When I first came to live in Damson Drive, I inherited a square patch of garden that consisted of three ornamental trees, two borders supporting some hardy shrubs, an expanse of lawn, a small shed and a colony of snails. The garden was modest in size and would not have won any prizes but from the first time I saw it, I loved it. The snails not so much!
I wanted to grow things: romantic plants like larkspur, hollyhocks, poppies and peonies; and vegetables like cabbages, lettuce and peas. But the soil was poor and needed nourishment and so, it turned out, did the snails. All attempts to cultivate the borders ended in disappointment. Even when, through the use of composts and frequent watering, I managed to grow something, the snails would slope out in the night and eat it.
I tried growing in tubs and pots, which I raised up and bound with copper wire or tape – I had been told by gardening friends that snails would not cross a copper barrier – but the snails in my garden were made of sterner stuff and tender shoots made a flavoursome breakfast.
It was a dilemma. I felt very unkindly towards those little creatures; so frustrated that they had the audacity to ruin my gardening ambitions. I was told, by several more pragmatic gardeners, to lay down slug and snail pellets and put an end to them but this was never an option. I remembered the story of the Buddha and the snails. How when the Buddha was meditating, in the heat of the day, the snails came and covered his head, sacrificing their own lives, so that He could reach enlightenment and that is why the Buddha is depicted most often with little swirls around His head: not curls but snails. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this story, of course, but there is wisdom in a tale that makes someone stop before taking a life, any life, and look for a different solution.
Over the years I have done just that. One particularly warm and wet summer evening when I stepped outside my backdoor to find an army of them sliding across the patio. I took a gallon bucket, filled it with the snails to the halfway mark and relocated them on the edge of a woody thicket, over the road from the house. It was ineffective. They found their way home.
It was around this time that I started seeing them differently. Not as pests but as interesting beings in their own right. I started to see the garden differently too – not as ‘my’ garden but as a habitat for all the creatures that lived there. I was merely one of many. So, I stopped trying to grow plants unsuited to the soil. Over time, the lawn became smaller and eventually disappeared, altogether. There is a pond there now, which birds and insects drink from and which, I am delighted to say, Lillies thrive in, during the summer months.
The soil is still not the best but better for letting the things that thrive in it, grow. Foxgloves seed themselves in parts of the borders on one side but not on the other. Roses seem to love it wherever I plant them. The more hardy soft fruits, such as loganberries and tayberries climb up a pergola alongside a rambling rose, jasmine lollops over some old paving by the shed, meadow grass full of clover and other wildflowers, loved by the bees, has replaced part of the lawn and what vegetables I manage to grow are placed in raised beds.
The snails are as prolific as ever, as are the slugs, but we get along fine. They still eat the lettuce and tender young beans but I have come up with a few ways to discourage them, which we can all live with. One method is to overplant so that even if they eat some, there are still some for the kitchen. The other is to take my vegetable waste, from the evening meal, and place it around the growing plants so that the first thing the snails come across when they are out for a feed, are bean pods, carrot tops and cabbage stumps. It works, for the most part, or at least it gives the tender shoots a fighting chance to get established. It is not an exact science – currently, the leaves on the sweet potato look rather like a doily – but it’s the best method that I have found to date. More to the point, I have come to feel a certain joy in going out in the early light of summer mornings and watching the snails feed. Sometimes, I even find them something special, like a slice of ripe pear, and tell them how beautiful they are and how welcome they are to stay.
See also: Mo Henderson’s book review https://dewonthegrass.net/a-favourite-book-kinship-with-all-life-by-j-allen-boone/