by Charlene Burgi
Spiders and snakes seem to be a topic of discussion these days. The conversations are not about a resurgence of the 1970s Jim Stafford song “Spiders and Snakes,” but about the legless and eight-legged varieties. Is it any wonder that this subject would come up? Spiders and snakes emerge during the spring, and thus we are seeing more of them right now. Unfortunately, these encounters tend to conjure up stories better suited for campfire talk than for encouraging our friends to invite them into the garden!
Fear of these reptiles and arachnids seems to cloud the fact that they are a benefit to the garden. Neither will be found eating your favorite pansy, digging up your garden, or girdling woody stems with sharp teeth. On the contrary, they are in the business of eliminating garden nuisances such as rodents, slugs, insects, and soft body scales in the garden. Yet people of all ages tend to panic at the sight of either!
I must admit it is a bit startling when, out of the corner of your eye, you see a snake slithering toward you, or when you reach in for a ripe tomato and encounter a beautiful black and yellow garden spider known as Argiope aurantia. But though that first meeting can be a bit alarming, these are not invaders to eradicate but visitors to encourage.
Enticing reptiles, including lizards (think of them as snakes with legs), to live in the garden requires very little work on your part. They hibernate underground in the winter, so a stack of flat rocks would be an ideal habitat for them. Snakes are cold-blooded and what better place can you offer to these sun lovers?
For the most part, snakes have a shy, retiring disposition. They prefer hiding in nooks and crannies rather than putting themselves in the harm’s way of an overhead hawk, prowling dog or cat, or ill-informed gardener that sees threat instead of friend. We don’t realize the fear snakes have of people lurking around in their habitat. If you encounter a snake, stand still and you will see it retreat to a safe place.
This past week, the pups and I were in the backyard when, next to some stacked stone, the yellow racing stripes of a beautiful garter snake (Thamnophis) caught my attention. The pups lopped forward unaware of the snake, but the snake took no chances and retreated into the safety of the nearby rocks. I was delighted to see him, but made a mental note to offer more protection if Sassy and Misty decided to investigate further at a later date.
People also have a fear of spiders. In spring, it is typical to find them both inside and outside of our house. While I don’t appreciate living with them, it is common to find Jack or me trapping them inside to release back outdoors. They will eat a lot of bugs! It is interesting to note that 60% of spiders capture their prey in a web, while 40% are hunters. The hunters are active in the garden that is heavily mulched and laden with just the right type of juicy insects to sustain them. Either type of spider will help clean your garden without worry of doing additional damage to foliage. Put the case of arachnophobia aside and rejoice in the benefit that spiders bring.
Before I close, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that there are a few—very few—poisonous snakes and spiders in our area. Both will avoid you if you leave them alone. Black widow spiders are typically found in dark, damp places like wood piles and water meter boxes. Proceed with caution when working in these environments or similar places. Rattlesnakes are typically found in areas similar to where harmless snakes venture, but remember that they are as shy as the harmless snakes and will first let you know you are invading their space with a shake of a tail. Give them room and they will depart from your presence.
The not-so-warm-and-fuzzy things in the garden can be more of a benefit than the warm and fuzzy—like rabbits and squirrels, gophers and deer. And, contrary to the chorus from Jim Stafford’s song, I do like spiders and snakes!