The Harmless Garter Snake Is Your Garden's Best Friend


The garter is among the world's most benign snakes; it's not harmful and it eats the pests that eats your garden. Flickr/Courtney Celley/USFWS

If you live anywhere in North America, chances are you've seen a garter snake slithering past. For many, such a sight might cause a flinch or scream or, for a die hard and curious few, the need to get closer. If you're in the latter category, be careful. While garters are relatively harmless, if you pick one up, it may try to defend itself with a bite — a relatively harmless bite, but a nip nonetheless. It will also struggle and emit a foul smell from its anal gland.

Still, in the world of snakes, the garter is among the world's most benign snakes. They were thought until the early 2000s to be non-venomous, but they do, in fact, produce a neurotoxic venom, though the small amount and mildness ensures that it cannot kill, or even harm, a human being. In many areas, garters are the most common snake in the neighborhood. They range in length from 18.11 inches to 53.94 inches (46 to 137 centimeters) and weigh up to 5.29 ounces (150 grams). Generally, the stripes on the back of the slithering bodies of these small to medium-sized snakes are gray, brown, black or olive in color. A few have dark spots. But a quick search will show that there are 35 species of garter snake belonging to the genus Thamnophis, so they come in many different colors and patterns.

Garter snakes are great for the garden as well. They are shy and will avoid human beings and pets at all costs, living peacefully in harmony with you and your family. Garters are highly active. You might see them both at night and during the day, but you may not know they are there, as they will slither away from you as quickly as they can. They eat all the pests that wreak havoc in your garden, subsisting on slugs, snails, insects, grasshoppers and small rodents. They also like to chow down on worms, frogs, salamanders, fish and tadpoles, hiding under boards, vegetation, in stone walls, under logs or among rocks in meadows, woodlands, marshes and along hills.

Garters make good pets, mainly because they are active during the day. They are relatively small snakes and, as long as there is an adult nearby, they are easy for children to hold. Experts recommend you shouldn't catch a garter in the wild to keep as a pet. It could be against the law. Instead, go to a pet store or a breeder, or get one from a rescue organization.

If you decide to keep a garter, put the snake in a 30- to 50-gallon (113.5- to 189-liter) aquarium with a lid. Keep it secure so the snake doesn't escape. Make sure the home has enough fresh water and is warm. You can use a heat lamp or heat mat. Put some rocks inside. Garters like to rub against them. You can use shredded paper as a bed. Just make sure you change the paper regularly. As to what to feed them: Small rodents work well, as do frogs, toads and earthworms.