Garter Snakes: The Gardener's Friend

Why Garter Snakes Are Good For Your Garden

Sep 25, 2018
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I found a snake skin in my garden a few weeks ago. While other people might have been freaked out, it made me happy to know that snakes find my yard a good place to call home. The garter snake is the snake species that North American gardeners will most often encounter.

Of course, I am lucky that there are no venomous snakes in my area. Unlike other parts of the country, we have just one type of venomous snake in New Hampshire—the timber rattlesnake—and it is not found anywhere near where I live. In fact, they are so rare that the NH Fish & Game Department has implanted radio tracking devices in the ones that they have caught to keep an eye on their movements. I kind of wish we did have some; they eat tick-infested mice!

About Garter Snakes

  • There are many types of garter snakes found all across North America, from Mexico to Canada. They have a variety patterns and markings, and can be brown, tan, olive, or black with yellow, red, orange, or even blue stripes down their sides and backs. Some are all black. They can grow to be over 4 feet long, but most adults reach only 2–3 feet in length.
  • Often called “gardener snakes,” they earn that name by eating grasshoppers, slugs, grubs, and other insects. A large adult garter snake may even eat mice. Unfortunately, they also eat some beneficial critters such as frogs, toads, salamanders, and earthworms. To eat large prey, they unhinge their jaw from their skull. Back-curving teeth keep the prey from escaping.
  • Since they grow throughout their lifetime, snakes need to shed their skin when it gets too small. To do this, they rub their head on something rough to hook the skin near their lips and as they crawl out of it, the skin is turned inside out. 

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Even the scales covering a snake’s eyes are shed.

  • Garter snakes won’t bite you unless provoked. They won’t chase you. They are really very shy and are not looking for a fight!
  • Garter snakes do produce a very weak venom, but the venom is so mild that it rarely has any effect on humans (it can cause light swelling in those who are allergic, however). The snake uses its venom to subdue larger prey items, like frogs and mice.
  • Active year-round in the south, in the northern half of North America they hibernate below the frostline in the winter, congregating in large numbers in burrows and crevices to keep warm during the cold months. In the spring, they emerge and mate.
  • Females only breed every 2 to 3 years. They bear live young in the late summer, usually having between 4 and 20 babies, though some can bear up to 85! 
  • It takes 2 years for garter snakes to reach maturity and they can live to be 10 years old in the wild.

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I never expected to see this fine fellow draped among the hostas. Hopefully he had been feasting on slugs.

Gartner Snakes in the Garden

I see them most often in the spring out sunning themselves on large flat rocks. Since they are cold-blooded, they need the sun’s warmth to help them digest their food. In the summer, I hear them slithering beneath the landscape fabric and black plastic that we use for mulch in some of the garden beds. When I’m picking cucumbers or squash, they will swiftly slip out of the way—and it can be startling—but I am happy to have them, especially if they are eating the cucumber beetles, slugs, and squash bugs.

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This guy must have spent the winter in the greenhouse. We came eye-to-eye as I was rummaging around under the bench for pots this spring. I was more alarmed than he was. He stayed put long enough for me to run and get my camera and even posed for a close-up.

Venomous Snakes

Never try to pick up a snake you don’t recognize. If you have venomous snakes in your region, learn how to identify them. Pit vipers such as water moccasins and rattlesnakes have thick bodies, narrow necks, and wide triangular heads, while non-toxic snakes tend to have heads that are barely bigger than their necks. If you are unsure what venomous snakes are located in your state, check out this list of venomous snakes by state.

Do you have snakes in your garden? Do you find them beneficial or harmful? Please comment below!

Do you have snakes in the house? Readers share their stories here.

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser's backyard gardening tips. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer's Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer's Market.

Reader Comments

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Wish they were a lil more scared of me!

I have always liked snakes, thankfully, since I'm use to seeing them around. Moving into a new home last year that required a ton on work I've seen at least a handful of different garter snakes but less and less now that I've reclaimed the yard. An old, mostly dry pond full of slabs of stone was a perfect home for them I'm sure, which would account for the nearly 5' garter I chased away from it this spring. I was able to measure a flower bed border to prove to myself I wasn't exaggerating after I read online they only got up to 4'. I did feel pretty bad for destroying their home so I've left a little wild area (at the very farthest corner lol!) and dumped a bunch of the pond stone there. Keeping an eye out for that skin:)

Snakes Alive!

