Slugs and Snails: A Paradox

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

Why is it that I can crush a slug underfoot, albeit with some trepidation? But when it comes to snails, forget it. They are carefully transferred to another area away from my lettuce and kale.

I’ll let a snail slime all over my hand without wincing or cringing. Slugs? No way! Slugs creep me out just a little bit.

And yet when you think about it, what are snails but a slug-like creature living inside a pretty little shell.

I accidentally brought one home from the community garden on a head of lettuce yesterday. It is now living in a small terrarium with a stem from my currant bush until I get a chance to release it “back into the wild.” I would never show that kind of compassion or care for a slug.

For me, it comes down to the fact that these snails are some of the first wild creatures of my childhood. There was a time when I would spend recess tromping around in a ditch at the side of the school yard searching for these elusive, exotic critters. It was a victory to find one and I would spend the few minutes before the bell letting it crawl over my hand, considering its movements with great interest and wonder. The landscape of my childhood was primarily a tiny postage stamp yard in a townhouse complex and my grandmother’s hi-rise apartment balcony. We had sparrows, yellow jacket hornets, neighborhood cats, and the occasional pigeon, but no snails.

It turns out that in this part of the world this particular type of snail is neither elusive nor exotic — the state of my cabbage are a testament to their numbers. Yet they still hold that fascination for me: the way they extend and contract their antennae; the speed at which they can get around in what appears to be an almost sliding motion with their house firmly affixed to their backs. Snails are a marvel really, and so cool to watch.

Yes, my feelings towards them is primarily nostalgic and a bit self-centered, but for me my paradoxical relationship to snails and slugs in the garden are one of many lessons in seeing the value in all the living creatures, even the pests.

Does that sound too Pollyanna-ish?

There is a lot of focus in gardening literature on getting rid of the offending creatures. An abundance of battle analogies. Believe me, I’m guilty of using this kind of language myself. And at times I have truly felt at war and at odds with all sorts of critters. That’s probably not going to go away entirely, nor do I think it is meant to. There is nothing unhealthy in being self-interested when it comes to keeping your garden alive and productive. I want my currant bushes to make fruit. I want to eat at least some of the tomatoes I grow.

Yet, it is also healthy to stand back from the war making, fighting battles, and rallying of the troops now and again to discover and cultivate a sense of awe and respect for the critters that we share space with, including those that are at odds with our agendas as gardeners.

Maybe next week I’ll take a few minutes to cultivate a sense of wonder and respect for the slugs…. before I proceed to crush them underneath my shoe.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

Subscribe to get weekly updates from Gayla

24 thoughts on “Slugs and Snails: A Paradox

  1. What an awesome video – and great story. I try to do that with spiders (on account of Charlotte’s Web), best I do is release them outside after catching them in a long tupperware ish thing (that was once for keeping dry spaghetti); I hate the fact that I’m so quick to squish or smash a bug just because it’s in my house so I try to be more thoughtful, but sometimes those long legs just totally freak me out. I wonder why that is?

  2. My sister tells me that our mom liked to go to the canal’s near her house in Plantation Acres, FL and collect fresh water snails which she made had by the hundreds and made everyone bleach and wash. When she passed I brought many of them home with me and they now grace a small lamp and a vase. Neat video. K

  3. It’s exactly the way I feel about slugs and snails. And also because of childhood remembrances of snails being pets, not pests…

  4. I absolutely love this snail and it’s shell! It’s beautiful. I don’t ever find snails in shells it seems.

    I have to admit, after becoming a gardeners my view of insects and garden inhabitants has completely changed. I now watch “pests” with fascination, like Myla, do everything I can to save spiders and the biggest surprise of all is I feel a thrill of wonder (instead of fear) when I find a snake slithering through my garden. Ten years ago, if someone had told me I would be like this I would have told them to share what ever drug they were taking.

    However, I do have a sense of foreboding when I see rabbits. Before gardening I thought they were the sweetest things alive. At my previous home they devored $500 of plants in one weekend. Elmer Fund and I have something in common now. In my new “old” home the neighborhood cats keep the bunny population at bay. The circle of life… just need to ensure there is a good balance I suppose.

  5. In England Ive given up the battle after reading somewhere scientific that they replace themselves per sq metre so a compromise….I throw them over the fence into the back alley. Here I have lined the bottom of my fence with sandy grit so they cannot crawl back in.

