Maybe the Princess was On to Something: A Gardener Falls in Love with Reptiles & Amphibians, Scales, Warts & All . . .

July 8th, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink

frogPhoto ⓒ Michaela at TGE

While I have certainly kissed my fair share of frogs in life, I can not say that any of them turned into princes. However I have never tried to kiss the warty, slimy amphibians residing in my garden, so it may be that they are the true royalty after all. And though I have always appreciated the beauty of a snake from afar, I am afraid I must be honest about my instinctive feelings toward those slithery creatures made famous by the Garden of Eden. Let’s just say we haven’t, historically speaking, been chums. But times change and people change, and sometimes it turns out that the creatures you find most repulsive can truly become your best friends.

garter-snakeEastern garter snake – Photo ⓒ John Miller

Take my new pal the garter snake for example. Mild mannered and rather shy, this helpful reptile is now a most welcome guest in my garden. Truth be told though, correcting my attitude toward the garter wasn’t exactly easy. Although it isn’t fair, we often pre-judge individuals by their kin, and the snake family and I have a somewhat checkered past. Our trouble began long-ago, in a childhood incident with a black rat snake. Playing in the backyard, I inadvertently stepped on or otherwise threatened this harmless creature and, in self-defense, it struck me with a painful bite. I no longer remember the details of this encounter, but apparently the bite mark on my arm frightened my parents enough to warrant a visit to the emergency room, where they were relieved to discover that the bite was non-poisonous. Perhaps if I had become a more sedentary, contemplative child, this would have been an isolated event. But no, this was not my destiny. As the years of my country-childhood went by, my arms and legs were punctured on various occasions by serpents, not that they were in any way to blame for our quarrels. I am afraid that on each and every instance, the snake was either stepped on or mishandled by yours truly. Eventually my curiosity turned to aversion, and from there it slid on down to genuine dislike. By the time I began gardening, I had come to loathe all snakes, (this attitude due to fear and ignorance on my part), and considered them my enemy.

Humans can be so foolish. As the years passed, and my work and studies took me further into horticulture, I found that avoiding snakes was all but impossible. Fueled by a desire to conquer my fears, I decided to investigate the snake, and educate myself about the various kinds I might encounter in the wild. As it turns out of course, snakes are pretty wonderful and amazing creatures. Some snakes, such as the brown snake, live on a diet consisting mainly of slugs and snails. Brown snakes are not biters; usually they will release a foul, musky-odor in order to defend against attack. Likewise, the passive ring-neck snake is an excellent predator of that ruinous garden slug. The common garter snake, as well as the smooth green snake, northern red belly and worm snakes are all serious insect eaters. How fantastic is that? Non-toxic, environmentally friendly and all-natural: these snakes are the perfect garden-guardians. Even larger snakes, (such as the black racer, eastern hognose, and my original “enemy” the black rat snake), are extremely helpful to gardeners because they control populations of destructive mice and moles. Rodent-eating snakes are more likely to strike at humans when threatened, but in spite of an unpleasant sting, most are quite harmless. Unfortunately countless snakes are killed every year. Often this violent action is a knee-jerk response to the same fear and ignorance I carried with me for years. Now that I am a friend to the snake, I try to educate my friends and neighbors whenever I can. Most snakes provide us with natural control of insects and rodents, creatures human beings often attempt to eliminate with toxic substances that poison our air, food, soil and water. Helpful snakes will make themselves at home in stonewalls, woodpiles, stumps and other cool shelters in your garden. From these safe-havens, they will patrol for insects and slugs, helping protect you and your garden while maintaining a balance in the natural world. If you want to attract beneficial snakes to your yard, observe potential spaces to create snake-friendly habitat. Keeping some “wild” zones on your property and safe, cool hiding spots will encourage snakes to make a home in your garden.

Of course, not all snakes are as defenseless as those I have just mentioned. Some snakes have highly toxic venom, and they should be considered quite dangerous. In New England, where I garden, hike and play in the outdoors, poisonous snakes are virtually non-existent. The timber rattlesnake and the copperhead are the only two poisonous snakes living here, and they are considered rare or even endangered in some states. This is not true however, for other parts of North America or the world.  In fact in some areas, poisonous snake populations are a serious threat to pets, small children and adults alike. If you live in an area with poisonous snakes, it is best to educate yourself about their preferred habitat and environment in order to deter their presence near your home.  It is always a good idea to learn how to identify the creatures living around you, and respect their rightful place in the world.

