Don’t fret those creepy companions in your garden
By Viva Mertlich
WSU Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener
July 28, 2022
About the writer
Viva Mertlich is an intern from the 2022 Master Gardener class. She moved from her hometown of Portland to the Wenatchee Valley in 2019. A lover of learning, art, travel, cooking and gardening indoors and out, Viva joined the MG program to learn more about how to establish a new and larger garden in a climate different from her previous home. Viva has taught fitness and yoga for over a decade. She lives in Wenatchee with her husband, three kids and two cats.
While we may be used to thinking of snakes and spiders as scary, creepy crawlers, many of them live year-round in our gardens as beneficial helpers. The more we understand the roles these creatures play in the success of our gardens, the less we fear them.
Most snakes in our area are garter snakes. They are non-poisonous, rather shy and usually avoid humans. Garter snakes eat many garden pests including slugs, squash bugs and cucumber beetles. Larger garter snakes will eat small rodents, which can also be garden pests and disease vectors around the home.
Although garter snakes are harmless to humans, they are easily scared and may bite or smear foul-smelling secretions on your hand if picked up, so it is always best to leave them be and let them quietly do their work. It can be a fun activity to identify snakes seen in the garden by their markings; you may find you have several different types of garter snakes.
Learning to tell the difference between them and the poisonous Western rattlesnake is also a good idea, as the Western rattlesnake is native to Washington state, and is common east of the cascades. For more information on living with wildlife, check the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website, wdfw.gov.
Probably the creepiest of creepy crawlers are spiders, which are underappreciated by many of us. Spiders play an important role in the ecosystem of our gardens. There are generally three types of spiders in the garden, when categorized by their hunting behavior:
- Web-building spiders (orb weavers, funnel weavers and sheetweb spiders) wait inside their webs for prey to get stuck in the sticky filaments.
- Fast and active wolf spiders and lynx spiders scurry around hunting for prey.
- and wandering spiders (cobweb spiders, jumping spiders and crab spiders) ambush their prey by waiting, then pouncing on their dinner.
A garden in our area could have as many as 25 different species of spiders living among the plants, each specializing in hunting particular types of insects. Spiders eat many pests in the garden, including aphids, wasps, beetles, mosquitoes and flies.
Spiders are relentless hunters, crucial to a healthy garden. Keeping soil covered with mulch or grass clippings creates pleasing habitats for ground spiders; avoid frequent tilling of the soil to maintain their happy hunting grounds. Adopt a casual, less tidy approach in the garden by leaving spiders in their webs on the corner of the garden shed, or other areas where you don’t need to clear them away.
You can choose to maintain good spider habitat by leaving plant stalks and other plant debris up in winter, waiting until spring to clear them away. Avoiding pesticides in the garden is always helpful to maintain healthy populations of pest hunters including spiders; this is generally desirable when growing for the dinner table as well. For more information, download the free WSU publication Common Spiders of Washington at wwrld.us/3ortZTl.
While many gardeners think about beneficial insects such as pollinators when planning and tending the garden, the benefits of less appealing creatures that help in the garden — by keeping the “bad bugs” under control — are often overlooked.
Instead of relegating our love of creepy crawlers to plastic Halloween décor, we can try to remember the beneficial work these busy creatures do in our gardens every day and night of the year, and maybe these crawlers won’t be so creepy to us anymore.
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