In the garden with Felder: Close encounters of the good kind

September 8, 2018 10:03:45 PM

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Jump back, calm down and move on: Good advice for encounters between gardeners and beneficial reptiles found lurking in out-of-the-way places.  

 

I just wish I could stifle the high-pitched little girl squeal that ekes out whenever I accidentally get my face wrapped up in a spider web. Especially the kind made by those huge yellow-and-black garden spiders (shudder).  

 

Like dragonflies hovering around the water garden and eating other insects, the big yellow spiders are incredible predators in the garden, which I appreciate, but that little girl squeal is spring-loaded for spiders and wasps. Can't help it; just comes out.  

 

But then I don't mind the non-poisonous snakes in my garden at all. I have four different kinds, and I know where they are and what they eat, and can tell them apart from venomous kinds which thankfully I don't have.  

 

Two of the most common garden snakes are tiny, not much bigger than a new pencil when full grown: the grayish-brown "smooth earth snake" and the similar DeKay's snake with a dark stripe and little dark dots on either side on a long dark stripe on its back. Both are worm and slug eaters and are physically unable to bite even if picked up. I uncover them when moving rocks, in monkey grass, and often in the compost.  

 

Last summer I had to rescue a more than foot-long ribbon snake, a type of garter snake with three pretty yellow stripes along its body, that had gotten stuck in the mesh fencing around my compost bin. It acted all grown up, posturing and snapping at me, but I knew it wasn't poisonous, so I ushered it into the undergrowth.  

 

The one that I'm most cautious about is a three-foot long speckled king snake, shiny black with a Milky Way of pale yellow spots on its body. It eats other snakes, mice, rats and lizards, so I leave it alone. Besides, though it isn't poisonous, it'll bite if picked up. So I don't.  

 

Most gardens have an assortment of toads down low and all sorts of incredibly loud little tree frogs, and I appreciate them. They are about the loudest nighttime creatures out there. 

 

But I especially cherish the three kinds of lizards that patrol my garden. Blue-tail skinks live in the monkey grass and mulch, while the color-shifting green-or-brown anoles run around up high in search of prey. And I haven't even seen a roach outside in the past five years, thanks to the partially see-through geckos that lurk around porch lights at night snarfing every moth, spider and roach in sight. By the way, they chirp just like birds, all night.  

 

All these creatures eat stuff I'd rather not have, and they don't bite or sting so I just move out of their way when I uncover them, usually by accident.  

 

They're the top predators in a healthy garden, which naturally attracts all sorts of wildlife to its eat-or-get-eaten buffet. But you can help them with a variety of shelters, from dense plants, tall grasses and groundcovers, to thick mulch, leaf piles, drystone wall, old stumps or pile of rocks, logs or other debris.  

 

Like other garden creatures, they also need water for drinking and sometimes reproducing. In addition to this shelter, food and water, most reptiles, being cold blooded, also need a safe place to bask in the warm morning sun, preferably a flat rock, stump, wide log or wooden fence. 

 

Of course, if you don't want garden reptiles, get rid of your garden, or get a cat. But you'll still have to deal with spider webs. 

 

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the "Gestalt Gardener" on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to [email protected]com.