The amphibian is another unsung garden hero. Unfortunately, many people are still repulsed by the thought of slimy pond-water filled with tadpoles and slippery frogs. While I have always liked salamanders, frogs and toads, I have only recently become interested in working on their PR campaign. Frogs, toads, salamanders, newts and their cousins are all excellent insect hunters. Some research claims that a single toad can consume over 100 insects per day!

Frogs are identified by their smooth, slippery skin, webbed feet, long hind-legs and bulging eyes. They like to live in and around water, where they lay clusters of eggs. Toads, conversely, have dry, warty skin, squat, stubby bodies, short hind-legs and glands between their eyes. Toads lay eggs in long chains in and around water. These two amphibious creatures are mainly carnivorous, and eat an extraordinary number of insects every day. In order to encourage their presence, some people like to place purchased toad-houses in their gardens, to provide these garden-friends with cool shelter from the sun and protection from predators. Toad shelters can also be created at home with old flower pots tipped to the side and concealed with twigs an branches, or naturally, with piles of stones and logs. Beware that toads can become ‘trapped’ inside houses without backdoors when pursued by snakes or other hunters. So, be sure to provide your warty friend with a second exit to the shelter. Frogs are most attracted to gardens with water features. Ponds and garden-pools are ideal for frogs of course, but even a sheltered water-bowl or dish will provide the moisture a frog needs. The same conditions attractive to frogs and toads are also pleasing to salamanders. As organic gardeners, the environment we provide is much safer and more hospitable to amphibians and reptiles than places where toxic pesticides and herbicides are used. Many of the chemicals in these products, as well fertilizer combinations used in inorganic lawn care, can kill amphibians, make them sterile or drive them off. A few minutes spent watching a frog capture mosquitoes should be enough to convince anyone to protect this garden prince from a toxic world.

Snakes and amphibians do not get particularly good PR rap in our culture. Its really up to all of us to change that. These days, when I see a child instinctively recoil from a reptile or amphibian, I think of my own experience and try to encourage a more positive, cautious curiosity. I like to point out that these animals will not harm us, (and in the case of snakes, will not strike unless we threaten them), and that they are helpful to us by eating the mosquitoes biting us and the slugs destroying our vegetable plants. The seeds of my irrational fears were sown in childhood, and it took many years of self-discipline and education to overcome my dislike of snakes. I would like to spare others from such a fearful relationship with any animal. While a fast moving serpent can still make me jump, (OK, perhaps even scream), I now quickly recover and laugh at myself as I return to my work in the garden. The snake may surprise me, but I know it is a natural helper and garden-friend.

ribbon snakeA Northern ribbon snake on my front terrace. Photo ⓒ Michaela at TGE

For help with identification, or for more information about snakes in New England, visit The Snake Lady of Rhode Island‘s website. For information about all North American reptiles, including snakes, turtles and more, visit the National Biological Information Infrastructure website. In addition, information and help with identifying snakes in North America may be found by visiting the excellent snake identification webpage developed by Doug Henderson and Dennis Paulson for the Slater Museum of Natural History.

For more information on amphibians, such as the frogs, toads and salamanders of North America, visit the USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center’s Checklist of Amphibian Species and Identification Guide.

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1st garter snake photo copyright Diane and John Miller, courtesy of The Old Schoolhouse Plantery

All other photos and article copyright 2009 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

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Hey, BUG OFF !

June 30th, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink

nasty-mosquitoes

While I genuinely believe that every living thing on earth has it’s purpose —I am a nature lover, after all— there are times when some residents of my garden do try my patience. For one thing —particularly in a rainy year— there are the mosquitoes. It’s bad enough that these whiney bugs buzz my ears and suck my blood, leaving itchy welts all over my skin. But it is also important to keep in mind that mosquitoes carry disease. And beyond the omnipresent mosquitoes, there are the countless other small vampires lurking in the moist, shady corners of gardens and in the tall, camouflaging grass of meadows; gnats, horseflies, deerflies, and those disease-carrying ticks. Bug off, I say ! I am not a mobile lunch wagon! When insects are out in full-force, they can ruin an otherwise pleasant outdoor experience. So what to do? Well, we all know that unless you step into Dracula’s castle well prepared, you will probably be bitten. But how, you may wonder, do you effectively defend against insects without poisoning yourself in the process? Fear not warm blooded friends, you needn’t bathe in deet. There are workable solutions to the bug problem, and many are both organic and effective.

