A Gardener's Question: To Appease or Fight

SOME old gardener once told me: "If you plant a row of raspberries for yourself, plant another row for the thrushes." Being fond of thrushes (as well as raspberries), I liked the idea. It sounded, well, ecological.

Joseph Addison (1672-1719) liked the idea, too. But he went further than I would. He wrote: "I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs."

But maybe Addison was not all that keen on cherries, or he was no gardener. The fact is that it is not always simple being both a keen horticulturist and a keen naturalist. As the 18th-century parson Gilbert White, who was certainly both, frequently noted in his journals, the gardener's interests are not scrupulously respected by nature.

On June 14, 1778, for example, he notes: "White butter-flies innumerable: woe to the cabbages!"

Or, on July 28, 1781: "The black-birds, & thrushes come from the woods in troops to plunder my garden ...; nor are the red breasts at all honest with respect to currans...."

White is a hero of today's naturalists, respected for his objective appreciation of the smallest or commonest phenomena of nature.

Here is how he (dispassionately) describes the arrival in his patch of two of the least appreciated enemies of the gardener:

On April 20, 1977. "The house-snail ... begins to appear: the naked black snail comes forth much sooner. Slugs, which are covered with slime, as whales are with blubber, are moving all the winter in mild weather."

He seems to notice these ever-hungry marauders who, in a night, will munch to the ground whole areas of Lobelia cardinalis or glut themselves on the choice shoots of delphiniums, without any dismay.

And yet he was a gardener and, without apparent embarrassment, he wrote on August 8, 1781: "We have shot 31 black-birds, & saved our goose-berries."

Today he'd be taken to court.

There is a kind of analogy between gardening and road-building. Both are artificial intrusions by humans into the world of nature.

A new stretch of motorway is being built near our place. It is greedy, this road, and the machinery excavates, gorges, heaves, scrapes, and banks until the earth has a configuration with no hint of memory to it. There is no trace of what was there before and had probably been little altered through centuries. But after a few months of the 1996 heavy squad, it is a different place.

There were protesters. They camped. They hung out in trees. They made a noise. They attracted media attention. They were removed.

Another new road, the Newbury By-Pass, in southern England has brought similar protest. But even the discovery of a tiny rare snail, protected by European law, living in its path, seems unlikely to be a deterrent to this road.

Politics and law are against the protesters; so is the willful determination of a motorist culture. The need to cut a few minutes off a journey is relentless.

To be fair, in our case we locals hope that the new road will relieve one of our smaller roads, grossly over-used. Yet there is no guarantee this furious new ribbon of tarmac, before which all natural things from old trees to foxes to colonies of bee orchids have given way, will relieve anything at all.

There is another, long-infamous motorway that circles round London, the "M25." Its notoriety is in precise ratio to its overcrowding. One explanation is that the planners miscalculated the number of extra motorists who would drive long distances just to take this road. It attracted a whole new clientele. Everyone, it seems, wants to get stuck in a traffic jam.

AS for roads, so for raspberries. Or beans. Or peas: If you offer them to birds, then more birds will come and eat them.

Bird news travels fast. They fax each other: "Andreae's peas at peak. More than last year. Well worth a trip from the other side of Glasgow." We, in our ignorance, think birdsong is "tweet, tweet." Actually, it is "peas, peas" or "raspberries, raspberries."

How slugs communicate I do not know, and have no great inclination to learn. They do. They come to our garden in slimy, disgusting droves and they are relentless.

However much I like birds, I cannot, without forfeiting my right to be a Boy-Scout, honestly say I have even the faintest regard for slugs. I have even made myself vulnerable to the potential ridicule of neighbors by launching myself, torch in hand, on midnight slug-hunts. I do not wish them well.

But what else is one to do? Most predators do not like to eat slugs, and I can hardly blame them. Even hedgehogs only go for them late in the season, when all the choicer fare is finished. And anyway, the last hedgehog I saw around here was in about 1983.

I've tried introducing toads, but they are so incredibly laid-back! They doze, and the slugs rampage regardless. Geckos only live in zoos in this country.

Most gardening experts advise slug-pellets. Bowls full of beer in strategic places are also favored. I've tried both, and they show signs of reducing the population. But pellets seem unsafe in a garden also containing pet ducks, and beer - though this is arguably the best use of it - is expensive and smelly.

One 1990s gardening book I have suggests "Ecology" - "bringing back" nature: An "army of potential little garden helpers" may be attracted by "a bit of calculated untidiness and an indulgence of an occasional weed or two...."

This, the author states, "will make your garden a healthier, more stable setting for your plants, where they will not be so bothered by aphids, slugs and other pests."

I have long been an advocate of (un)calculated untidiness and weeds by the hundreds, and let me tell you, oh-you-dreaming-horticultural-idealist-author, you are, with regard to slugs, talking through your hat.

I am sure the Reverend Gilbert White simply trod on them. If he hadn't, they would probably have eaten his hat along with everything else.

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