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Garter snakes are a gardener’s friend! Harmless to humans, they eat the pests that wreak havoc in your garden. Learn more about the shy but helpful gardening helper who just wants to live peacefully in harmony with you—and eat your slugs!
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—and we should be thankful!
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’re known to eat tick-infested mice!
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 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.
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.
I never expected to see this fine fellow draped among the hostas. Hopefully he had been feasting on slugs.
Benefits of Snakes in the Garden
I see these fine fellows 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.
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.
A Word of Warning
Garter snakes are relatively harmless, beneficial predators of rodents and insect pests. However, do not pick it up. Alarmed, it may give you a little nip (harmless but still a bite).
Learn to identify snake species as well. There are venomous species that can be dangerous if provoked or startled. Pit vipers such as water moccasins and rattlesnakes have thick bodies, narrow necks, and wide triangular heads, while non-venomous 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!