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Marin IJ Articles

Invite reptiles and amphibians into your garden

  • Karen Gideon
  • The next time you see a snake in your garden, let out a scream. A scream of joy, that is. Finding lizards, toads, frogs, salamanders and snakes is a sign that your garden is providing a healthy habitat for a diverse army of pest controllers. Reptiles and amphibians are hungry hunters, preying on insects, rodents, and snails.

    One of the most common reptiles in Marin is the western fence (blue-belly) lizard, found basking on fences, rocks, and branches. The handsome fence lizards eat crickets, ticks, spiders, and scorpions. Ticks also attack the lizard. When this happens the lizard’s immune system eliminates Lyme disease from the tick. In this way, the lizards help protect humans from disease.

    The California slender salamander, whose tiny legs are so hard to see they are mistaken for worms, can be found beneath cans, boards, and other objects in the garden. Salamanders prey on beetles, mites, and woodlice.

    Our beautiful Pacific gopher snakes, who can be found sunning in our gardens, eat rats, mice, moles and voles.

    If you have a pond, creek, wetlands or a swimming pool near your garden, you may be serenaded by the croaking of frogs and toads, which have an appetite for flies, mosquitos, ants and slugs. The western pond turtle, which is mostly aquatic, preys on insects, tadpoles, snails, leeches, beetles and fish.

    The amphibians and reptiles provide all this pest control and they require little from us. To encourage these critters on your property, you’ll want to create a healthy habitat for them. That means you’ll want to have places for them to hide and take shelter. Don’t be overly tidy so they have leaf litter and debris. They can be found in behind foliage, under decks and stairs seeking cool moist conditions. They also like to lounge in the sun, so leave a few rocks around for them in sunny locations. Amphibians and reptiles need water to maintain hydration and reproduce so even a little spot of fresh water keeps them in your garden.

    These pest patrollers are prey for dogs, cats, birds and raccoons, so if these animals are present in your garden, it’s a deterrent. Amphibians and reptiles are extremely sensitive to some pesticides so it’s best to either not use them at all or use them sparingly. Be careful if you lift something in your yard and see a small animal, don’t place the object back on top of them as they crush very easily. And it’s illegal and unwise to release non-native reptiles and amphibians on your property. They compete for prey with our native species, carry exotic diseases, and in some cases, eat the local indigenous species.

    If you see an amphibian or reptile in your garden, look, but don’t touch. Some frogs and toads secrete chemicals as poisonous defense against predators and can make you sick if you handle them. The Pacific newt is in the Taricha family and all species are highly toxic if eaten. Snakes in Marin County are safe for humans with the exception of the northern Pacific rattlesnake. If you see a snake, look immediately at the head — a rattlesnake has a large triangular head, thin neck, brown mottled skin and possibly a rattle on their tail. Do not attempt to move, capture, or engage a rattlesnake in any way. If you want the snake removed from your garden, call the Sonoma County Reptile Rescue (they work in Marin, too) or Wildcare.

    Mother Nature provides these pest patrollers for us and all we have to do is give them some of the crucial elements of their habitat. Living side to side with them in a garden is a special experience and a smart practice for gardeners.