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How to fight slugs safely

Q: What are the best methods for organic control of slugs and snails?

A: Damage to vegetables and other tender garden plants by slugs and snails can be confused with the feeding damage done by other insects. Look for silvery mucus trails to confirm you’re dealing with snails or slugs.

You can use a combination of methods to control snails and slugs, such as:

• Eliminate their hiding places, such as piles of garbage debris or weedy ground covers.

• To reduce the moisture that attracts slugs and snails, use drip irrigation rather than a sprinkler.

• Hand-pick snails at night, every night at first and then weekly as their numbers decline.

• Place barriers of copper foil or diatomaceous earth around plants and raised beds to deter slugs’ and snails’ movements. Crushed eggshells and coffee grounds are not proven deterrents.

• Remove them where they hide, beneath boards or other flat objects that are slightly raised above the soil surface. Or trap them in small containers full of beer or other fermented liquids buried at ground level.

Snail and slug baits that contain iron phosphate products are effective and safe to use around children, domestic animals and wildlife. Look for products that are formulated for organic gardening, and use them in accordance with label instructions.

Taking care of your soil

Q: How should I protect and enhance the soil in my garden during the late winter to prepare for spring planting?

A: Two words: compost and mulch.

February is a perfect time to enhance and protect your soil and add cool-weather crops to garden beds. Whether you are gardening with vegetables, fruit trees or herbs, the winter garden is best served with a blend of compost and mulch.

Compost encourages the production of beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter, creating a nutrient-rich soil. It also reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and suppresses plant diseases and pests.

Mulch enhances soil texture by allowing water and air to circulate while improving drainage. Mulch helps control moisture and temperature and suppresses weeds. Mulch and compost are now found together in mixes sold at several nurseries, garden centers and soil companies in Sonoma County. You can grab a bag or make your own.

Compost and mulch together, whether made in your own garden or bought from a local nursery or soil company, are best applied directly over your soil with little soil disturbance.

Do not till or dig up the existing soil. Instead, lightly layer compost first, then mulch, to add 1 to 3 inches of organic matter on top of your planting beds. Be sure to keep compost and mulch a few inches away from the base of existing plants, or 6 to 12 inches from the trunks of trees.

At this time of year, the rain gradually dissolves the nutrients present in the compost and moves them into the soil. If the weather is dry, water lightly after applying the organic matter.

You’ll worry less if your soil is prepared for future wind, rain, freezes and occasional warm spells still to come.

Plant these now

What to plant now: Arugula, onions, radishes, kale, peas, cabbage and leeks are just a few of the vegetables you can plant in February and March. Start new plants by planting seeds directly into the soil or transplant small seedlings. See the Master Gardeners of Sonoma County website for a table of cool-weather vegetables and when to plant them.

Read up on enhancing your soil, composting, mulch and planting cool-weather vegetables at these sites:

Composting: sonomamg.ucanr.edu/Composting

Mulch: bit.ly/3dkY6HB

In-depth info on soil health: sonomamg.ucanr.edu/files/271129.pdf

Year-around food gardening: ucanr.edu/sites/scmg/files/296046.pdf

Vegetable planting summary: sonomamg.ucanr.edu/files/30787.pdf

Janet Bair and Renee Hayes contributed to this week’s column.

The UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County (sonomamg.ucanr.edu) provides environmentally sustainable, science-based horticultural information to Sonoma County home gardeners. Send your gardening questions to scmgpd@gmail.com. The Master Gardeners will answer in the newspaper only questions selected for this column. Other questions may be directed to their Information Desk at 707-565-2608 or mgsonoma@ucdavis.edu.

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