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Permaculture Approaches: Problems into Solutions, Slugs into Ducks

I last wrote about a very appreciated and loved creature – the honey bee. Next up I want to tell you about a weird, wild, often reviled beastie – the slug!

Leopard Slug (Limax maximus)

Any gardener is going to have a fraught relationship with slugs, especially after a wet spring like we had. But before we get to that, let’s get to know them better.

As with any problem we face, permaculture asks us to observe first, to learn and understand what we can. This enables us to make better choices about how we react, sometimes even allowing us to turn our problems into solutions.

Aside from that, every creature we share this planet with is amazing and worth marveling at just to keep our sense of awe and humility intact.

My Slug Story

When I first noticed slugs, they were not a problem for me. I was living in Dover NH in a house with a tiny fenced in backyard. One summer we noticed that in the right light all the patio bricks sparkled. It looked like fairies had sprinkled their dust… but it was actually the dried slime from the trails of slugs which we were having an outbreak of!  At night they would appear and we started watching them.

Not a Small Slug!

They were big – maybe 3 inches long fully extended, and I couldn’t believe how fast they moved given that they have no legs. I wasn’t trying to garden back then, so could simply watch and admire and not get into any kind of battle with the slimy critters.

Around the same time the movie Microcosmos came out. I saw it on the big screen of The Music Hall in Portsmouth. This artistic documentary about life in meadows and ponds included an amazing mating dance of snails.

A few years later my best friend, Nicole, moved to California. We did some traveling in the state and I loved the northern woods with the huge majestic redwoods, shocking to a New Englander. Those woods held black bears to be wary of, herds of Roosevelt Elk, and banana slugs, which everyone wanted to see with their intense yellow coloring standing out against the browns and greens of the forest.

Slugs Are Cool

Slug in the Garden

Why respect slugs? The role slugs play in the ecosystem is to eat decaying plant, fungi and sometimes even animal matter. They are recyclers who fit well into the No Such Thing As Waste permaculture view.

Slugs and snails (scientifically classified as “gastropods“) have been on this planet since the Cambrian era (497 million years ago!) – clearly they are successful and important. Thousands of species live in all kinds of habitats (sea, forest, desert, pond, ditch,…), with different eating habits (herbivore, carnivore, detritivore), and such a diverse genetic heritage that we know they didn’t all evolve from one ancestor, but arose independently a number of times in different places.

The Problem

However, they can be serious garden pests, and they also can spread some diseases. In our case, the one we most worry about affects goats – meningeal worm.

Young Kale Plant, Vulnerable to Slug Damage

My relationship with slugs became strained when we first started gardening here on our Living Land property. We’d gotten some land cleared, sheet mulched, and I planted garlic in the fall. That spring it came up, and I started planting other crops. I quickly discovered that we had a tremendous slug population. Sure, they were eating my lettuce, kale & broccoli, but also my onions and garlic! I would go into the garden with a quart container and fill it with slugs within about 20 minutes. Yes, I handpicked them, despite the slime factor.

I consulted soil experts. For many pests, it is a soil problem that causes distress in the plant which then attracts predatory insects. But, not with slugs I was told. They weren’t indicative of a deeper problem, but simply liked to eat what humans do too.

Cabbage, A Favorite Food of Slugs

I brought my containers of slugs to our chickens. We had friends whose hens enjoyed these protein rich treats. But, alas, ours had more refined taste, I guess. They looked at the slugs, looked at me, ruffled their feathers and strutted away.

So, we needed other control methods.

 

The Solution

Indian Runner, From Our First Flock

Of course, permaculturist Bill Mollison‘s famous quote came back to me: “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency” which he said to another struggling gardener.

We followed his advice, and got ourselves some ducks. They were not as easy to procure as chicks can be, but we found Indian Runner ducklings locally. There were just a few of them, but, wow, did they love to eat slugs! Before they were big enough to be outside we brought them in for them and they gobbled them up. That first year, we let them spend time in the garden itself. They are not as hard on a garden as chickens are, but they made a bit of a mess of my carefully placed mulch. Since then, we rarely let them in the garden, but they have access to a large area around it. That has been enough to keep the problem in check.

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Frogs in Our Pond

We also added elements to our garden and land that support wild predators of slugs: frogs, toads, and snakes.  (If you can’t or don’t want to keep ducks, this is what I’d suggest you focus on.)  We added a pond form in the garden and within weeks it was full of frogs.

Now that we aren’t overrun with them, I can again admire slugs as amazing creatures. In fact, as the slug population has decreased, our duck food bill has gone up… I now look at them as a resource not just a competitor.

