Keeping Snakes Out of the Garden

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The eastern garter snake is the most common species in my area: it’s beneficial, but scares the bejeezus out of many gardeners.

Let me start by confessing that I’m not afraid of snakes. As a kid, I used to catch them. Today, I just let them be.

Nor do I have any reason to be afraid of them. There are no poisonous snakes where I live and no constricting snakes (snakes that kill by strangling their victim) that could harm a human either. Only garter snakes, milk snakes, redbelly snakes, and a few others. All quite tiny as snakes go. And none are in any way aggressive.

I’m always pleased when I see a snake in my yard. Snakes are, after all, very useful to gardeners, being major consumers of slugs, voles, mice, and all sorts of nasty insects. Ideally you’d want to encourage them, but…

Fear of Snakes

20160607BMany people are terrified of snakes. In fact, ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) is the most common phobia in humans: nearly one person in three suffers from it.

Despite their fear of snakes, many gardeners are able to tolerate the presence of non-venomous snakes. When they encounter one, they simply back away and the snake too backs away (it’s as afraid of you as you are of it!). Thus a fragile peace settles in.

Congratulations to those ophidiophobes who do manage to overcome their fear: that takes a lot of courage.

But not everyone can. Some people don’t even dare to go into their backyard, much less garden, because they are terrified of snakes. The following text is written for their benefit.

Snake Repellents Don’t Work

Let’s clear up one thing right away. There are no snake repellents that really work.

No matter what you may read on the Internet, mothballs will not repel snakes nor will sulfur garden or coyote urine.

20160607CThere are commercial snake repellents too. Many are based on malodorus products (naphthalene, sulfur, predator urine) which snakes can indeed smell, but for some reason, don’t seem to bother them. Some companies offer apparatus that give off ultrasounds, but again, while snakes sense some ultrasounds, they don’t seem to have any fear of them. And plastic owls placed in the garden may scare a few birds (for a while), but have no effect on snakes.

An Unfavorable Environment

What may work is to make your yard less attractive to snakes.

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Woodpiles can be a haven for snakes.

Although snakes do like to sun themselves in the open (they’re cold-blooded and need to heat up sometimes), they’re otherwise timid creatures that like to keep out of sight. You can therefore help to discourage them by removing all possible shelters: logs, piles of wood, brush or rocks, etc. Plug any holes in foundations, walls and stairs where they may want to hide. Even mowing the lawn frequently will discourage them: they can’t hide in short grass.

Anything you do to control the animals they hunt, like voles, mice, slugs, and grasshoppers, will also help. You can trap voles and mice, for example, and pick up any birdseed or dog or cat food that has fallen to the ground, all of which attract vermin of various kinds that snakes will want to catch. And stop feeding birds: the snakes are predators of small birds, after all. Drain your pond or water garden too: snakes may come there in search of frogs.

A dog or cat allowed to roam freely in the sector will not only discourage snakes, but will probably kill them. My neighbor’s Jack Russell terrier has totally eliminated the gartner snakes that used to live in our neighborhood, for example (unfortunately, from my point of view). I used to have a cat that hunted snakes with gusto as well, so much so I was forced to keep him indoors at all times.

A Friendly Snake-Catcher

Sometimes you only have one snake on your property, but it keeps coming back. If so, perhaps a friend who is not afraid of snakes can catch and transport it elsewhere (take it at least one mile/2 km from its original home). I suspect you could rustle up a few local teens who’d gladly help out.

Of course, this is assuming that local snakes are not venomous. If they are poisonous, you certainly wouldn’t want to send neighbor kids out after them! For that, you’d need to hire a snake control service.

An Anti-Snake Fence

The above methods may help reduce local snake populations, but won’t necessarily keep them away forever. They’ll probably show up at least occasionally. Fortunately there is one method that works long term… and by that, I don’t mean moving to a condo on the 12th floor. The only truly effective method of keeping snakes out of a garden is a snake fence.

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Snake fence: note how the fence is angled outward.

You can install a snake fence around your yard or just around a specific garden (a lot of people only fence in the vegetable garden, for example). Just use galvanized wire mesh with 1/4 inch squares (0.5 cm): too small to let snakes through. The fence should be at least 2 feet (60 cm) high and buried at the base to the depth of 6 inches (15 cm). It should also slope outward at an angle of about 30˚. You’ll needs stakes to hold up the fence as well. Install them inside the fence… and also keep the perimeter clear of any shrub, climbing plant or other vegetation that exceeds its height.

A snake fence is a pretty ambitious project for preventing a harmless little animal from getting into your yard, but if that’s what you need to be able to garden in peace, go right ahead.

Or try to work on your ophidiophobia!

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