The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Garter snakes in the garden

Garter snakeI've been dipping back into Edible Forest Gardens recently because when I first read the two volume set, it was like drinking from a firehose --- a lot of the best information went right past me.  On further perusal, a throwaway line in appendix 5 caught my interest: Garter snakes are "not as beneficial to gardens as believed".

The authors didn't provide any extra information, so I've been turning the phrase over and over in my head ever since.  Jacke and Toensmeier did mention that earthworms make up 80% of a garter snake's diet, so maybe the dislike is due to garter snakes eating beneficial Snake tongueinvertebrates?  If that's the case, though, surely they would have said the same thing about worm snakes.

Since a garter snake model kindly posed for my photo shoot Monday, I thought I'd toss the question out at our readers.  Why do you think garter snakes are "not as beneficial to gardens as believed"?

Our chicken waterer is perfect in tractors since it never spills on uneven terrain.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I feel the reason that you would want the gardner snake, or any snake for that matter, to stay out of your garden is........................

Short pieces of garden hose are used in a garden to replicate snakes habitating in your garden. Snakes keep several types of beneficial birds out of a garden.

If you use your chickens to help rid your garden of bugs, the snake may keep the chickens from performing their task.

If you have a dog, and I have seen many dog tare up a large space of ground to get to a snake, your garden may be partially destroyed by a dog trying to get at a snake.

Gardner sakes are food for other snakes that you may not want in your garden because they are dangerous. If the snake does not live in your garden there is no reason for the more dangerous snake to be there.

That is it for me.

Comment by Mona Wed Apr 4 12:48:13 2012

Mona --- It sounds like you really don't like snakes. :-) I can't say I agree with any of those reasons not to want snakes in the garden. In my experience, having predators higher up the ladder (like snakes) keeps the whole ecosystem in balance.

I think that birds (both native and chickens) are smart enough to know that a little garter snake isn't going to be able to swallow them. The hoses people use to deter birds mimic much larger snakes.

Lucy is a digger, but snakes aren't usually in the ground, so she doesn't have to dig to get to them. In fact, rat snakes eat small mammals (and other snakes to some extent), so snakes probably would cut back on dog digging in the garden.

The main snakes that eat other snakes (in our area at least) aren't harmful at all. Of our two poisonous snakes, copperheads sometimes eat snakes, but also eat small mammals, birds, lizards, amphibians, and insects. Rattlesnakes don't seem to eat other snakes at all. I somehow doubt having a few garter snakes in the garden is going to attract either.

But, as you can tell, I'm pro snake. I've only seen poisonous snakes in the wild a handful of times during a very outdoorsy life, so I don't worry much about them.

Comment by anna Wed Apr 4 13:47:43 2012
Hmmm....I can't think of any good reasons either, except they creep me out a bit but not enough to not want them around. I think they do good work. I like garter snakes, they're a pretty harmless bunch. I think they eat slugs in the garden too. :)
Comment by Heather Wed Apr 4 15:40:31 2012
Heather --- Mostly harmless, right? :-) Eating slugs sounds pretty good --- maybe that's why we never have slug problems.
Comment by anna Wed Apr 4 19:37:19 2012
One old gardener told me if you have garter snakes in your garden you wont have corn worms.? Ive always had snakes and have never had corn worms. Not realy scientific but works for me.I always tell the kids and every body not to harm the snakes they do a valuable job . I assume they eat slugs and snails and contribute to a naturel balance in the garden.I watched a garter eat a large toad one day.Was the toad ill and passing any ways ?Contribute to the health of the garden or not? part of a healthy world YES
Comment by Rein Wed Apr 4 20:42:22 2012
Yeah, I can't think of any good reasons NOT to want garter snakes in the garden either. Mind you, I don't know enough about snakes to have any pro-snake reasons for wanting them in the garden. I just tend to figure that snakes are a part of the eco-system already, so if one wants a healthy garden, one should probably plan on not minding a snake or two. :)
Comment by Ikwig Wed Apr 4 21:42:55 2012
Garter snakes like many other snakes love frogs, and frogs love lots and lots of insects........ Thus, less natural insect contol.
Comment by D Baird Wed Apr 4 23:01:10 2012

Rein --- Interesting. Do you mean the caterpillars in the ears of corn when you say corn worms? We always have a few of those, but not many. Maybe our garter snake is doing his job. :-)

Ikwig --- That's about how I feel about most things in the garden. If they're not obviously causing problems, they're good indicators of biodiversity.

