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The Back Porch



Garters in the Garden

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors July-August 2014 issue

Snakes alive. I have seen more snakes in and around the vegetable garden in the last week than I can ever remember. Garter snakes, mind you, but still snakes.

\Snakes. The very word can make grown men shudder and women and children run for cover.
That’s too bad, though to a certain extent understandable. To some people there is something repulsive about an animal that slithers along the ground, unseen in tall grass.

And then there’s that whole Adam and Eve in the Garden thing. Didn’t that story end with no paradise on this planet for humans, and snakes condemned to crawl on their belly eating dust? Yuck.
Here’s the good news: Snakes are among a gardener’s best friends. Really.

Garter snakes will eat nearly anything. Near water, that means frogs, tadpoles, and fish. In my garden their menu runs to grasshoppers, beetles, and small mammals—all pests I would gladly be rid of.
Montana hosts three species of garter snakes: common, terrestrial, and plains. The terrestrial and common are generally found west of a line running from about Billings to Shelby, and the plains lives mainly east of that line. All three have stripes that run the length of the body.

Apparently they resembled garters when garters were in style.

The terrestrial garter often, though not always, has three yellow stripes running the length of its body with a series of black spots between and on the stripes. If it hunts in my garden, however, I haven’t seen it.

My visitors are mostly plains garter snakes with the occasional common. Plains garter snakes are the easiest to identify. They have an orange or brick-red stripe running down their back flanked by greenish-yellow stripes down each side.

Plains garter snakes can run up to 3 feet long. I’ve found none that big, but 24-plus inches, yes.
Common garter snakes have three yellow longitudinal stripes. They can grow to 40 inches. That’s a big garter snake.

While garter snakes are ridding pests in the garden, the reptiles have their own predators. Raptors will drop from the sky like a bolt of lightning and snatch one up in its talons.

Of course, not everyone is a snake lover, or even tolerates the reptiles. If that’s your mindset and you want to rid them from your property, then remove what makes snakes comfortable. In summer, snakes escape heat in shady cover like under a pile of old boards or a junk car, or in tall grass. Clean up the lot, mow the grass short, and any snakes will likely disappear.

Oh yes, pigs are death on snakes. So maybe buy a pig.

But really, snakes can be our friends, even rattlesnakes, which are wonderful mousers. A rattlesnake in the field, across the road, eating mice? I’m fine with that.

But not in the front yard by the house. That has happened. One time I scooped the rattler up with a shovel, put it in a cooler, and took it down the road to a rocky cliff, where I released it to slither another day.

Then again, another time I had to send a rattler in my yard to snake heaven. .Bear bullet

Bruce Auchly manages the regional Information and Education Program in Great Falls.