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You may have unexpected allies lurking in your garden: reptiles such as lizards and snakes! They may get a bad rap, but these garden helpers eat slugs and harmful insects. Discover four beneficial garden reptiles, how to encourage them, and answers to common questions about finding snakes in the garden!
When you see something scaly slither or scamper across your path, your first thought may be that a new threat to your plants (or maybe yourself!) has arrived. In fact, reptiles are actually a good sign for your garden; they feed on a range of common pests, like mice and slugs, and will do a good job of keeping these crop-destroying critters away. They also play a key role in a healthy ecosystem.
4 Beneficial Garden Reptiles
Garter Snakes/Ribbon Snakes
Garter snakes and their close relatives, ribbon snakes, are small, non-venomous, striped or checkered snakes that are extremely common across most of North America. They are completely harmless to humans and will only bite in self defense. (And even if they do, their bites just feel like small pin pricks!)
While many larger snakes prefer eating rodents, these small snakes are a little different. They have a very diverse diet that includes pest species such as caterpillars, moths, and slugs. Because of this unique diet, garter and ribbon snakes are the perfect natural pest control for your garden.
Depending on where you live, you may come across this common lizard quite often! There are actually over 430 different species of anoles found throughout the tropical Americas, but the green anole (Anolis carolinensis) is the most prevalent species in the southern United States, especially Florida. Sometimes called “American chameleons” for their ability to shift the hue of their skin, these small lizards are a bright lime green and have a light-colored underbelly. While not found across the entirety of North America, these lizards are extremely common in warmer states, from North Carolina to Texas.
In regards to their diet, anoles are strict carnivores that will mainly eat invertebrates such as beetles, grasshoppers, and caterpillars. If you are having pest problems with caterpillars, moths, flies, beetles, grasshoppers, or other insects, attracting anoles to your garden may be the perfect solution.
Another lizard that you may encounter in your garden is the fence lizard. Between the Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) and the Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus), fence lizards can be found across a wide swath of the Lower 48, from New York to Washington. These lizards are usually brown, grey, black, and white with a notable spiny appearance.
Like many other lizard species, they are primarily insectivores, which means that they will happily eat invertebrates like beetles, moths, ants, stink bugs, and grasshoppers. Unlike iguanas, they will not target your plants for their next meal! Instead, they will spend most of their time hunting the insects that terrorize your garden.
Rat snakes are usually brown or black in color with a cream-colored underbelly. They are a fairly large snake, usually reaching lengths of 3-5 feet when fully grown. Because of their large size, it can be rather intimidating to see a rat snake roaming around your garden. However, they are a non-venomous species and the presence of these snakes is actually a good thing! Named because of their dietary preference, rat snakes are a top-class rodent hunter and feed mainly on mice, rats, and squirrels. If you find yourself with a rodent problem, you couldn’t ask for a better snake to have in your garden. In fact, a single rat snake can eat up to 190 mice per year!
How to Encourage Lizards and Garden Snakes
As with attracting frogs and toads, if you want more reptiles in your garden, the best thing you can do is to make your space a suitable habitat. Although food is usually the most important attractant, this is usually already present in some form. With the food source available, the next-most important thing is shelter. Making shaded areas for these reptiles to hide and get out of the heat is very important. You can use dense bushes, trees, leaf litter, or overturned planters to make these shelters; shelter should be present from the ground to the canopy overhead. If you don’t already have water available, a few shallow dishes of water placed throughout the garden will also be great resources for reptiles. This advice will generally be applicable for most species of reptiles, however, if you are wanting to attract specific species, you can modify your approach. For example, if you are wanting to attract a species that lives primarily in forests, making sure you have enough trees in your yard will provide them with the proper habitat.
Common Garden Snake Questions
What do you do if you find a snake in your garden?
As soon as you see a snake in your garden, the first step should be to identify it. If the snake is venomous, the best thing you can do is leave it alone until it moves on on its own. If you are able to confidently identify the snake as non-venomous, there should be no reason it can’t stay in your garden. Most snakes are generally harmless and are an effective form of natural pest control.
Why am I finding snakes in my garden?
If you are finding lots of snakes in your garden, it’s probably because you have (accidentally or purposefully) made it into a suitable snake habitat! Most often, having lots of rodents or other food sources present will be the most important factor when it comes to attracting snakes to your garden. You may also have unknowingly provided lots of sheltered areas with vegetation, wood piles, or rocks. These areas are perfect for snakes to hide in and hunt around.
Which reptiles are bad for my garden?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is: not many! Most reptiles are completely harmless and often provide some sort of pest control benefit for your garden. The only reptiles you need to keep an eye out for are those that are venomous. Venomous snakes will still eat pests, but the danger they pose to humans makes it a little more difficult to live in close quarters with them. Since venomous snakes can be dangerous to humans and pets, they should be left alone or relocated by a professional.
Finding a reptile in your garden should be a cause for celebration. The majority of reptile species are completely safe and even beneficial to your garden. Sometimes reptiles can get a bad reputation, but you can’t ask for a better natural pest control for your garden! So calm down, step back, and move on!