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Snakes in the Garden Mulching Problem

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Gardens can provide a food source for snakes.

The writer reveals a snakes in the garden mulching problem that occurred when switching to this one mulching method.


For anyone who knows me personally, when it comes to snakes, I am literally a snake magnet. It does not matter where I am or what precautions I take, snakes find me.

Now, there’s very few things in life that unnerves me. But there’s nothing like an unexpected snake—or a stick that even vaguely looks like a snake—on the ground, to turn my blood cold and make me jump. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because my I am often operating at the brain stem level and evolutionary nature is keeping me alive.

True Life Snake Tales

I was reminded of this fact today when I saw a news report that scientists now know why cats are approximately twice more likely to survive a venomous snake bite than dogs are. As it turns out, the blood clotting abilities of dogs are significantly more compromised than cats are when it comes to what the scientists call “venom-induced consumptive coagulopathy.” In other words, basically dogs will bleed out internally due to the effects of the venom on the blood cells much more readily than cats will.

This is especially poignant to me because I almost lost a large dog to the bite of a baby Equatorial Black Spitting cobra only 3-4 inches long while living in Singapore.

Singaporean Cobra

Equatorial Black Spitting Cobra

My dog while nosing around a tree saw the snake and put a paw on top of it to investigate. When she lifted her paw, the tiny snake tagged her on the sole of her paw and slithered away. If I hadn’t seen it at that moment, I would have been mystified as to what happened next.

Knowing that this species of cobra is especially nasty, I turned around and proceeded to head to the nearest vet. However, within 20 meters of walking, my dog was struggling to move and plopped down in weakness. I had to carry all 70 pounds of her for quite a ways before I could reach the nearest vet. She survived, but it took a week of anti-venom treatments to prevent her from dying.

Last summer while camping on the family farm, I set up a tent and an amateur radio station under a shelter in the woods near a creek. After living there for a few days, I was walking along the edge of the campsite wearing shorts because it was so hot and humid and I felt something cold tap one of my legs. I looked down and saw that I had nearly stepped on a copperhead camouflaged among the dead tree leaves on the ground. I jumped and the snake slithered away. Fortunately, he tagged me but did not manage to get his fangs fixed on my skin. One of brothers speculated that my legs are so white that it blinded the snake causing him to mis-judge its strike.

During Thanksgiving last fall, when the weather was cold and rainy, I was pushing my mother in a wheelchair out for some fresh air on the way to a nearby restaurant for dinner. On a street, in a small town in early winter, on a cold wet day, and what do I find? A snake in our path on the street!

My Thanksgiving Snake

Dead or Frozen snake

Like I said I’m a snake magnet. And this Spring has proven no different, hence this article.

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Snakes in my Mulch!

One of my changes this year was to adopt a no-till gardening method as part of a move toward learning about and applying regenerative farming techniques.

Regenerative Husbandry: How Your No-Till Garden Can Change the World

Following the advice given by a popular YouTube video series on gardening, rather than till my garden as usual, I used a garden fork to gently loosen the soil in preparation for planting. After the soil was loosened, I then covered the soil with biodegradable paper leaf collection bags and then added a layer of straw over the paper. The idea here is that while waiting for the right time for planting, weed growth would be suppressed with a pre-mulching system already installed and all I had to do was take a trowel and dig small holes through the straw and paper for my transplants.

Avoid Making These Three Common Mulching Mistakes

However, by the time it came to do the transplanting, I saw some suspicious bulging of the mulch. While walking around the garden, what did I kick up? A snake of course! Which happily slithered away to either its new home or hunting grounds (or both) under the paper and straw mulch system on my garden.

After the shock, I lifted up some of the paper and it came to me that what I had created was a habitat for moles and mice and reptilian creatures of all types. In other words, a good source of food for snakes like the one I kicked up in my garden.

Ok, it was only a garter snake, but I swear it’s the biggest one I ever saw! In any case, it is harmless and is actually doing some good and so I am leaving it alone. I’ve since planted my transplants and I imagine that with increased trampling around the plants, its inhabitants will vacate soon enough.

The point of all of this is that it is a good lesson in ecology and gardening. Whether its raking leaves into piles and saving them for future mulching (and raising Lyme disease-carrying ticks in the process); piling cut wood into piles for the backyard fire pit or winter fireplace (and attracting woodland mice and poisonous snakes); leaving food out for a roaming neighborhood cat (and inviting disease-carrying raccoons); installing a small water garden (and providing a home for disease-causing mosquitoes); or even trying out a new gardening method, you have to be aware that your efforts are not in isolation when it comes to nature. Rather, you become one with it whether you like it or not...snakes and all.

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Killers in Your Garden

If you would have a snake-in-the garden story to share, let us know about it in the comments section below.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with a background in farming and an avid home gardener, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between plant biology and gardening for healthy living. For continual updates about plants and health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image source courtesy of Pixabay and the author.

Reference: “Why cats have more lives than dogs when it comes to snakebite” The University of Queensland News, 19 May 2020.