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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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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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Why Garden?

The Garden in July

I am a committed, joyful gardener who wants to teach everyone else to grow their own food, too! I encourage others to garden NOT because it’s easy and anyone can just do it. I have heard stories from people about how they tried gardening but ran into so many problems that the 10 tomatoes they ended up with likely cost them $15 each. It is frustrating and does happen! But I believe that it’s worth not giving up, rising to the challenge and learning the skills you need to have your own garden. Here are a few reasons why…

Environmental Benefits

For a few thousand years, many agricultural systems have created as many problems as they have grown food. The big traps we fall into are: monocultures, soil disturbance, and more recently, chemical use. Our current US conventional ag system is guilty of all of these sins.

Now, however, we have the information needed to grow in ways that can heal the planet. We can even reverse climate disruption if these techniques are implemented on a wide-scale! There are great people and groups leading new movements to change our large-scale food systems.

Another answer that I see clearly is that smaller food systems can be much easier to manage well and efficiently. More growers working smaller pieces of land can address problems of air & water pollution, water consumption, soil erosion and soil carbon loss while building a community’s food sovereignty (ability to feed themselves).

Garden, Mid-July

In your own garden, no-till is easy, diversity an obvious choice, and chemicals become unnecessary as you build healthy soil. You can eliminate food miles, use far less water, create healthy habitats for pollinators and other creatures, and sequester carbon in your own backyard!

Save Money

While there is the phenomonom of the $15 tomato, with a bit of skill and some good choices, gardening can absolutely save you money. The key is to identify what you like to eat, consider the prices for buying these, and find out which are easy crops to grow.

Beet Tops

Herbs and greens are pricey, high-end items, so if you love salad and basil, those should go to the top of your list. If you don’t like beets – don’t grow them. Even though they are an easy crop, this will feel like wasted effort in the end. Now, I know most everyone loves tomatoes, but – they are not easy to grow in New England! Tomatoes are a heat-loving crop that, in my experience, do better in dry conditions – does that sound like our climate? In our humid summers, there are numerous blights that will attack them, causing them to turn ugly and die before you get much from them. Actually, last year’s terrible drought in our area gave us the best tomato crops we’ve ever seen. If those conditions continue, maybe tomatoes

Zucchini

will become easy here, but meanwhile, be careful!

Don’t go overboard on one veggie either – remember that diversity is necessary in a healthy garden, and that by the 50th zucchini, it will start to feel less like well-deserved bounty and more like a curse.

 

Your Health

Every day there seems to be another study pointing to good nutrition as a key to good health. One of the problems we face is that much of our food contains fewer minerals and more chemical residues than in the past. You can buy certified organic (higher priced food in this case is actually cheap compared to health care costs). You can also give even more attentive care to a small plot you watch over and know you and your family will eat from.

Red Nasturtiums

We also now know that gardening has positive effects on mood. Less depression and anxiety is a great bonus, don’t you think?

 

Connection to the land

It’s great to admire, love and watch our landscapes and wildlife. But, I think it’s even better for us to understand on a visceral level how much we depend on the land, the earth. In the US, where so many of us have been here for merely a few generations, we often lack a sense of rootedness and connection to place. We move and travel and don’t like to feel “tied down.” I don’t believe this is working out well for us.

First, I think it makes it easier to tolerate and ignore wrongs being done to the land when we think we can just move on.

Let me share with you this excerpt from an interview with author and environmentalist, Derrick Jensen: “It’s really problematical, because we can talk all we want, but the truth is, if my experience is that my water comes from the tap, I will defend to the death the system that brings that to me, because my life depends on it. If my experience is – not my philosophy – but if my experience is that my food comes from the grocery store I will defend to the death the system that brings that food to me, because my life depends on it. If on the other hand, my experience, my reality is that my water comes from a river then I will defend to the death that river, because my life depends on it. If my experience is that my food comes from a land base, from not a land base, but this land base, my land base, my home, I will defend to the death that land base because my life depends on it. So that’s part of the problem, we’ve been made dependent on this very system that is killing us.”

Kale

Second, I believe many people would feel happier and more secure if they felt they did belong somewhere.  (Making this sort of commitment to a place doesn’t necessarily mean you own that land, by the way.)

How well do you know the place you live? How was it used in the past? What sounds do you expect to hear when you open your windows this spring? What does the soil smell like after a rain? Where does water run across the landscape? How does food taste grown there?

My life is enriched just by asking these questions and looking for the answers.

As Robin Wall Kimmerer says in her book Braiding Sweetgrass: “This is really why I made my daughters learn to garden—so they would always have a mother to love them, long after I am gone.” 

Red Oak Lettuce

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