Ask A Master Gardener – Snakes: A Gardener’s Friend

Master Gardener Volunteers are trained in many areas of horticulture, including wildlife management. One very misunderstood but beneficial creature is the snake.  Few things provoke fear in a garden like a snake slithering though the vegetation.  Ophidiophobia, or unreasonable fear of snakes, is the second most common phobia, falling just behind fear of spiders. Nearly one-third of the population suffers from ophidiophobia.  In tropical areas, this may be life-saving, but in a southern Wisconsin garden, snakes are our friend.

Snakes are reptiles, and like turtles and lizards, are “cold-blooded”. They hibernate for six or seven months during the winter in a location called a hibernacula.  Smaller species like garter snakes, and occasionally larger species such as fox snakes, will often gather together in masses when hibernating.

Myths abound concerning snakes, contributing to the generalized fear of these amazing creatures. They are not slimy; they are actually dry skinned.  A frightened snake will be more likely to flee than chase you.  Mother snakes do not hold their babies in their mouths to protect them.  Milk snakes do not drink milk and hognose snakes are not related to cobras.

Wisconsin is home to 22 different snake species, but not all are common and not all are found in the southeast portion of the state. Only two species are poisonous: the timber rattler found in rocky outcropping and hillsides of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers in southwestern Wisconsin, and the swamp rattler or massasauga.  The swamp rattler is an endanger species and rarely makes an appearance.

While snakes are not nearly as cute as the furry, whiskered, pert, little mouse, they are is far less destructive. Those cute little mice are a much greater menace to the gardener and home owner.  Have a mouse problem?  Invite a snake into your landscape. Snake diets include a wide variety of other animal life including toads, frogs, insects, earthworms, mice and other small mammals, lizards, and even other snakes.

Two of the larger and more common snakes in south eastern Wisconsin are the fox snake (also called the pine snake) and the milk snake. Unfortunately, both of these snakes have some markings that lead to them being mistaken for venomous species like the copperhead or coral snakes.  But, remember that there are neither copperheads nor coral snake in Wisconsin.  Both also tend to vibrate the tip of their tail in dry leaves when disturbed, making people thing they have a rattler.  Again, there are no rattlesnakes in this area, so look again.   Instead, both of these beauties are voracious consumers of rodents, making them an ally of gardeners, farmers, and homeowners.

On the smaller side, the garter snake keeps the insect population down in gardens with help from the equally small, brown DeKay’s snake. Most people are familiar with the garter snake and the smaller size make them less threatening.

While most people can tolerate snakes in the landscape, when they come into homes or when they encounter a hibernacula, the story changes. The fox snake is the most common home visitor, particularly in older homes with stone foundations.  To remedy the problem, seal up all cracks, clean up wood, rock, or brush piles, keep the grass mowed, and the landscape clean. Once the location is less hospitable, the snakes will move to a new location.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener


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