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Garden Snakes
Q. We have a raised bed garden and noticed two very small snakes in nearby tall grass two Springs ago—then a somewhat larger adult. We did nothing about any of them. Then this spring, I again saw a few in the yard. Mike: is this a good sign or a bad sign of how our garden is developing? Should we be welcoming them or trying to make them go away? Any guidance would be greatly appreciated. Thanks,
    ---Dane & Erin in Philadelphia
A. It is a very good sign, and you should be encouraging them, D & E! Small snakes like the ones you describe are ferocious predators of garden pests, especially slugs—the bane of shady gardens. Of course, this combination is only natural. Like highly beneficial toads and frogs, snakes love the moist shady areas that slugs also prefer. And garden snakes are mostly active at night—exactly when slugs are out doing their dirty work.

Because slugs aren't active during the day, many gardeners don't know they're what's destroying their lettuce, potatoes and hostas, instead blaming more visible—but less guilty—daytime pests. Don't disturb any little snakes you see and this equation will balance out nicely in your favor—without you actually having to do anything. In fact, that's one of the biggest rules in organic gardening—the more life and the more types of life in your garden, the healthier your plants are going to be.

Q. I love to garden. But I often find little snakes while cleaning things out or weeding during the day. I try to be a good sport, thinking they are keeping the rodent population to a minimum, but I dread seeing them! Is there anything I can do to encourage them to live elsewhere? Is there any humane, but permanent way to get rid of them? Why me?
    ---Linda in Lafayette Hill, PA (just outside of Philadelphia)
A. Permanent? No—There's no more permanent way to get rid of snakes than there is for weeds, flies and other unwelcome things that thrive on our planet. But your reference to seeing them while "cleaning out" the garden does perhaps reveal the answer to your "why me?" question; and provides an opportunity to minimize close encounters.

Snakes—especially the small ones so common in American gardens—are terrified of anything bigger than they are, and so they hide during the day in tall grass, heavy shrubbery and overly thick mulches. When you {quote} "clean" these things up, you disturb any snakes hiding there. And trust me, they don't want to see you any more than you do them.

So if you don't wish to take advantage of their excellent free and natural pest control, don't give them any hiding places. Use no mulches other than compost—a good idea no matter what you're trying to achieve or avoid. Keep the bottoms of plants well trimmed and pruned—also a good way to improve garden airflow and thus avoid disease. Don't have any brush or "mulch" piles in the immediate area. And if you choose to make compost—which I certainly hope you do—use a tumbler or drum system and/or only make hot compost, which creatures like snakes will avoid.

Eliminate their shelter, and, unlike Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams, they will NOT come. Of course, you won't get pest-eating toads either, as they have similar daytime-cover needs; so just be aware that these efforts could well increase your REAL pest problems.

Oh, and although there seems to be some disagreement among even the experts about this topic, small garden (or 'garter') snakes probably don't eat many—if any—rodents. An especially big garden snake may occasionally take an especially small mouse, but the high-quality rodent eaters are big snakes—like the well-named 'rat snake' and 'gopher snake', the latter prized in Western gardens for its ability to control those most tenacious underground garden foes.

Q. Dear Mike: No one ever said that a fear of "harmless" garter snakes is rational, but please don't dismiss those of us who just can't handle the sight of these creatures. Laugh and point all you like, but if your goal is to recruit gardeners, you need to rethink your advice to those who call in hoping to avoid these creatures. I bet there are 50 of us phobics for every person who's casual about such an encounter. So, how about letting us in on some ways to avoid them? Thank you,
    --- Nina in Wilmington, DE
A. Well, you're right, Nina. Despite the vast, vast majority of their species being highly beneficial, snakes and spiders inspire a primal fear in most people, with snakes having the added disadvantage of that unfortunate early Biblical incident. (Couldn't have been a tempting yellowjacket back in Genesis, could it?. Nooo... It had to be a snake.)

And that's why I've chosen to put my boyish and gardener's affection of these cool creatures in my back pocket and offered today's avoidance tips. Oh, and here's one more: Don't have flat 'stepping stones' in your garden; their stored heat is snakily attractive in the early evening and on days that start out sunny and then turn cool and cloudy.

And if you do all these 'avoidance things' and a slithering slug eater you still see, just spray it away with cold water from a garden hose. It'll quickly slither off and live to eat more garden pests another day. Hopefully, unseen by you.