Image of a garter snake

The garter snake lounges in the shade of the cool garden eating insects and worms.

On a July evening, Rich reached down to pick string beans and was startled to spot a garter snake peering up at him from beneath a plant. We’ve seen the three-foot-long snake many times this year around the yard but it seems to particularly like lounging in shade cast by bean plants.

We’re used to snakes, have no particular fear of them, and appreciate their benefits. It’s helpful that no poisonous snakes live in our area. Yet, it’s startling to see one inches from our fingers. “Our” garter snake practices social distancing and is probably more alarmed than we are with an encounter. He or she quickly vacates, letting us pick beans and tomatoes without its company.

What Do Garter Snakes Eat?

Garter snakes are common across the United States and range north into Canada.   Constrictors wrap their bodies around a hapless mouse or chipmunk to eventually dispatch it. Garter snakes use a different strategy. They’re versatile carnivores and enjoy dining on insects, worms, slugs, and just about any other small enough animal to fit in their petite mouths. They quickly grab small prey and swallow whole and alive.

How Do Garter Snakes Help in the Yard?

We like our garter snake because of what it represents. If we’d doused the garden with toxic spray to kill insects, we would have no snake. Its presence signifies a healthy yard.  Although garter snakes eat both beneficial and harmful insects, they probably devour many more of the latter. And, our compost-rich soil produces an abundance of worms, so the snakes can have all they want. Plenty will survive to aerate the soil.

striped garter snake

This garter snake was seeking cool shade on a hot summer day.

Startling as our snake may be, it’s as beautiful as a goldfinch or bluebird. Spotting it gives us a moment of joy. After we are done being startled.

  • If having a garter snake around really troubles you, Iowa State University Extention has non-lethal ways to reduce the appeal of your yard.

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