Strawberries in the Desert

Story telling from Australia

What went wrong?

There’s a lot I could be blamed for in this garden but surely I wasn’t responsible for the demise of the rhubarb? What went wrong? I hate not knowing.

Rhubarb shoots

I planted the healthy corm in a spot that only gets two or three hours of sunlight a day, but that shouldn’t have mattered. Rhubarb can withstand a bit of shade; it grows like a weed in England. I have a friend who lives on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors and his back garden is overrun by rhubarb. The last time he saw sunlight was quite some time ago, so a bit of shade in Sydney shouldn’t have mattered. And anyway, until a few days ago, the rhubarb was thriving.

I even mulched around the crown, piling up crushed sugar cane around the green leaves and pink shoots, anticipating the rhubarb crumble we’d enjoy in the depths of winter, oven set on high to produce that sweet crunch of caramelised topping, the sharp tang of rhubarb sweetened by orange juice and sugar with a delicate hint of ginger. Ah… bliss.

And that, of course, was the problem. Having rushed towards the crumble and custard I stopped tending the young plant and left it to fend for itself. The next time I checked it had wilted.

Was it the rain? We had an unexpected deluge over several days and the raised beds probably didn’t drain that well. Maybe rhubarb liked drier conditions? I checked online: “Rhubarb likes to be kept moist.” That explains why I had such trouble growing it in the desert climate of Broken Hill then, but why the problem in Sydney?

I like to learn from my mistakes. Thinking it might be a surfeit of mulch (was I crowding you?) I scraped away the sugar cane and exposed the shoots. It made no difference. Day after day the rhubarb shrivelled in front of my eyes and the once perky green leaves lay on the ground and wilted. Ants seemed vaguely interested in the soggy stalks but I doubted if they could have done so much damage.

I was going to use this post to ask if anyone had any advice, then last night, torch in hand, I crept out to check on the remains of what used to be a thriving plant (we were getting on so well, what went wrong?) I shone the torch at the base of the one of last remaining stalks and – aha! There was a small black slug sucking the life out of my dying rhubarb. The tiny culprit was barely half the size of my little finger nail and it seemed unlikely that such a miniscule pest could have wreaked so much havoc, but the evidence was incontrovertible.

That little black slug is barely visible but see that antler poking into the picture on the top right?

That little black slug is barely visible but see that antler poking into the picture on the top right?

I picked the slug off and flicked it onto the roof of my studio, where it would be prey for hungry birds in the morning. As I did so the beam of light shifted. It fell onto the end of the last pitiful stalk, lying prone under the weight of a monster…

This is what that antler belonged to

This is what the antler belonged to

The glistening beast was so big I thought I must have stepped into a horror movie. It was a six inch long leopard slug – the back garden equivalent of King Kong – and it had draped its oozing body along the last delicate stem of rhubarb. The plant was suffocating in slime.

I filled a plastic tub with beer, donned rubber gloves and plucked the slimy monster off my rhubarb, dropping it with a satisfying plop into a watery grave. Having spent twenty minutes listening to Buddhist chants earlier in the day I felt obliged to offer up a silent apology to the universe. Quite frankly it wasn’t that heartfelt.

I left the tub buried in the garden, as a warning to others, and by this morning the beer had attracted several more occupants.

The rhubarb didn’t survive and I learnt a valuable lesson. Sometimes a plant’s not meant to grow  – wrong place, wrong time – and sometimes it might be under attack from a stealthy intruder. Tender young plants need protection.

I’ll plant another corm and this time I’ll surround it with a ring of crushed eggshells or a strip of copper – both ways of deterring slugs. There’s danger out there in the dead of night and if it happens again I’ll be ready.

Hands off my rhubarb!

14 comments on “What went wrong?

  1. nantubre
    April 4, 2014

    Epson salt also repels (murders) slugs. I don’t know if it is good for rhubarb but it’s good for roses.


  2. debhuntinbrokenhill
    April 4, 2014

    That’s a great tip, thanks Nan. I know salt will kill them as well but I hate to think of them shrivelling to death.


  3. Eliza Waters
    April 4, 2014

    Sorry about your rhubarb – I can so relate to your story! My garden is over-run with slugs (three types – the largest is 3″ long) and it can be so discouraging! I go out at night with salt in hand, but it feels terrible to inflict such suffering and I worry about my karma, lol! I’ve taken to planting flowers that they aren’t interested in and stay away from their favorites. Sluggo, an all-natural product from Germany, if applied early in the season when there isn’t a lot for new and overwintering slugs to eat (reapplied after every rain), has helped knock the population down to manageable levels. It doesn’t seem as affective later in the season when the buffet has been laid. Your post reminded me that I need to order some more!


  4. debhuntinbrokenhill
    April 4, 2014

    Thx for the tip on Sluggo Eliza, I’ll check online and see if we can get it in Australia. Good luck with conquering your invaders!


  5. rthepotter
    April 5, 2014

    Eeeuw. We once had a plague of the massive black rubbery ones and it was like living in a horror film – they all came sliding out of cover as darkness fell. I picked up a hundred in one evening.


  6. debhuntinbrokenhill
    April 5, 2014

    Sounds like you were living slap bank in the middle of Slug Central. What a terrifying picture. I used to live in an old cottage in the West Country, and I would find silver trails inside my saucepans. I never once found the culprits. Apparently they hate sawdust as well, but you have to keep renewing it when it rains. I love your blog by the way!


  7. dinadishes
    April 7, 2014

    Sorry about your rhubarb. Wherever we might live, we all have to deal with those little native, pesky plant-killing invaders. I’m glad you at least found the culprit.


  8. bluebrightly
    April 10, 2014

    Very entertaining! We have big slugs up here in the Pacific northwest, too – they are quite a sight – but it’s good you found out who the culprit is, and even better that you write so well about it.


  9. sharonmcintosh
    April 11, 2014

    An organic gardener in the Portland, Oregon once told me he had a sure-fire way to get rid of slug problems. He gathered a cup or so of slugs, put them in a blender with a cup or two of water and blended them well. Then, he continued, he strained that concoction and sprayed it on his garden plants. Ignoring my horrified expression, he stated “That gets rid of slugs – they will not eat their compatriots”.
    I could not even speak as so many questions and images poured into my brain: he used a good BLENDER? For THAT?? And who would want to eat his produce after those slime-drizzled plants produced their best?
    And some people think organic gardeners are strange…


    • debhuntinbrokenhill
      April 11, 2014

      Aaargh! What a terrible image and what a waste of a good blender – your seriously could not use it for anything else after that, could you?! Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment (and I think I’ll stick with beer traps!)


      • sharonmcintosh
        April 13, 2014

        No, this was a blender dedicated just to slug control/gardening. Beer traps are good and I wonder if they probably do not die suffering. Best to you as you approach publish date – so exciting!!


  10. debhuntinbrokenhill
    April 13, 2014

    Ah yes, whose to say slugs like beer?!


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This entry was posted on April 3, 2014 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .

I'm a writer based in Australia with a passion for gardening, remote places and people with a story to tell.

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