Garter snakes are a gardener's best friend

Garter Snakes – A Gardener’s Best Friend

Have you ever seen garter snakes around you garden? While they can give you a bit of a surprise, these snakes are actually a gardener’s best friend. From slugs to small rodents, garter snakes eat many of your common garden pests. And since they’re harmless to humans, these are great snakes to encourage on your property. Let’s look at how you can do this.

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When we first moved to our property there were a few garter snakes around, but we only occasionally spotted them. And often they were just the little babies you find in summer.

But I really wanted to have more of them because the garter snakes here in western Washington (and likely ones in other areas too) eat a ton of slugs. And this area is famous for its slugs—so I really wanted more garter snakes.

So I started to create habitat for them. And I’m happy to say that after a couple years of this, we’ve had an explosion of garter snakes on our property.

By summertime we were spotting them nearly every day—and often more than one.

And our slug population has dropped a lot in response to the influx of garter snakes and other predators that I’ve been promoting.

Not having to deal with so many slugs is a huge benefit, and reason enough for me to attract garter snakes. But garter snakes eat many other garden pests. Slugs are just one example.

Garter snakes really are a gardener’s best friend.

Let’s look at what garter snakes need and how you can attract them so you, too, can control pests by promoting garter snakes.

And before you scroll down, make sure to grab your free guide all about working with wildlife. Working with garter snakes is a great way to cultivate abundance, but the same goes with other wildlife. This guide will show you how you can work with wildlife to cultivate abundance for people, plants and wildlife on your property.

What Do Garter Snakes Need?

Water is very important for garter snakes

I built this wildlife pond to support garter snakes, frogs and many other beneficial critters. It provides shelter, water, and food. But you don’t have to get this elaborate to support garter snakes.

Garter snakes are actually quite shy. Though you may see them out and about, they would rather avoid you and just go about eating slugs. So if you want garter snakes, you’ll want to give them places to hide.

A great way to do this is to create habitat features using rocks and logs. Just make sure to leave some gaps between the logs and rocks of various sizes. Garter snakes will hide in those gaps to avoid their own predators (owls, hawks, coyotes, etc.).

Wild Tip:

You can also create hedgerows and thickets by planting shrubs and trees. These are great areas for garter snakes to hide in. Though having logs and rock piles is still a great option. Combine them if you can!

Scatter these habitat features around your place so any garter snakes can quickly duck back to safety as needed.

Rock and log piles are also great spots for garter snakes to sun themselves in the morning to warm up and get ready to go catch their breakfast.

And in the fall, they may use these same rock or log piles to hibernate through the winter. If you can, try building a few large habitat features for this purpose.

I’ve got a few large log piles that are mimicking a large downed log, (AKA a log surrogate,) and I spotted several young garter snakes moving into it to overwinter. Garter snakes often overwinter together, making large habitat features great places for this purpose.

Wild Tip:

You can build a habitat feature just by piling up some logs and/or rocks. The bigger you can make it, the more wildlife (including garter snakes) it can support. Try to have a mix of gap sizes, and also try to have several layers of material to really provide year-round shelter. Here are some posts to help you get started with habitat features:

  1. How to Create Habitat Features for Pest Control
  2. Placing Habitat Features to Maximize Pest Control

And if you’ve got a garden with slug issues, try creating habitat features around and even in your garden. Each one of my garden beds has an area set aside where I’ve made rock piles and placed some small logs along with some native flowers.

I’ve found garter snakes taking shelter in these areas and we often see them in our garden.

Beyond shelter, garter snakes will also need access to water—especially in the summer months.

A great option is to create a small wildlife pond. But you can also just create a small mini-pond using a basic plastic container.

Garter snakes love water and are often found near a water source. I built a small wildlife pond right next to my garden to help ensure that garter snakes, frogs, and other beneficial critters hang out in my garden.

While a water source is great for garter snakes, you can still attract them even without it by providing them shelter. We had quite a few garter snakes here even before we built our wildlife pond. But a water source will help, and it will attract many other beneficial critters, too.

Finally, garter snakes need a source of food. Luckily, this one is the easiest to provide for them. Slugs, bugs, and small mammals are all potential food for garter snakes.

But you will need to stop trying to eliminate slugs or other pests using poisons or even organic methods of pest control. The key is to let the garter snakes (and other predators) fill this role for you.

If you kill all the pests, then there will be nothing for the garter snakes to eat, and they won’t stick around.

The transition from controlling pests yourself to letting garter snakes and other predators do it for you can be hard. But in the long run you will be much better off.

Summary:

If you want to attract garter snakes, then you need to provide them with:

  1. Shelter – log and rock piles are great options.
  2. A source of water – even a mini-pond works great.
  3. And food – let them eat the pests.

Start Attracting Garter Snakes

Garter snakes need open space to sun themselves

Don’t forget to have some open areas for garter snakes to warm up in the morning sun. This mulched strip along one of our hedgerows is a favorite place for garter snakes on our property to warm up each morning. It’s right along our parking area so it stays open and sunny, and the hedgerow gives them a place to hide.

So are you excited to start attracting garter snakes to your property? One thing you should do first is look up what types of garter snakes live in your area.

There are many different types, and they all have slightly different needs.

For example, while here in western Washington, all our garter snakes eat slugs when they’re growing. There is one type (northwestern garter snake – Thamnophis ordinoides) that eats only slugs and worms even as an adult.

Here are the garter snakes (plus several subspecies) that you can find in western Washington:

  • Common garter snake – Thamnophis sirtalis
  • Northwestern garter snake – Thamnophis ordinoides
  • Western terrestrial garter snake – Thamnophis elegans

If you live in North America, you likely have several types of garter snakes that call you area home. So make sure to take a moment to learn about them and what they need to thrive.

And then a great first step is to create some basic habitat features. To start, just get 3 small logs and place 2 of them on the ground running parallel to each other. Make sure their sides are touching. Then just add the 3rd one on top of those 2, so from the end, the 3 together make a triangle.

This is called a log surrogate because you’re using small logs to mimic a single larger log.

You can continue this pattern to make larger log surrogates just by adding more logs. The bigger you can make it, the better—but start small and make several scattered around your place.

Try putting them under your shrubs or trees.

Rock piles are another great option. And if you live in an area with high fire risk, this might be your best option.

Then see about adding a mini-pond or even a bird bath that is on the ground.

With these simple first steps, you should start to see more garter snakes—and less slugs and other pests—a living landscape of abundance for people, plants and wildlife.


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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.

  • Melissa Amarello says:

    Thank you so much for writing this! I’m new to permaculture/homesteading stuff and have been pretty disappointed by the lack of information on snakes and lizards. Plenty of books and articles mention birds, pollinating, and predatory insects, but NOTHING about the benefits of having snakes and lizards in your yard and garden. Especially lizards, who are completely harmless to people and pets and VORACIOUS insect eaters.

    • Daron says:

      Snakes and lizards are great–here in western Washington we only have 1 species of lizard called the alligator lizard. So far I haven’t seen them on my property but I’m hoping they show up soon. I did find one at the school down the street from my place so fingers crossed! They really are great animals to have around. Thanks for your comment!

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