We love our ducks. They are extremely entertaining, give us amazing eggs, and a small amount of meat. They have an important place here and we’re grateful to have turned our slug problem into such a great duck solution!

A “Brace” of Ducks

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Filed under Ducks, Gardens, Uncategorized, Weather

In Praise of Rain, As the Drought Ends

I’m thrilled to announce: the drought is over for us as of May 9 after 24 months!  Which inspires me to write in praise of rain.

Here in NH we are in the midst of weeks of intermittent rain. A few downpours, even some thunder and lightning, but predominantly light precipitation that doesn’t flood us but soaks into the earth.

Lady’s Mantle in the Rain

Sure, it doesn’t help our solar power, grey days can feel dreary, and warm sunny days interspersed for pollinating would be ideal… but after months, nearly years, of drought I welcome each drop.

Not everyone realizes that drought conditions continued here until May 9, 2017. Winter snow melt improved surface water enough that visual cues were fewer. However, as a person with The US Drought Monitor bookmarked on my computer, I saw that we were not back to normal.

In reviewing the archived drought maps, our Autumns of 2013 and 2014 were “abnormally dry,” a sort-of pre-drought condition, but were resolved by winter snows.  Then, starting on May 12, 2015 we had a full year of fluctuating between “abnormally dry” and “moderate” drought.  On July 12, 2016 we hit “severe” status then climbed to “extreme” as of August 30, 2016, lasting until November.  This year’s winter snows were not enough to shift us out of “severe.”  It was in late March that, finally, regular rains, drop by drop, along with cool temperatures, eventually resulted in this week’s return to normal.  While it’s no guarantee, NOAA predictions look promising for a good growing season, while NH state officials are still encouraging caution, especially for those of us depending on our own wells for water.  In the local permaculture community we are discussing water management systems, now that we see both too much and too little water as likely problems in our future.

Rain Gauge – Nearly 2 inches over 2 days!

Looking beyond this larger concern… a rainy spring has also been a great opportunity for getting new plants started!

In the annual garden, the small seeds of carrots, beets, parsnips and radishes love to get going in moist conditions. Cover and pasture crops also thrive. We disturbed soil to build a new barn last year, which I now have the chance to reseed with a mix of perennials for pasturing the animals on. In our orchard areas, we have cut swales and created berms for water retention over the past few years, followed by hugelkultur mounds topped with thick (at least 1 inch) mulches to build soil. Now, I am establishing more perennial herbaceous plants around the young fruit trees and bushes. For instance, red clover and lupines for below ground nitrogen feeding to microorganisms and plants, and borage and cleome to offer nectar and pollen to the pollinators above.

Ducks always appreciate water!

While I can water in dry times, I find good natural conditions produce better results.

I remember watching the sky and the weather forecast last year, feeling helpless and vulnerable. It was humbling to have my human illusion of being in control and self-sufficient challenged, to be reminded that we are just a small part of a much larger system.

Sometimes that’s a relief as well. As Vandana Shiva says: “You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulder. It is good to remember that the planet is carrying you.”

During this appropriately rainy spring, I am grateful to be the recipient of such generosity.

Lady’s Mantle

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Honored By NOFA-NH

I was greatly honored to accept the 2017 Leading Organic Gardener of the Year award from The Northeast Organic Farming Association of NH on January 28, 2017 in Concord NH.

It is especially meaningful to me to be recognized by NOFA because the New England organic community has been crucial to my development as a grower.

Garden, 2016

So many of the new agricultural endeavors I took on over the years, I was told were impossible to do without chemicals. The examples, connections and support I found in NOFA (along with a bit of stubborness I must have inherited!) helped me persevere.

There are many rewards inherent to gardening. Time outside, observing growth and beauty, eating such healthy food. Some days that is more than enough.

However, it’s also the case that, like the life of the soil, which is the basis of organic farming, the work of gardeners, caregivers, and organizers is not

My Garden Soil

always recognized and valued. Sometimes we can feel as invisible as the millions of organisms in each teaspoon of soil.

So, to have my work recognized is truly gratifying.

Of course, my work rests on the efforts of many others as well. As permaculture teaches us, it’s only through our relationships and working together that any of us thrive.

I hope that each of us can see more clearly the maybe small but absolutely necessary good work being done all around us. Someone creating a thriving

Home-Cooked Garden Veggies

landscape, working to protect pollinators, refusing to give up cooking for their family… doing the work that supports us all and develops healthy communities.

We are all so connected, we are in this together. Please give your thanks and encouragement to someone who deserves it but wasn’t as privileged as I was this year to receive public acknowledgment!

NOFA-NH Award Ceremony 2017

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by | March 2, 2017 · 8:02 pm