I have always been fond of most snakes. I can tell the difference between a venomous and non-venomous and encourage children to learn all they can about them. I, too, have seen Garter snakes in the flower garden. Unfortunately, I've seen more Copperheads. If it weren't for my small dogs and grand-children, I'd leave them alone. Do any other snakes besides King snakes eat other snakes? Do King snakes eat Garter snakes? I'd love to have some snakes around that would eat the Copperheads and leave the Garter snakes!

KING SNAKES

If a king snake can eat a copperhead, it can certainly eat a smaller snake such as a garter snake.

Good Snakes

I am a master naturalist, and as such I often conduct interpretative walks and speak at meetings of various groups. One of the toughest points that I have to make is that you should not just kill every snake that you see. Virtually all snakes are beneficial, only a small percentage of snakes are poisonous and even those beneficial. Snakes are beneficial because they prey on harmful insects and vermin. Snakes will do their upmost to avoid humans whenever possible and seldom attack livestock or pets. I live in Florida and if I saw a 15 foot Python in my yard I would forget everything that I said above, but they aren't supposed to be here anyway.

Great Article

Great article!!! I LOVE reading about and watching shows about snakes so that I can be more informed about them. My wife is absolutely terrified of ALL snakes. The only reason I would kill a snake is if it is venomous, and I would only kill a poisonous snake to keep it from harming any of my six grandchildren. I would strongly suggest reader to click on the "list of venomous snakes by state" tab to be more informed as to what may be living around you. Here in Alabama, we have an ample list of legless critters!

LAWS REGARDING KILLING SNAKES

While you're checking out what venomous snakes are in your state, I would also read up on the laws concerning killing them willy nilly. I live in the northern New Jersey area in the foothills of the Ramapough mountains. Lots of woods, waterway and rocky hills. We have both timber rattlers and copper heads. Due to their threatened status it is illegal to kill either snake. Just slowly back up and walk away or if it's in your yard, barn or garage call the police dept. and find out how to get it removed safely and properly.

Laws regarding snakes

Here in Georgia it is illegal to kill any snake. I understand some folks are afraid of them, but I don't get people who hate a particular creature, that's "speciesist". And yes there are snakes in my house ; ) Ms. Bean is one of the most laid back individuals you could ever meet.

Snakes in the garden

I found a young copperhead in my garden a couple of weeks ago!! I immediately knew he was a bad guy and stayed far away!! The thing about the situation that scares me the most is the fact that I know he has brothers and sisters that aren’t far away!!! In my area our heat index gets well into the 100s and I am in my garden in my snake boots!!!

Garter snakes

I often come across garters living in my rock walls. I am delighted to see them. Unfortunately, they are small, and not large enough to eat the chipmunks that also like to live in the walls or under my deck.

Love to see them. Kansas City, MO

Found one in my basement once (outside entrance); wife did not like that. Earlier in this year I got the pleasure of coming upon a garter snake mating ball in the ditch near my house and garden. I had never seen one in person. Later in the summer I was moving my compost pile, and deep into it I found a clutch of 8-9 snake eggs. Unfortunately, there was no way for me save the eggs for them to hatch, but they made a nice protein snack for the neighbors chickens & they went wild over them. I do hope other female garter's found better places for their eggs nearby.

Would be interesting to know

Would be interesting to know what variety of snake eggs they were, as garters are ovoviviparous.

Chickens go after snakes, too, as a good snack. Don't think I'd want to make chickens mad at ME!

Snake eggs

Garters area live bearers, but so are the venomous snakes in North America -Rattlers, Copperheads and Moccasins do not lay eggs, SO if you find any, leave them be, can't be poisonous snaklets inside. Best not to touch the eggs as they need to stay "upright" to maintain their air pocket so the baby can breathe. A parent is probably nearby keeping an eye on them ; ) warm compost is a favorite nest site so be careful with that shovel.

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