  6. Snails are pretty fascinating to watch but the slugs out on the coast are something of a terror – they can stretch out over 8 inches long & demolish a garden in short order! These are not critters to squash underfoot as that goo won’t go away with a rub in the grass. Some people skewer them or use knives…shudder…I usually flick them out onto the laneway in the hopes the birds will find them.

    My current terror of the garden – something new to our community – is a deer! Ate all my blueberries & currants before they were ripe!

  7. Oh dear goodness, I could never crush a slug under my shoe, but not for any sentimental reason! I can’t bear thinking about the squish!!!! The size of them! Ick!!!

  8. So what do y’all do about the rabbits? I used to think they were super cute – like Thumper in Bambi. But I see them all over my new neighborhood and now all I can think about is how much damage they are going to do to my garden next year when we finally get to it (no garden this year because we just moved in May).

    We have no cats in the neighborhood to speak of (just dogs). And we have one huge bunny family living under our shed (which is right next to where we plan on siting the garden!).


  9. Love the video of the snail. Love the snail. Of course, I have a weakness for spirals, in shells, vine tendrils etc. I don’t get rid of any pests in my garden. We have a resident squirrel that we love to watch. We have slugs but I ignore them. We don’t use any pesticides. We just let it all be. The garden is full of birds. Maybe there is some sort of eco balance going on. My sister feeds her deer and enjoys them and plants things in front garden that they don’t like. It all works out somehow.

  10. yes, it’s funny how they’re so similar but so different. just look at the way snails are represented in children’s books.

    one of my favourite dutch words is the word for slug. it’s “naaktslak” and literally translates to “naked snail”.


  11. I have to agree with Laura…I do not want to see slugs much less step on them. I am a barefoot person so it makes it even more isshey !!!

  12. I grew up in a semi-desert climate, and I never saw a slug or snail. I moved to England a few years ago, and I am still somewhat fascinated by them both. The slugs interest me because they can be so many wierd colors, and I find most of the snails beautiful. I have only recently started to try and keep them off the plants.

    I’m still irritated by what they did to my marigolds, though. Jerks.

  13. I carefully (haha) chuck my snails over the fence into the neighbours’ yard. I know that sounds terrible, but I can assure you they (the neighbours) do not care one bit. I’m sure that snails have secret dreams of flying, so I’m sure they think it’s great! As for slugs, I pick them off and “flick them” as far away as I can.

  14. I found your link in the better homes and garden mag. loved reading your little story about the snail, I live in northern mn. have never ever found a snail in my garden,only slugs,or grubs that give me the shivers…I would love to find a snail…I am so going to enjoy this site…thank you..

  15. My 14 year old daughter has loved both snails and slugs for as long as I can remember, so I would never dare to kill either. We just got back from England (lots of snails) & Scotland (HUGE black slugs) & she was in heaven. Luckily for me we have tiny slugs & they don’t do too much damage in my gardens.

  16. My inner pedant needs to tell you that yellow jackets aren’t hornets – they’re wasps. We don’t get hornets in TO. If you saw one, you’d know (3 cm!).
    Sorry to admit this here, but I’ve never had problems crunching snails – even by hand. As a kid I used to play with them like you (in the video), so I don’t know why I’m so remorseless now! My current garden is on a roof, so no snails or slugs (yet?), so don’t worry about the snails.
    A question though, did you ever come across snail ‘graveyards’ as a child? There would be spots where I’d find many many empty snail shells, usually bleached by the elements. Maybe a bird or something else would eat there and drop the shells?

  17. iwouldntlivethere: I didn’t grow up in Toronto.

    You’re right that they’re wasps — we called them hornets when I was a kid and the bad habit stuck.

  18. Glad to see a discussion of this moral schizophrenia, making arbitrary distinctions between sentient beings. ‘Pests’ share this planet with us and we need to find a way to live and enjoy gardens together.

  19. Well when I was a I thought it was really gross when my elders would put salt on those little helpless gooey,slimy,sticky things,but when they put salt on them and they bubbled and turned lime green,I thought that was really cool,but to this day I could never do that,but on the same token I don’t have a problem using snail pellets

  20. My Mother gave me the best solution for slugs (they love my peppers – nothing else). Fill an clean empty cat food can (or other flatter container)with beer, dig a little hole in the soil and place the container in the hole so that the top lines up with the soil line. The slugs just love the beer and go in there – and I really feel that they die happy.
    I am kidding myself, of course. But it helps me get through the day.

Comments are closed.