Dennis --- That'd have to be a pretty small frog or a pretty big garter snake! I'd actually like to have some of the bigger snakes around, but Lucy eats anything larger than a garter snake, and we have lots of frogs and toads.

Comment by anna Thu Apr 5 12:28:02 2012

As I see it, D Baird's comment is extremely sound. Frog's don't crawl out out of the pond big. I could so easily see even a small garter snake getting an inside tip that the tadpoles have all grown legs, and finding the perfect dark little place to snatch them up as they crawl out of the water - even before they have learned to hop! In a sustained environment, the presence of garter snakes could certainly lower the frog population. ] j [

Comment by Jeremiah Fri Apr 6 20:01:35 2012

Jeremiah --- Good point. I've been pondering the funny comments on this post and decided that we're all irrational about snakes --- either thinking they're good with no data or that they're bad with no data. (A bit like religion....)

I think you're right that a garter snake could eat young frogs and toads, but I doubt they'd put much of a dent in our population. If every tadpole within hopping distance of our garden during just one spring grew up and came to visit, they would literally cover the entire ground. I think parent toads only need one tadpole out of the hundreds they parent each year to survive, if that, to keep populations steady. Presumably, amphibian-eating snakes work a bit like wolves and mountain lions used to, culling the weaker members so the more fit ones survive to pass on their genes.

Comment by anna Sat Apr 7 08:19:49 2012
I have a fish pond and used to have tons of frogs, toads and lizards. Every spring our fish pond would be FULL of tadpoles. Every night was a singing competition and we often had to turn up the tv to drown out the noise (but I did like the sound and loved to see all the different frogs and toads' eyes shining in the dark). A couple of years ago we found a garter snake in our garden who was partaking of the rear end of a very large toad. The toad was trying to escape and with our help he hopped away unharmed. The garter snake slithered into our fish pond and stayed underwater so long I gave up on watching it. Although my husband believes that the only good snake is a dead snake I convinced him it was harmless and we should leave it be. HOWEVER, I NEVER see toads anymore. I do have a few green tree frogs and lizards and skinks, but they are no where near the numbers they used to be...and there's no more singing at night. I've seen the garter snake a few times in the last week around the pond. It's grown ALOT since the first time we saw it. It has not eaten any of my fish, but they are not reproducing like they used to, so it could be eating the eggs or the young. SO, I'm pretty sure that even one garter snake CAN wipe out a population of toads all by itself. I'm a nature lover and generally believe in letting snakes be... but I have to admit that I'd like him to be gone and have my toads back :)
Comment by Theresa Fri Jul 12 17:25:44 2013
I live in a heavily wooded area, and have a couple small natural-like water features; one in the front yard and one in the back. I too always have a lot of little tree frogs every year, but have not seen snakes of any kind for years (probably 30 years or more). This year, a housing development started building in a nearby field, and I found a garter snake in a front-yard flower bed about a month ago. I used to hear a loud frog chorus in the evenings, but it has stopped. I did hear one lone ribbet from the front yard the other night and sure enough, later that night the garter snake was hanging out by the front-yard water feature. Then, the next day I saw him swimming across the back-yard water feature where there are usually literally hundreds of tadpoles. That day I could only see one! The snake I have been seeing is not too large (maybe 12-18 inches long and only about a half inch diameter), so I wonder if there are many snakes. ??? At any rate, I definitely have noticed a decrease in the frog population at my house. I just hope he is eating as many pesky slugs as he is the frogs. Then hopefully he moves on to someone else's yard. He keeps popping up, surprising me, and creeping me out.
Comment by Jill Sat Jul 19 15:18:50 2014

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