What’s the Difference Between a Garden Snake and a Garter Snake?

As a young girl living in Arizona, I would go to visit my great grandmother and her amazing garden. I would always be searching for little snakes. I called them garden snakes, as she and everyone else in my family did. Later, someone told me they are actually called “garter” snakes, not garden. I felt silly. But what’s the difference between a garter and a garden snake? I did some reading to figure this out.

So, what is the difference between a garter and a garden snake? There isn’t one. So-called “garden” snakes are just another term for a “garter” snake.

It’s a simple mix-up. So, the next time you go to visit your grandmother’s green, welcoming garden (or even your own, if you’re a green thumb), be sure to look out for these striped, cute little reptiles, and remember: “garter”, not “garden”…

Where Did Garter snakes Get Their Name?

Garter snakes are adorable and common in many areas, and they love gardens… which is probably one reason why they’ve sort of been nicknamed “garden” snakes. But that’s not where they get their name from originally.

So where do garter snakes get their name? Garter snakes are named after clothing garters. Garters essentially look like stripes. These snakes have stripes down their back, hence the name.

Garters were common when women wore stockings, around the 1920’s, and they are belt-like straps that help hold up the tops of the stockings. They came in a lot of varieties, much like the colorful little serpents that were named after them. Women working in their gardens probably saw the snakes and went, “Look, they’re wearing garters too. Cool.”

Funny enough, the Latin word for garter is “sirtalis,” and the technical name for garter snake is Thamnophis sirtalis (which translates to bush or shrub garter). Basically, Latin or English, these little garden-loving reptiles are named after a piece of clothing.

how big do garter snakes What's the Difference Between a Garden Snake and a Garter Snake?
Garter snake on the rocks looking at you

Why Are Garter Snakes Called “Garden” Snakes?

The Thamnophis sirtalis, or the garter snake, is a common visitor to a lot of people’s yards and greenhouses. They also look like clothing garters. So should we coin them “garter” or “garden” snakes?

How did garter snakes start getting the name “garden snakes”? They are called garden snakes because they are in gardens most often and also because “garden” and “garter” sound the same, especially to kids.

In our day, when the use of garters is primarily at weddings or by women who have been using them for years (but their grandchildren still don’t know what they’re called), it probably makes just as much sense to call these little reptiles garden snakes. After all, we all know what gardens are, and they really are there a lot…

So when your son, daughter, nephew, or even your cousin’s boyfriend’s little sister’s friend starts calling these friendly little creatures a “garden” snake (bypassing the garter), should you correct him or her? Not necessarily, unless you want to explain what a garter is and how they have anything to do with garden snakes.

If you do want to educate them and explain what garters are and how they look similar in any way to a snake, feel free to read on.

What Do Garter Snakes Look Like? 

Garter snakes, also called garden snakes, are friendly and very fond of vegetation. They’re a common snake to see in North America.

What exactly do garter snakes look like? Garter snakes are usually around two to three feet long, can come in a wide variety of colors (most often greens, browns, and grays), and always have “garter”-like stripes down the length of them.

Garter snakes are cute and virtually harmless, but sometimes they can seem like a pest. For example, when your little sister or your cousin’s boyfriend’s little sister’s best friend has an Indiana Jones-like fear of the little slithery things and won’t go into the yard because she thinks they’ll bite her. 

Do garter snaked really deserve that fear? Are they actually pests?

Are Garter Snakes Considered a Pest?

So they’re little, kinda adorable, and… absolutely everywhere. Garter snakes are garden-lovers, but you might start to find that they are hogging your beloved garden.

Are garter snakes considered a pest? Pest Controls near you might offer a snake removal option, but garter snakes aren’t usually considered pests. They actually help with other garden pests.

As far as pests go, they usually are up to no good–birds that eat off your grapevines, or spiders webbing up your entire house, or other creepy-crawlies that seem to find a way into your house no matter how many essential oils you drip around your doors and windows…

Garter snakes? They just might startle you. Whether there are many of them or few, they’re not there to attack your home or even your plants. They’re really good for removing other pests, though, as they are carnivorous and can only eat little rodents or bugs and other mini creatures you probably don’t want to find in your lovely garden or lawn.

So fear not. The little green “garden” snake slithering past you is dangerous in no way and won’t eat your veggies. Just your spiders and mice. If you’re wanting to safely remove a garter snake from your yard, read this article we wrote that gives natural ways to get rid of garter snakes.

Are garden snakes poisonous?

Garter snakes are common in North America, but not considered dangerous. I wondered why that was and looked into some recent research.

Are “garden”, or garter, snakes poisonous? They are very mildly poisonous, and cannot hurt humans.

Garter snakes produce a very mild venom that does not hurt humans. It might irritate your skin for a bit. In fact, if you get bitten by a garter snake (which is not very likely, as they are a lot keener on camouflage or slithering quickly out of sight),  you’ll probably see tiny little puncture wounds, and your skin might feel itchy or annoyed. Clean the tiny wound, but don’t worry that you’ve been poisoned. The itchiness will fade fast.

If you have a dog or another small animal that has a run-in with one of these garden dwellers and gets bitten, the bite will most likely irritate them a little as well, but will not be fatal. Unless you have a pet lizard that got loose in the garden. In that case, he’s probably the garter snakes’ next meal. If a garter snake does bite you, read this article that we wrote that talks about what happens if a garter snake does bite you, and how to prevent it from happening.

Related Questions

How can I get rid of garter snakes? Make sure your yards or garden are kept tidy, as garter snakes like to hide in junk or overgrown, low-hanging plants. Find other ways to make sure your garden is relatively garter-snake-food free, such as getting mouse traps or using bug repellants. You could also consider getting chickens is the snakes are bugging you very badly, as they are natural predators of the reptiles.

What do garter snakes eat? Garter snakes are carnivorous and eat creatures such as rodents, bugs, slugs, lizards, frogs, and other small, meaty animals that they can conquer and actually digest. Most things considered pests are what they are looking to eat.

Are garter snakes nocturnal? No, they are not. They are awake during the day but usually more active around sunrise or sunset, or any time a lot of bugs or other potential prey are out and about. 

Where do garter snakes live? Garter snakes might build nest-like dens in colder climates (think northernmost North America), but otherwise they don’t make their own homes. If they find a small abandoned hole dug out by a rodent, they might inhabit that, as well. In general, these little snakes are found nearer to water than deserty lands, but they are found everywhere.