt, placed directly on a slug’s body, may desiccate it enough to lead to its death, but there’s a good chance the slug will simply shed its slime layer along with the salt and carry on as usual. I’ve seen it happen so many times that I put aside my salt shaker long ago.
• And lastly, sharp-edged items, such as sweet gum seed pods, crushed eggshells, and dried coffee grounds have all been touted as great slug deterrents. I respectfully disagree and so do several studies.
Our online course Organic Pest Control for the Vegetable Garden, provides even more information about managing slugs and other pests naturally in a series of videos that total 2 hours and 30 minutes of learning time.
The final word on how to get rid of slugs in the garden
If slugs consistently cause you troubles and you’re constantly asking yourself how to get rid of slugs in the garden, then it’s time to take action and maintain a good organic control program from the start of the growing season all the way through the end by using as many of the techniques described above as possilbe. Doing so keeps the slug population in check and significantly decreases the amount of damage they cause.
Have you battled slugs in your garden? We’d love to hear your success stories in the comment section below.
For more on controlling pests in the garden, be sure to check out the following articles:
Guide to vegetable garden pests
Managing four-lined plant bugs
Controlling squash vine borers organically
Preventing pests in your garden
Growing organic apples with fruit bagging
Adrienne Boullianne says
so true–DE and sharp objects just make a mess, but they dont control slugs. beer traps are effective, but after battling slugs for a few months now, i am resorting to the organic traps/bait. also, salt can be harmful to plants, so that’s another reason not to use it.
Norma Bronder says
Well, I respectfully disagree with your disagreement about sweet gum balls being a deterrent. They are so plentiful here in Pittsburgh, easy to apply and last all season. Nothing worked to protect my hostas, annuals and herbs until I started using these jagged miracle balls. And once the plants start to grow and fill in, you don’t notice them. Is there some other reason you don’t favor sweet gum balls?
Jessica Walliser says
Glad to hear you have success with the sweet gum balls, Norma. They haven’t worked for me in the past, but maybe I ought to give them a try again.
How do you apply them?
brenda kodama says
I use Sluggo in the Pacific Northwest. It’s still a
Challenge. I try to plant slug resistant plants ie ferns, lambs ears since the slugs keep winning.
Thanks for the article.
Jessica Walliser says
I’ve had good luck with Sluggo, too, especially in my containers.
The light you see in my yard is the flashlight in my hand as I go on nightly slug patrol! Some years seem to be worse than others, so beer traps & Sluggo too as needed.
Brian Birtwistle says
For the first time this year I am growing a line of mixed vegetables around my main crop and allowing this as slug feed/decoy, in the hope that a minimul amount will make it through the wall!
I do encircle my beds with coffee grounds and use Sluggo regularly (ha, ha we raised our daughter in the Pacific NW and taught her to ‘feed the slugs’) but recently have added a few more tricks: recycle hard clear plastic cups by making slug collars sinking them around vulnerable plants and making many cuts at the top creating something very pokey; check for lists of plants and their vulnerabilities to slug and snail damage. Here on Hawaii Island esp on the east side, slugs and those 3-4 inch African snails may carry the parasite that causes rat lung disease and we must carefully wash all produce to avoid ingestion. The best practice is to pick them up with chop sticks and toss them in a closed container full of very salty water thus minimizing spread of the parasite.
I live in Edmonton, Alberta Canada. And have had the opportunity to have planting space in a pop-up garden across from my apartment building at the Lynwood Community League. So the practise you mention using chopsticks and putting the pest in a ziplock full of salty water is for slugs? I’m gonna try the beer traps, but really appreciate you intel. Thank you
I think I got a bit lucky this year. When harvesting parsnips in late March, and then prepping beds in April I found clutches of eggs. Problem is much less thus far. It would be good to add a picture of what they look like. I had read this article previously, and when I first found them I wasn’t sure what they were until I googled it.
Sheilagh Peters says
Slug eggs are tiny, about the size of a coloured plastic pinhead and coloured similar to a plastic milk jug. You’ll find them under leaves, between bricks or anywhere that’s protected in the spring. I take them by the spoonful and put them in the garbage so they don’t spread. Still, I’ve got issues!
I put out crumbled corn chips or cookie crumbs on the patio close by the garden. The first night , I picked up 40, second night maybe 20 and down to only 5 a day. Soon I will be slug free. I thew them in a creek that runs behind my house. Yes they drowned.
Tamara McFarland says
I love these and will try them. I have also had pretty good success putting a circle of pennies at the base of beans as they sprout.
My early morning chore is to go into the garden to their favorite plants like daffodils and lupine and my new vegetable starts and and chop the slugs with my garden scissors. I also use cheap beer in low bowls. Does not have to be anything fancy.
Does anyone have success with spraying ammonia on them. I have heard it kills them and is actually good for plants. I have a terrible problem in my vegetable garden.
Jessica Walliser says
I would not suggest that since it’s very easy to over-apply nitrogen-based products, such as ammonia, and burn plant foliage.
turtle dove hill says
I use DUCKS! They have wiped them out from the veggie garden, as they probe under the surfaces where slugs hide, and LOVE to eat them, unlike my other farm birds.
Thanks a million!!! This is what I was looking for. A fully automated slug remover. I recently bought an old cottage with land that’s more like a nature reserve than farmland, totally infested with slugs. I do a couple of nightly checks on my crops (still very small, only moved in a few weeks ago) and kill dozens every run cutting them up with a stick. Just back from one… lost many plants before I realised how manyt they are and how much they feed. I tend to find most late evening, at dusk. Can’t start wiring 4 acres.
