Why garter snakes and other garden snakes are a good sign

A garter snake has found shelter under stone steps between flower gardens. Garter snakes are one of the most common species of snakes to make their home in gardens. | Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
A garter snake has found shelter under stone steps between flower gardens. Garter snakes are one of the most common species of snakes to make their home in gardens. | Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki

Slithering along rock walls and under bushes, snakes often establish homes in or around gardens — if permitted. There they feast on slugs and worms, insects and toads. They bask in the sun to warm up, and they retreat into tiny burrows to rest. 

But are they welcome?

While venomous snakes are a concern in certain areas, garden snakes such as garter snakes can be a welcome addition to a property.

“It’s an indicator of a healthy ecosystem, to have a snake in your yard [or garden],” said Melissa Amarello, co-founder and director of education for Advocates for Snake Preservation. “It means you have a friendly yard going on, enough to support a predator.”

Amarello welcomes snakes onto her property. But she does so with caution. After all, not all species of snakes make for good “garden snakes.”

What is a ‘garden snake’?

When people use the term “garden snake,” they’re often referring to the garter snake, said Joshua Holbrook, herpetologist and author of “The Field Herping Guide: Finding Amphibians and Reptiles in the Field,” which was released earlier this month. 

There are several species of garter snakes living throughout the country, Holbrook said, and all of them are harmless to humans. Their common name, “garter,” was inspired by the stripes that run parallel down their bodies, from head to tail, which somewhat resemble garter belts. 

In addition, there are a few other species of snakes, commonly found in gardens and yards, that people refer to as “garden snakes,” Holbrook said. Depending on where you live in the country, these snakes could include ringneck snakes, smooth green snakes, black racer snakes, rat snakes and milk snakes. All pose no threat to humans. However, if threatened, some can issue a painful bite.

Snakes that aren’t considered to be “garden snakes” are the more dangerous varieties, such as copperheads and rattlesnakes. Understandably, people usually aim to get these venomous snakes off their properties, rather than welcome them into their gardens.

“The cool thing about most of the venomous snakes in North America is that they’re what’s called ‘denning snakes,’” Holbrook said. “In other words, every winter, they have a den site that they’re going to return to. In parts of the country where it’s cold, that might be a rock pile or in a south-facing rocky slope. So when you see them in your yard, they’re usually just passing through and won’t hang out for weeks on end like some non-venomous snakes will.”

Unless, of course, their den is on your property.

A garter snake has found shelter under stone steps between flower gardens. | Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
A garter snake has found shelter under stone steps between flower gardens. | Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki

In contrast, harmless garter snakes and ringneck snakes will often burrow underground or find natural cavities (such as rodent burrows) to evade the cold. And they tend to stick in the same area. So if you see one in your yard, it may remain there for years. 

Do you want garden snakes on your property?

Whether or not you want to make your property more snake friendly may depend on where you live. In some places, like Maine, there are no venomous snakes. Therefore, you run no risk of attracting dangerous snakes onto your property.

The decision may also depend on whether or not you raise domestic birds that lay eggs. Some species of snakes, such as rat snakes, eat eggs. On the flip side, rat snakes often eat small rodents. So if you have a mouse problem, they may prove to be quite useful.

How to keep a garden snake around

Once you’ve weighed the pros and cons, if you decide you want to host a garden snake, there are a few things you can do to make your property more appealing to them.

“All of us need water, food, shelter … and air, but that’s already probably in your yard,” Amarello said with a laugh. “I wouldn’t recommend putting food out for snakes. But you can do things like not use poison or pesticides on your property so you have a healthy environment where there’s a diversity of invertebrates and vertebrates for snakes [to hunt].”

Providing water for snakes can be as simple as replenishing a shallow dish of water in your garden, or it can be as complex as creating a garden pond.

“If you have the room and are really into it, having a little pond that’s big enough to support local frogs or toads can be great for snakes,” Amarello said, pointing out that garter snakes often live near bodies of water and their diet often consists of amphibians. 

A garter snake has found shelter under stone steps between flower gardens. | Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki

For shelter, snakes look for cover from common predators, as well as areas to hibernate and lay eggs (although — fun fact — not all snakes lay eggs). In gardens, snakes will often make shelter in rock walls and under railroad tie borders. In yards, they may seek out debris, sheets of building materials and woodpiles, Amarello said. In addition, most terrestrial snakes can burrow in leaf litter and loose soil.

“Reptiles and amphibians, most at least, like tight and closed spaces,” Holbrook said. “They’re the opposite of claustrophobic.”

Live and let live

Maintaining areas of tall vegetation, such as ferns and bushes, can also benefit snakes because it allows them to move without being seen by some of their top predators: hawks and other birds of prey. 

“Snakes have an important role in the ecosystem,” Amarello said. “They’re in a place where they’re an important predator for some animals, and an important prey for others.” 

Another way to make your property more snake friendly is by removing possible hazards for snakes, such as glue traps (often used to catch rodents) and bird netting, in which snakes can easily become tangled, Amarello said.

And lastly, if you find a snake in your garden and want it to stay, then try not to bother it. Paying the animal too much attention may scare it away. 

“My advice is to keep a respectful distance, which is most often judged on whether or not they’re reacting to you, and for snakes, that [reaction is] usually to freeze or flee,” Amarello said. “Binoculars are great tools for watching animals. We use them in our research all the time to watch snakes.”

If not scared away, snakes tend to be habitual, Amarello said. They’ll return to a place that provides them with their needs, such as a garden. 

  1. Kenneth bohl says

    We have a friendly and beautiful gooher snake that we call esmerelda who resides in our yard and has done so for the last 5-6 or more years that we know of. In that time she has grown by at least six inches or a foot. She is tolerant of people ( can pick her up or watch her eat ) and tends to say hello when nearby ( by sticking her head out of the gopher hole. But this is done usually while mowing the yard on the riding lawnmower so you have to be alert while mowing). If seen early in the morning she will wrap herself around hour arm for warmth and if hot she will coul around sprinkler.

    1. Aislinn Sarnacki says

      That sounds wonderful, Kenneth! I’ve never seen a gopher snake in the wild. We don’t have them up here in Maine. But I do have a resident garter snake this year living under the rock steps between two of my flower gardens. That must be quite a treat to have the same snake in your yard for so long!

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