Tessa Chenoa Ownbey
Somervell County Master Gardener VP
In the fifth century AD, legend has it that St. Patrick chased all the snakes in Ireland into the sea after they began attacking him during a 40-day fast. According to science, however, Ireland is one of a handful of places which has never had snakes. During the last ice age, Ireland was too chilly for reptiles, and since then, being surrounded by the sea has kept Ireland snake-free.
Snakes have a long history and reputation in the rest of the world, however, including those places in which we choose to plant gardens. One of our oldest stories of gardens, the Biblical story of creation, features a snake in the original garden, the Garden of Eden. This particular snake has a nasty reputation, and the story is often used to explain the fear of snakes still held by a lot of folk.
Since the beginning of time, then, snakes and gardens have gone together like…well…peanut butter and jelly….chips and salsa…nuts and bolts…or Shirley and Donna. And since they do go together, as we have set up our gardens in places where snakes are native, as gardeners we do have to decide how to get along with them.
Donna has said that if she sees snakes in her garden, she knows she is doing it right. What she means is that snakes and other reptiles are a sign of a healthy ecosystem. Within the healthy ecosystem of the garden, snakes eat pests such as slugs, Japanese beetles, and rodents. Among the snakes that are good to have in a healthy garden are: gopher snakes, coachwhips, racers, and hognoses, which eat mice and rats; garter snakes (called “The Gardener’s Friend”) and ribbon snakes, which eat grasshoppers and other small insects, slugs and mice; coachwhips (mentioned above), king snakes, and indigo snakes, which eat other snakes (including venomous ones).
Some of my favorite snakes are those that inhabit my compost pile – the rough earth snake and the smooth earth snake. These are both a sign of healthy compost. And they are adorable.
Venomous snakes are also good for the garden, but dangerous for the humans who tend it or enjoy it. In Somervell County, we particularly want to be on the lookout for copperheads and rattlesnakes.
If you want to create healthy snake habitat in your garden, you can incorporate rock piles, large rocks for sunning, plant ground cover, and keep your pets out of the garden. A water source is also a good idea.
To get rid of snakes in your garden, though, you need to make sure that you haven’t created mouse or rat habitat. Clear any clutter, remove rodents, and capture slugs. Keep insects to a minimum using other methods. Things advertised as “snake repellant” are scams. The only real way to eliminate snakes is to eliminate the habitat of their food supply.
Although I prefer to live in harmony with the snakes in my garden, with six children and thirteen grandchildren running amok, I do think it’s prudent to keep the venomous ones out. An alternative to killing them is to have them removed. Mark Pyle and Michael Balderas, both Rio Brazos Master Naturalists, are also admins of the Facebook group “What Snake is This? North Texas,” and will remove and relocate your venomous snakes, or can recommend someone who will do so.
- Geoff Stein, “Snakes in the Garden – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Dave’s Garden, May 24, 2011
- James Owen, “Did St. Patrick Really Drive Snakes out of Ireland,” National Geographic, March 15, 2014
- “Snakes are Good for Your Garden,” A Healthy Life for Me