Garter Snake in the Garden? Let It Be

Beneficial garter snake

The next time you see a snake slithering through the grass, think twice before hitting it with a shovel. The much-maligned reptiles are great for gardens.

“Most snakes pose no danger,” says Robert T. Mason, professor of integrative biology at Oregon State University. “Even if you see a snake, you’re very unlikely to get bitten and if you’re unlucky enough to get bitten, you’re even more unlikely to get [bitten by a venomous snake].”

The phrase, “a snake in the grass” was first used by the Roman poet Virgil in the Third Eclogue as a metaphor for treachery, or as Virgil wrote it in 37 BCE, “Latet anguis in herba.” While it might not be a flattering way to describe another person, the presence of a garden snake in your landscape can be a very good thing. Cold-blooded reptiles such as the garter snake provide free and natural pest control. They devour slugs, grasshoppers, and small rodents such as mice and voles that could cause serious damage in your grass, and flower and vegetable gardens.

Even so, fear of snakes (called ophidiophobia or ophiophobia) is common. A Gallup poll found that more than half of Americans feared snakes, making it the most common phobia and ranked ahead of fear of heights, spiders and mice. Death from poisonous snakes — called envenomation — is rare: An average of just six snake-bite fatalities occur annually. More people die from lightning strikes and hornet, bee or wasp stings.

Venomous Snakes Vs. Harmless Ones

Adam Janke, an extension wildlife specialist at Iowa State University, offers tips to distinguish between “safe” snakes and harmful ones.

  • Safe species of snakes include garter snakes, gopher snakes, rat snakes, corn snakes, milk snakes and other kingsnakes. They can be left to bask in the sunshine while you work in the garden or mow the grass.
  • Venomous snakes such as rattlesnakes,  cottonmouth, copperheads and coral snakes need to move along before you spend time outdoors.

Janke suggests looking for a few distinguishing features, explaining, “Venomous snakes advertise that they are venomous.” The most-common venomous snakes in North America are called “rattlers” for a reason.

Venomous snakes have triangular-shaped heads, slit pupils and fangs but few teeth. The nonvenomous snakes have rounded heads, round eyes and sharp teeth but no fangs. You might not want to get close enough to distinguish between them so the best bet is to give it space to move on. Spraying a snake with the garden hose is a nonlethal option to encourage it to slither away.

A Western diamondback rattlesnake displays the triangular head that helps mark it as a venomous snake.

While snake bites are rare, Mason says you should wear closed-toed shoes and long pants while working in the garden; even garden gloves provide some protection. “Some venomous snakes, like copperheads, have short fangs and garden gloves could offer enough of a barrier to prevent envenomation,” he says.

4 Ways to Send Snakes on Their Way

Keeping snakes out of the garden is impractical, suggests the Humane Society of the United States, and, since snakes are protected in most states, killing them is illegal. Moreover, most bites occur when someone is trying to kill a snake. 

Commercial snake repellents are also ineffective, according to Mason. You could trap snakes and release them far from home or call a licensed nuisance wildlife control officer to remove snakes from your landscape but Janke warns, “If the habitat is there, more snakes will come along.”

Your best bet is to make changes to your landscape to make it less attractive to snakes. Here are four ways:

1. Cut the grass

Snakes like longer grass because it makes it easier to hide from predators like hawks. “A manicured lawn leaves the snake exposed,” Mason says.

2. Remove hiding places

Wood piles provide ideal crevices for snakes to take cover; cool, moist spots such as the bare soil beneath dense brush are also attractive. Janke suggests removing hiding places altogether or relocating them to the fringes of the yard to benefit from having snakes in the landscape while minimizing their proximity to the house.

3. Remove water features

Snakes are attracted to ponds and other water features because snakes and small fish are prime food sources.

4. Minimize hardscaping

Snakes are cold-blooded and need to sun themselves to warm up. Surfaces like stone patios and asphalt driveways provide the ideal sunbathing spots. The less hardscaping you have in your yard, the fewer places snakes have to bask in the sun, Janke says.

But If You Want Snakes …

Gardeners who want to attract snakes like the beneficial garter snake should take the opposite approach:

  • Let the grass grow a little longer, especially around the fringes of the yard, to give snakes a safe spot to hide.
  • Add flat rocks for sunbathing.
  •  Protect snakes from predators by discouraging cats from your yard and keeping yours indoors.
  •  Add small brush piles to serve as shelter and nesting sites.

The biggest change you need to make, Janke says, is your attitude toward snakes.

“Gardeners have a natural inclination to embrace the natural environment and that includes snakes,” he says. “The more you see snakes as an important part of the ecosystem and recognize their benefits in the garden, the more likely you are to live in harmony with them.”

Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based journalist who writes about farming and the environment.