The first snakes evolved at least 13 million years ago, so habitat disruption wrought by the hand of man is a relatively new phenomenon. Human homesteads are not the snakes' ancestral habitat. However, as gardens provide all of the key elements for their survival, many opportunistic snakes move in and make themselves at home, garter snakes included.
Garter Snakes vs. Garden Snakes
Garter snakes (Thamnophis sp.) are named for their lengthwise stripes, which resemble the garters once worn by men to hold their socks in place. However, colloquially the name garden snake is misunderstood. Some people call the garter the “gardener snake" or even "garden snake." The garter snakes seeming predilection for living in gardens and suburban areas furthers the misunderstanding. The fact is, any snake living in a garden could be considered a garden snake, but there is no species called the garden snake.
Historic Garter Snake Habitats
Thirty-five species of garter snake form the genus Thamnophis. Each species is different in its own way, and some species are habitat or prey specialists; but garter snakes are largely similar in terms of biology. Garter snakes inhabit forests, riparian areas, swamps, meadows, scrublands and savannahs. While they are diurnal, garter snakes spend most of their time hiding in vegetation and rodent burrows or under leaf litter when they're not basking, hunting or seeking mates. Garter snakes -- like all snakes -- swim well, and most are as comfortable on land as in the water.
The Garden Habitat
From the perspective of a traveling garter snake, the typical garden, koi pond or backyard is ideal habitat. In addition to the plants and flowers that provide cover, landscape timbers and rocks provide basking opportunities, and water is usually available in rain gutters, ponds and birdbaths. By planting decorative or food producing plants, homeowners are essentially setting the dinner table for a number of invertebrates, such as worms, snails and insects, which in turn attract a number of vertebrates like frogs, salamanders and lizards -- all of which are prey for garter snakes.
Other Garden Dwelling Species
Garter snakes aren’t the only snakes that commonly inhabit gardens; in fact, they are not even the most common species to live in gardens in some areas. Garter snakes reach 3 feet or more in length and are typically terrestrial or aquatic, so they have a more obvious presence in the average garden than many of the small, subterranean species that live alongside them. Brown snakes (Storeria dekayi), ringneck snakes (Diadophis punctatus), earth snakes (Virginia sp.) and worm snakes (Carphophis amoenus) are frequent inhabitants of gardens. Gardeners frequently encounter these snakes living under mulch piles, rocks, logs or debris. Most species inhabiting gardens are harmless and helpful, preying a variety of critters that are harmful to a garden.
- Savannah River Ecology Laboratory: Eastern Garter Snake
- Washington State University: Gardener Snake / Garter Snake
- Molecular Ecology; Refugial Isolation and Divergence in the Narrowheaded Gartersnake Species Complex (Thamnophis Rufipunctatus)as Revealed by Multilocus DNA Sequence Data: Dustin A. Wood et al.
- GarterSnake.info: Species Guide
- Savannah River Ecology Laboratory: Brown Snake
- Savannah River Ecology Laboratory: Ringneck Snake