A Sure Sign of Spring — Snakes in the Garden

I spied a Robin last week and again this morning. The plump, red-red bird bob-bobbing for worms along my garden path is often among the first indicators that spring has arrived, or at least uncommonly warm days that mimic spring. For me the best sign of spring’s arrival is a sighting of my resident garter snakes. I saw one yesterday.

The first snake sighting of the year

I’m really not an “ophiophilist”, a snake lover or someone with a special fondness for snakes. They always give me a start when I detect a slithering shadow at my feet. Jumping sideways or a few feet into the air is a common response. The idea of trying to pick one up doesn’t enter my mind because I’m certain it will never happen. But I like having garter snakes in my garden.

There are two snakes that enjoy my planting spaces. One is substantially bigger than the other and is usually the one I spot first. He tends to hang out at a big rock I placed at the base of our deck stairs just for his benefit. It was the smaller one I saw yesterday.

The big snake under his rock

As a gardener, seeing snakes tells me that the ground is warming up and soil organisms are becoming active. Snakes are reptiles, cold-blooded creatures that slow their metabolism dramatically in winter and cold periods. Commonly thought of as hibernation, for them it is actually called “brumation”.

To avoid freezing their slender bodies in our frigid winter conditions they find a deep spot below the frost line underground and wait for warm weather to return. My snakes live somewhere under my backyard sidewalk. I’ve seen both of them enter and exit at a spot close to the garage steps. I assume they found a route to the base of the house foundation possibly benefiting from some residual heat our home emits in winter. I’ve seen them curled up together near their rock so I also assume they brumate together, sharing their body warmth.

Slithering back under the sidewalk

For months they don’t eat. They enter brumation with an empty stomach so that any food in there won’t spoil and rot when their metabolism slows down. At some point they detect warming conditions and venture out to eat. If the ground were still frozen, the worms and frogs that make up part of their diet would be absent so they only arrive when the food is present.

That’s why I like knowing they’re active again. The earthworms are moving through the soil. The presence of the snakes and the robins confirm this. When the soil is warm enough for the worms it’s usually warm enough for plant roots. That means I can consider planting and sowing soon.

Of course there are other considerations for planting. Last frost date, soil temperatures for germination, length of daylight, snow possibility, and many other factors come into play before I put anything in the ground. One snake’s appearance is not enough to override good gardening decision-making, but it is ample evidence for good things to come.

Spring is really here! It has been unseasonably warm, but I’ve been fooled by our finicky weather before. This time it looks like it’s here to stay. Long-term weather forecasts confirm it (for now) and at least one snake is venturing out of his safe winter home to test the hypothesis.

There are still many chores and tasks to finish to fully prepare my garden for the season. Occasional cold days and nights are still ahead for the next five or six weeks. It’s not clear sailing yet, but a little snake is enough to lighten my spirits and brighten my day.

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