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Finding snakes in garden is good

Sumbitted photo Pam Batyos took this photo of a snake sunning itself in her garden.

My niece Angie and I were sitting on my deck when she calmly asked, “Is that a stick or snake in your shrub?”

Sure enough a large garter snake was just hanging out in the branches sunning itself. They are very shy and prefer to avoid contact with us, but often you’ll see them out sunning themselves as they need sun’s warmth to help digest their food.

Garter snake is a common name for the harmless, small to medium-sized snakes belonging to the genus Thamnophis. There are about 35 species having stripes suggesting a garter belt, typically one or three long yellow to red stripes that run parallel down their bodies head to tail. They are often mistakenly called gardener snakes.

The fear of snakes is ophidiophobia, making it the most common phobia ahead of heights and spiders. I’m fine when I see them first, letting them move away as I head in the other direction. If I reach into a flower bed and “encounter” one, you’ll see that my snake dance is very similar to my walking into a spider web dance.

These snakes can be a great benefit as they eat insects and rodents. Unfortunately, they also snack on frogs, toads and earthworms. I figure slugs alone make them appreciated in my garden.

Snakes do have predators, including foxes, racoons, birds and turtles. To make your garden snake-friendly, provide areas of refuge such as rock piles, logs and flat rocks to allow sunbathing. Avoid using slug bait as they feed on slugs that have ingested this pesticide. Take care as you mow not to run over your snakes. Once I wasn’t paying attention and let me tell you, it is rather traumatic.

If stressed, they may release a foul-smelling scent created in a colacal gland found in both sexes. In some cases this can also attract a mate. They may become alarmed and give you a harmless little nip if handled.

They grow throughout their lives and need to shed their skin when it gets too small. They do this by rubbing their head on something rough to hook skin near their lips and as they crawl out of it, the skin is turned inside out.

In our area, they hibernate below the frost line, congregating in large groups in burrows and crevices to keep warm. They emerge and mate in spring. The females only breed every two to three years and bear young in late summer, having between four to 20 babies. It takes two years for garter snakes to reach maturity and they can live to be 10 years old.

Finding snakes may be scary, but in our gardens, they are a good thing. To learn more on snakes in the garden, go to http://go.osu.edu/snakesingarden. To identify the snakes you find in your garden, go to http://go.osu.edu/snakeid.

Baytos is an Ohio State University Mahoning County Extension Master Gardener volunteer.

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