by Franz Nicolay
Several of the stories from Complicated Gardening Techniques [Julius Singer Press] are based on real events and people. However, many of the details have been doctored, exaggerated, or imagined outright for dramatic effect, and should not be considered fact.
I want to tell you how to get the slugs off your salad. I mean, lettuce; lettuce, not salad. Well, it’s salad later; it’s proto-salad, becoming-salad. I have slugs on mine.
I started the lettuce early in the season; I built long, coffin-like wooden grow-boxes with hinged plank covers, so as the weather warmed I could slowly tilt them and prop them open and give the unclenched green shoots their first gulp of chilly sun. Sometime in May you can fold up the boxes and lean them in the basement corner with the walking sticks and the croquet set, the pitchfork and your grandfather’s iron hedge-clippers. But then the loam rows are exposed, thrusting and proud-chested and sprouting adolescently, and they take their rightful place in the food chain.
It’s not just my salad. I have a Bavarian ceramacist living in the basement and he grows such a flower garden: begonias, fuschia, phlox; with wild Queen Anne’s Lace and Black-eyed Susans he permits to overrun his colonials; and expansive, ambitious mint. He wears shorts in all weather, grey wool socks, hiking boots dried in cocoons of at least four kinds of mud. When I say “living in the basement,” he sounds like a minotaur, or at least a house troll. If you saw him silhouetted against the flames of his backyard kiln, sleeping in shifts to keep the fire fed, you might take him for a streamlined demon. He makes speckled, salted hanging pots for the plants, he cuts leather shoestrings for his boots, and he fires terrifying sculptures of cantilevered clay: pristine tea-bowls emerging from craggy, unfinished cliffs dripping with the remains of their melted iron skeletons and seared by the smoke of starved flames sucking the clay for oxygen. He is the master of the domestic, and then the elemental.
I awoke last night to a light flickering through the bay window and across the ceiling; shrugged on a robe and shuffled through the flecked glass doors, onto the balcony. The monster had grown a floodlit third eye that flashed with great fierceness across the green sea of his flowers and my salad. The shaggy cyclops, hairy knees damp with dew and freckled black with soil, swung his headlamp back and forth, scanning the rows like a lighthouse scans the waves, or a prison watch-light the yard; protectively, maternally, and then violently—he raised his hand, and I saw that this midnight patroller had come armed with a sleek steel kitchen knife and a mission, to defend his floral charges against their mucoid maulers, individually, personally, and with a spirit of righteous vengeance. Bedding the underside of the outer leaf of a cabbage in the flat palm of his left hand, and with great restraint, he touched the blade to the damp and veined leaf-top, then drew it back. Two shrinking clumps of naked muscle slipped and fell the hand’s-length to the ground.
I must have gasped a little, because the spotlight swung up and over the roof before settling just above my nose. “Go inside,” he snapped. “Don’t watch if you don’t want to see.” I stepped back and in, nested the doors, and wrapped a blanket around myself.
When I was six, I went on an overnight camping trip sponsored by the local nature conservancy. We canoed to a small island in the middle of the lake, sprouted tents, and gathered twigs for a campfire. It quickly became clear that the island had an infestation, a kind of curse: it was overrun with the fragile, suspended spider known as Daddy Longlegs. There were Daddy Longlegs in our sleeping bags, Daddy Longlegs in our oatmeal bowls, the cantilevered, gargantuan shadows of Daddy Longlegs flickering across our tent walls. Unlike many children, I didn’t have an experimental, impersonal sadism toward animals, but for years afterwards I trapped Daddy Longlegs and methodically cut off each of their legs with a pair of scissors, watching the lentil body quiver and tremble on its stumps.
The most popular folk remedy for slugs in the vegetables is drowning pools of beer. A slug is a drunk, and loves yeast and malt and rum extract. You take red plastic cups, bury them to the hilt in the loam, and pour in a few inches of beer; make a kind of beer moat around the lettuce plants. The slug smells the beer, then falls in and drowns, or gets too drunk to get out, or one then the other. They did a study, if you believe such things, about what beers slugs like best: like the undergraduates who did the research, slugs drink cheap malt liquor first, followed by Michelob, Bud, and Bud Light. The only thing they liked less than chablis was tap water. The slug is a creature of proletarian tastes.
“Talk to the slugs,” my father said. “Make them a deal: If you don’t eat my lettuce, I won’t drink your beer.” But they were uncooperative or unwilling communicators, union negotiations broke down, and I was left with cups and cups of bloated, waterlogged flesh exuding halos of slime in warm lager. I emptied the hundreds of carcasses into dented tin buckets, hillocks of soggy almonds. When I hunted live slugs, I resisted the urge to release them into my neighbor’s yard and ferried them in the passenger seat of the blue Mazda, five miles down the road to a pine forest. But a dead slug-mass makes fine compost; they fed on the lettuce, and so too shall the lettuce feed.
There are Russians in the neighborhood, German Russians with complicated histories who fan out through the woods with long scissors and decapitate mushrooms at the base of their stalks. I tried hunting mushrooms myself for a while but all I ever found were the clean-sliced buds where the Russians had already been. Slugs and snails hate moss, they said. Soak 40 grams of moss in a liter of water, then empty the water into a bottle and spray it over your lettuce. The smell keeps them off, at least until it rains. Wormwood and artemisia work as well, but who has those handy? Plant watercress around the salad bed, it is sour and sharp and sweetens the soil but disgusts the slug and cuts its belly. It grows quickly. Make a moat of watercress.
I have a son, Karl, a dedicated endurance hiker—two thousand miles of the Appalachian trail one summer, fifteen hundred miles of the Pyrenees the next. He has the sunken eyes of the dedicated renunciatory ascetic, and lines and lines of Gothic German Biblical text etched across his shoulders like a man who’s decided to dispense with the Kafkan middleman and cut his crimes, judgment, and redemption into his own flesh; then melt that flesh away in austere trials. But this guilt of a hundred drownings, knifings, small tortures; painted on, scratched in; scrubbed away: the slime is a matter all its own, it coats your hands and you can’t wash it off. White vinegar cuts the slime; and next time, pluck them from the leaves with chopsticks, like a gourmand preparing a sushi plate.
It’s a three-course meal, the strange hospitality extended to your mindlessly malicious guests: serve them beer and wine, feed them moss and cress; cleanse your palate with vinegar and offer them a bed. Like Arab sheiks or Homeric monsters, you sate them, please them, welcome them, blind and cleave them, kill them their sleep. Let us go, then, and prepare a place for them: make rough plank benches, just inches off the ground. Use the greyed wood from a dismantled shed or the rotted remains of a swingset left by now-grown children. We will allow the slugs one more night of plenty, then when the sun rises they will look for a shade in which to spent the day. Come morning, turn over the benches and expose the damp side, where the slugs have come like raw bats to roost. You may harvest.
Read “Little Hobbes in the Big Woods” by Franz Nicolay