bug-bafflerBugBaffler

When the weather is warm and muggy, after a period of rain, I almost never work in the garden without netted clothing. Sometimes just a head-net will do, but on the worst days, I pull out the full body-armor. My Bug Baffler jacket has a zip hoodie, long arms, and an elasticized band at the bottom. No, it isn’t much of a fashion statement. But who cares?  I wear it in my garden, not to the Oscars. It works. The little blood-suckers may bounce around and whine a bit outside my net, but they can not get in. And although your skin is completely covered, the netting allows air -flow, so you will not overheat inside. The BugBaffler works in cool weather too. I layer it over warm sleeved shirts and light sweatshirt jackets. But, in all honesty, it can become a little stiff with more layers. Certainly this model isn’t the perfect solution for very early spring and fall.

the-original-bug-shirtThe Original Bugshirt

Then, some time ago, my friend Mel introduced me to another jacket designed to foil insects. It is called The Original Bugshirt. This machine washable jacket has a cotton body, net arms, and a zip-open net-hood. In late April, I tend to wear it over a light sweatshirt, or beneath a barn-jacket. It is less stiff than the other design. By June, on cool over-cast days, I can wear it with a t-shirt or tank top. My hands are always protected against insects by garden gloves, and my ankles by light-weight socks. I rarely wear shorts when I garden (poison ivy, brambles, etc) but if you do, both companies make leg protection as well. I think these products are great, and I use one or the other throughout the season, as weather dictates. Oh, and in case you are wondering, these companies have not paid me to mention their products and I do not do paid reviews (promise !).

natrapelNatrapel Plus Bug Repellent Spray

Effective as my bug-net jackets are, I know that there are times when you can not dress like a walking screen-house. Sometimes it’s just too hot, and sometimes you want to hang-out in just a tank top and shorts. Then what ? For most of us, toxic chemicals are no longer an option, even when sprayed on outer clothing. The poisonous substances used in standard bug spray inevitably end up in the environment; polluting air, water and soil. I don’t put anything toxic on my skin, and after trying many safer products, I have found a few things I can recommend. There is a natural bug-repellent I use called Natrapel Plus. It contains citronella oil and wintergreen oil, among other non-toxic ingredients, and it works quite well. The company recommends you reapply every 4 hours or so, and I think that is about right. Although the spray is safe for children and adults, and can be used directly on skin, it is still important to apply it with caution and to keep the stuff out of your eyes. Natrapel comes in an environmentally- friendlier can, meaning it acts like an aerosol, but it doesn’t contain chemical propellent. I find Natrapel to be effective, and the smell, while certainly not like fresh cut flowers, is tolerable. Repel is also effective in moderately buggy conditions I have often read that because our body chemistries vary, the type of repellent that works for you may not necessarily work as well for your friend. So, you may have to experiment a little to find an organic mixture that gives you results. In my experience, bug repellents are no where near as effective as netted clothing, so I always protect myself with ‘screen-wear’ when the bugs get really serious.

Of course, some people choose the do-it yourself route and make their own bug-repellent. I have tried a few home-brews and I find they can help deter insects, though I haven’t tested them in seriously buggy conditions. My friend Laurie likes to make up her own anti-bug-rub from herbs and oil. Her home recipe is made with a base of almond oil or jojoba oil. To this she adds liberal amounts of essential oils including; lavender, peppermint, lemon grass and thyme. I have used some of her oil when out kayaking with success. Home-made bug repellent, of course has the added benefit of a truly pleasant smell.

As demand for non-toxic, environmentally friendly bug-repellent products grows, I am sure more brands will arrive in the marketplace for us to try out.  If you use something that you think is particularly effective against bugs, but naturally safe and sound, please pass along the brand-name or recipe in the comments here, (beware spammers, you will be swatted like flies). Those little garden-vampires shouldn’t be allowed to take a bite out of our gardening fun (yes,  know that’s a groaner —sorry— I couldn’t help myself).

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Mosquito photo, © US CDC files

Article and photographs © 2010 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Do you enjoy visiting The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through our affiliate links. A small percentage of any sale originating from The Gardener’s Eden site will go toward web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you for your support!

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