I’ve just picked nearly 3lb of strawberries from the soggy, slug-infested allotment. To my surprise and delight, nearly all of them are perfect, unnibbled little cones of red. I think I’m getting a handle on the slimy so-and-sos.
Organic allotmenteering turns you into something of a slug psychologist, especially if you’re going to defeat the SAS-level of slugs operating on my plot.
So here are my six top tips for allowing slugs and perfect strawberries to co-exist, without a chemical product in sight.
1. Resist the temptation to pick off damaged fruit.This is the absolute key. The SAS slugs, and their foot-soldier allies the ants and woodlice, will return to the same damaged fruit until they’ve pretty much totalled it.
If you remove it, they’ll just have to start again on a new one. So leave one damaged strawberry per plant as a sacrifice to appease the slug gods. Neighbouring strawberries will be left to ripen untouched.
2. Pick early. Strawberries will ripen on a windowsill if they’ve got only a hint of red showing. So grab them as soon as they start turning and the slugs will have less time to move in.
3. Leave planks or other tempting slug shelters nearby. That way you can remove them every time you pick. My routine is now (a) harvest the strawberries and (b) harvest the slugs. You can then murder them or rehome them depending on your mood/pacifist principles. The rate of reappearance under the planks will eventually slow. And you never know what else you’ll find – this morning to my joy there was a baby toad of some kind (vaguely reddish in colour) crouched under a slug plank. Fantastic! A slug muncher is always welcome on my allotment, which leads neatly to…
4. Do all you can to encourage slug munchers. Hedgehogs are a rare sight these days, presumably because their poor road safety skills and the use of slug pellets. But toads, frogs, birds and even foxes will all join the feast if the habitat and access allows them to co-exist with your plants.
5. Have so many plants that you can afford to lose some fruit – otherwise known as playing the percentage game, if you have the space of course. This year I’ve given over two huge beds to strawberries (all runners from six original Cambridge Favourite plants), because they did so well last year. If you end up with more than you can eat, give them away, make jam or freeze the surplus for a winter’s day when so-called summer is just a distant memory.
6. Accept imperfections. Most of mine are now flawless, thanks to the “sacrificial strawberry” principle. But any with minor damage on a plant already bearing a sacrificial strawberry can be cut up at home. Still delicious!
Rummaging for strawberries among rain-soaked leaves has actually turned out to be quite a sensual experience. You stroke and rustle the wet foliage as your eye searches out the red treasure beneath. Hands dripping with water, you move in.
Today as I rummaged and rustled to the usual sounds of birdsong my eyes fell on a crazily coloured cinnabar moth on a nearby strawberry plant – no camera with me but this is it: http://ukmoths.org.uk/show.php?bf=2069. That and the baby toad and the birdsong added up to a feeling that allotmenteering with nature is hugely better than working against it with chemicals.
But, and it’s a big but, I still haven’t cracked the runner-bean slugs. Some are operating behind enemy lines, inside the cordon of so-called organic slug deterrent granules, having failed to read the label and understand that they’re meant to be deterred. Some are still lurking in the cover of the long grass to slip out at night. But some plants are now away and up the poles, probably big enough at last to withstand any damage to their lower leaves. It won’t be a bumper harvest but that’s all part of the cycle of allotmenteering.
This year I’ve also lost a brand-new melon plant, an entire tray of pepper seedlings and some butternut squash.
So I’m not yet ready to Hug a Slug. But after a somewhat despairing visit last week, I’m now feeling that slugs can at least be outwitted. And yes, the organic killer pellets are in the post for those occasions when death is the only appropriate solution.