Garden News Article – of mice and slugs

This is the follow up Garden News article about slugs and mice – printed a couple of weeks ago. Garden News is published every Tuesday and my articles appear once a fortnight. The next one will be tomorrow 22nd July.

Sometimes it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees. Last week I discovered a small row of carrots cut down in their prime – the remains of the curly tops and stems scattered about the soil like flotsam washed up upon a muddy shore. At first I thought my slug watch experiment had come to a definitive, not to mention premature end. Proof positive that my paired down approach to slug control hadn’t worked. But to my relief, or should that be horror, the real problem was not slugs at all but mice: the evidence in the scatterings of debris strewn towards and through the gap between my fence. Slugs don’t scatter. They methodically devour.

Working out which pest did what damage is Cluedo for gardeners, a distressing distraction with an occasionally pleasing end. Sometimes you never get to the bottom of a garden pest mystery, sometimes its obvious, sometimes you must plough through page after page of diagnostic assistance from the RHS manual on Pests and Diseases or even better Buczacki and Harris’ Guide to the Pests, Diseases and Disorders of Garden Plants.

A few moments in the company of B and H soon exhales any breath of sentimentality the Spring Watch loving part of my gardening soul has stored up for the cute perpetrator of crimes against carrots. Wood mice may look sweet but they will eat just about anything, not just the bean and pea seeds that automatically spring to mind when we think of them. Ironically a carrot-laden trap will also tempt them. Something I guess I could have worked out for myself. If I had managed to grow any carrots I could have used them to trap the mice. I believe that’s what they call Catch 22.

Controlling pests in an organic garden is a three-stage process. Stage one is preparing in advance for any problems that are almost certainly going to occur in an average growing season (planting comfrey, putting up carrot fly netting and so on). Stage two is allowing nature every advantage to keep its own balance of pest and predator (laying off chemicals, planting a wide variety of those predator loving flowers described in Garden News three weeks ago and maintaining a healthy crop rotation). Stage three is watching out for problems and playing god when necessary, intervening quickly when something isn’t quite going according to plan.

My slug watch experiment is a good example of this three-stage process. Its taught me that slugs love to eat comfrey and in averagely dry conditions they will keep to familiar territories where they’ll find lots of good food: just like humans they’ll hang out where life is easiest. These little comfrey canteens are easy targets for slug predators like toads, frogs, birds and slow worms, also looking for an easy life. But in very wet conditions, where there has been rain over a number of days and nights, the slugs and snails will venture away from these safe areas and use the moisture in the soil as an indicator that now is a good time to head off in search of a varied diet: which they then find in your veggie plot.

On nights like these you have to play God, diligently going up to the patch and removing what you find. This may seem like a tedious task but not so. The garden is rather wonderful at night: even when damp. And there’s something very rewarding about watching an amphibian push through a line of rocket leaves in search of prey. And the results: over a month practicing this method I’ve lost only two small poppy seedlings – and that was on a night when I didn’t do the patrol.

As for the mouse, well they have their predators too – owls, weasels, cats and other birds and mammals – but some of these predators being rather hard to encourage into the garden – I may have to take matters into my own hand. This means setting a trap. Traps can kill non-target beneficial species (which may also be an offence) and injure pets so they always need to be placed under a cloche or other form of protection. For the time being though I’m going to watch and wait. Even though the books say mice will eat anything, they haven’t eaten anything else – yet. If it stays like that the Spring Watch part of me will probably win out. If not the gardener will come out. Fighting.

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