Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Friday, July 10, 2015

You want snakes in your garden. Yes, you really do!

Lots of people have an innate fear of snakes. I admit I use to [years ago]. In my case I simply did not understand this wonderful garden predator.

black rat snake
Most snakes that you will find in your garden are reclusive and pretty shy. If they feel your presence they will typically freeze and carefully eyeball you until you leave the area or slither away from you as quickly as possible. They don’t want to harm you. They just want to be left alone. Seriously, they would only defend themselves if they felt threatened and even then they are far less likely to bite someone from being picked up than just about any other wild animal.  A snake bite, with the exception of a venomous snake, is less harmful than the bite of a neighborhood cat.
(Disclaimer: I do not advocate picking up snakes that you find in your garden. In fact it's best to leave them be.)

My son holding a corn snake at our local nature center
Now, I understand that if you are terrified of snakes, I am not going to convince you not to be afraid. But perhaps you will have a better appreciation of their benefit to the ecosystem and you may even develop a respect for this beneficial creature. So, read on.


You may be surprised to know that you are probably sharing your garden with snakes already. Snakes are masters at blending in with the environment so the majority of gardeners never actually see them. Take the photo above of a grey rat snake found at my in-laws farm. We've been sitting under this tree for years fishing and only recently discovered three of these snakes living in the tree. They've probably been looking over us for years and we were oblivious.

It's possible you may never come across snakes in your garden but simply see signs of their presence such as a discarded skin. But if you live in the South, as I do, you are bound to cross a snake's path at some point.


Most gardeners work hard to attract beneficial insects and pollinators to their garden, so why not attract snakes? Snakes can be a gardener’s best friend.  Snakes eat insects and rodents. Seriously, they will keep your mice and chipmunk populations at a manageable level.  They will help control the slugs and snails that are eating your beloved plants.They can even put a serious dent in crop destroying insects such as grasshoppers and Japanese beetles. What's not to love!
 
Snakes don’t damage plants. No chewing leaves or eating roots. They simply slither along disturbing very little of the garden, slipping into the smallest holes where their prey may be hiding. 

black rat snake coming out of a hole created by a chipmunk
They are very agile and can climb plants without damaging them while searching for insects virtually unnoticed.

smooth green snake climbing in roses
So, have I convinced you yet to invite these guys into your garden? Well, if I have, here's what you need to have happy snakes. It's easy, just imitate nature by providing the following.

How to Make a Snake Friendly Garden

 

1. Give me shelter!

Snakes need a dry, cool place to hide from predators (hawks, crows, racoons, owls) such as a log pile, an old stump, a brush pile, a dry creek bed, a pile of rocks, fallen log or shrubs.


2. Provide sun bathing areas

Large rocks provide a place to hide but also a place to warm themselves on sunny days. Being members of the reptile family they are cold-blooded and therefore have no way of controlling their body temperature. This is why you often see them lounging around on warm, sunny days. They need to raise their body temperature in order to digest food and function.


3. Make corridors

Rock walls and brush piles are most valuable when connected to one another and not isolated in a wide open area. Plant a hedgerow which will allow snakes to travel to different areas of the garden while staying protected from predators. Plant some ground cover or low growing shrubs for them to hide in. It will make them feel secure.


4. Provide a source of fresh water

Ground level bird baths or a small shallow fountain will work if you don’t have a pond or water feature in your garden. If you have a wildlife pond be sure it has a shallow edge or some rocks or logs that will allow snakes to safely reach the water.

5. Go organic

Eliminate harmful chemicals from your garden. Using herbicides and pesticides will not only harm snakes but also eliminate their food source. If there is nothing to eat they will leave for greener pastures. Remember different snakes have different food needs. Smaller snakes for example will eat slugs, snails and insects whereas larger snakes, such as constrictors, will eat rodents such as mice, voles and moles.

6. Stir before you mow

Be courteous and advise snakes to leave before you mow grassy sites. Carefully walk around with a stick and stir the grass giving the snakes an opportunity to slither away to a safer spot so they don't get mowed over or stepped on. 


So instead of freaking out if you come across a snake in your garden, say welcome! Co-existing with non-venomous snakes has been very beneficial for our garden. They are a great addition and will help keep your ecosystem balanced and functioning efficiently.

Still don't like snakes. That's okay, they won't take it personally. But intentionally killing snakes is wrong and contributing to the decline of many species. Recent studies indicate that the decline of our native king snake (non-venomous) in Georgia has a direct relation to the increase in copperheads (venomous), also native. The king snake, so named for its ability to prey on venomous snakes, will scarf down copperheads head first. But venomous snakes have their place too. They also feed on rodents and should not be disparaged just because they are venomous. Without these snakes we could be overrun with mice and other rodents, but for our safety they are better left in nature than in our gardens.  

I highly recommend you become familiar with the snakes in your area so that you can easily identify them should you find one in your garden. A comprehensive list of snakes found in Georgia and South Carolina with photos and profiles is available here

10 comments:

  1. Excellent post. Snakes are an important part of the ecosystem. We need to respect and protect them.

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    1. Absolutely Dorothy! Too often I hear from people that they killed a snake simply because it was in their backyard. They don't even know what type it is. They think the "only good snake is a dead snake". I think a lot more education needs to happen. I love that our local nature center has a Snake Day every year where people, especially children, are exposed to how gentle and beneficial snakes are.

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  2. I agree, snakes are important. We don't have much up here that is dangerous, but did where I lived in PA. Great advice to get to know them. I have garter snakes in my tiny garden. Each spring a new batch of them come out through the paving wall to great the sun in Spring. Sadly, a few are tailess due to my mower and their ability to blend into the grass.

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    1. How wonderful that you have breeding snakes Donna! I do need to be careful in summer months, especially when I am weeding because snakes tend to hide in the tall weeds. I've never come across a venomous snake in our garden but I believe it is because we have so many rat snakes which keep the copperheads away. Ironically just after I published this post I saw the young snake pictured above slithering around in our lawn. I don't normally see snakes there since there are so many other preferable options in our garden. Maybe it still needs to learn its way around our garden.

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  3. I quite like snakes. We've found them on occasion in our garden & even the kids are ok with them. Those nature centers are great, aren't they? My daughter held a pretty large snake, no problem. Now spiders are a different story - My mind loves them, but I probably couldn't bring myself to hold one.

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    1. You are one of the few people I've met that likes snakes Margaret. I admit I was concerned I would turn some people off even more with my photos, especially of the larger snakes. But I hope that readers will appreciate them. I had to giggle about you being uncomfortable with spider (two of my boys fear them too) but we all have our quirks; mine are mice (another reason I like snakes!). We have several nature centers within a 25 mile radius of our house that all hold excellent education programs on wildlife. I love the Snake Day they hold every year which is where the photo was taken of my youngest son holding the corn snake.

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  4. I'd be ok with snakes but only the non-venemous ones. We don't have a lot of snakes around here, mostly racers and garter snakes. And even those you don't see much in the suburbs.

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  5. We only have non-venomous snakes here so we are lucky and we have the perfect garden for them....our neighbors are terrified of them and we are always called to move their snakes.

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  6. I'm killing it on sight unless some of u guys wanna send me something to try for my problem.

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  7. I'm killing it on sight unless some of u guys wanna send me something to try for my problem.

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"Don't wait for someone to bring you flowers. Plant your own garden and decorate your soul"

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