Jane Christmas says
I love reading all these remedies!! These slugs are driving me mad, but since putting beer out in saucers, it has helped so much. Hearing about crumbled corn chips, I might add this to my attempts at getting rid of them .
I garden in a very humid environment near to ocean on Cape Cod, and slugs have been ruining my leafy greens and seedlings for years. I used to use Sluggo, but am concerned about EDTA as an ingredient, which is toxic to mammals and birds. My problem is compounded by the fact I am infested with earwigs as well, and it is difficult to know who’s to blame most of the time as the damage is similar (excluding the slime trail). I’ve had marginal luck with DE, and am frankly quite tired of putting it out and watering around it. I’ve had better luck with beer traps In tuna cans, and there is an admitted satisfaction of seeing all those dead drunken slugs in the am. I don’t even need to clean out the traps because (this is your cue to stop reading!) my resident possum sucks down the whole slimy, festering, alcoholic mess on a regular basis. What a treat.
It rained last night and the slugfest this morning was too tempting to leave to the traps, so I hunted with tweezers and cup of beer until I no longer spotted a sober living slug. No question, hunting is the quickest solution. I happened to have a spray bottle of 70% isopropyl alcohol in hand recently when crossing the deck and spotted slugs. I gave them a quick experimental squirt and that seemed to work as well, although I’d estimate only about half of the time. I’m guessing the survivors deployed that gross slime-shedding defense mechanism, leaving a blob of slime behind as they made their escape.
In the veggie bed, I was so frustrated that I started planting my greens in elevated planters like window boxes and large ice buckets on legs. I also thought to put solo cup collars around my few surviving bean seedlings, and that worked perfectly. So between elevated planters, the beer traps, and the cup collars, I’m making it work and preserving a small part of my sanity. The beer traps and collars seem to work very well in the earwigs too, which is good because hunting earwigs is where I need to draw the line.
Love your comments. Made me chuckle. I live in Michigan and am getting the slugs in my garden like crazy. So frustrating! I am going to try the beer trick. Thank you so much.
Today I found another pest eating the flowers in my pots. It was some kind of yellow caterpiller, I think it had a black stripe or two. It was less than an inch long, I never saw one of these before, but the flowers are half eaten in all of my pots that stand on the cement steps of my walkway. They may have been in my flowers when I bought them to be in all of them. No Nurseries open this year, so big box stores got my business in this corona summer.
Jessica Walliser says
Sounds like it might be a geranium bud worm, but difficult to say since I don’t know what flowers you’re growing. Here’s more on geranium bud worms: https://www.hobbyfarms.com/geranium-budworms-troublesome-pest-march/
Leslie Adamson says
Living in Nova Scotia gave the slugs in my large garden a refreshing cool down and dewy moisture every night. Once I realized I had a very big problem with slugs I tried a variety of organic methods with limited success to keep the numbers down. But it was two slugs chewing on a poor worm that gave me an insight that helped my plants. I poked both of the slugs with a nail. When I came back to that spot about an hour later, the worm was gone and there were other slugs that had arrived for a slug food fest. I didn’t realize slugs would eat other slugs. So from then on I would go out at dusk armed with a sharp little knife, poking every slug I could find, and knowing that some of my plants might be left alone that night. From time to time I felt badly about this method, but in truth most of the other methods are not pleasant either. And I never forgot seeing that poor worm writhing around and unable to escape.
Sue Turner says
I’m in Australia and currently have a massive slug problem and so do my neighbours. I’ve been going out every other morning when it’s wet with dew, with the pooper scooper picking them up off the lawn – they seem to gather on dandelion flowers. I’ve collected over 700 over the last few weeks! I’m going to resort to dishes of beer near my vegetables. I figure I will eventually make an impact on their numbers if I keep collecting and drowning them!
My husband built raised planter boxes to deter the slugs but it didn’t stop them at all. I put a generous line of cornmeal around the bottom edges of the boxes, around plants I want to protect and make strategically placed piles that slugs will flock to. They seem to love the taste of cornmeal and I’ve seen them change directions and head towards a newly placed pile. It distracts them from my plants while I try to reduce their numbers. Cornmeal is safe and inexpensive and will last quite a few days but you do have to reapply after a heavy rain.
Craig Carmichael says
I bought a bag of iron phosphate slug bait. It didn’t seem to have much effect. Later I couldn’t find the bag. Next year I bought another bag, with similarly little effect. I found the first bag hidden under a shelf – empty! I went to grab my second bag but it was already empty too.
Apparently safe for mammals. Mice had eaten it all. Probably ate what I sprinkled out on the ground, too, explaining why it didn’t do much about the slugs.
Linda Alba says
My big problem is snails. Within a week of planting my peppers, the leaves were almost bare. At first, I, and the 2 year old that I watch, would 1st thing in the morning go on a snail hunt which she absolutely loved. She’s the best darn snail finder EVER! But now I’ve begun using the Garden Safe slug and snail bait which works fairly well. We still enjoy going on our snail hunts but don’t find half the number of snails that we used to. Then on to her helping me find all the dog poop. She loves it! It makes her feel very important when she finds something : D
Ducks are awesome and easy to herd. They will eat all slugs then go after amphibians so be careful.