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The Difference Between a Garter Snake and a Garden Snake

Have you just spotted a snake slithering around your garden, and are wondering whether you should start running. Well, it’s probably either a garter or garden snake. But which is it? What are the differences between the two?

There is no difference between a garter snake and a garden snake. Both names refer to the same species, the Thamnophis sirtalis, which is the most common non-venomous reptile in North America. While they vary in color, garter snakes are easily recognizable for 3 lines that run through their bodies.

Are you still not trusting that the snake you spotted is not dangerous? Read on to check out all the info about this species of snakes that populate most lawns and gardens in North America.

Man Holding a Garter Snake

How Can You Tell It’s a Garter Snake?

Now we have cleared up that garden, and garter snakes are the same species of reptile. But how do you distinguish a harmless garter snake from a more dangerous species?

We are going to have a look at more details about the habitat, diet, and dangers of the garden snake in the last section of this article. For now, let’s focus on more pressing matters, such as the appearance and essential traits of the garter snake.

Garden (or garter) snakes vary in color patterns and can look brown, black, olive green, or gray. However, all of them boast three long lines that run through the full length of their bodies. These stripes vary in color depending on the body’s tone and can be brown, yellow, blue, green, or white. 

Even though the color pattern ranges, the stripes are always in contrast with their background and are positioned as follows:

  • One running across the top of the snakes
  • One on each side of the body, lower to the ground level

Other patterns are also present within the more defined stripes.

Moreover, these reptiles can grow to be around 45 centimeters (17.7 inches) on average, but some types can reach a length of 135 centimeters (53 inches). Males are generally shorter and smaller than females. Another essential feature of garden snakes is their head, which is usually broader and more uniformly dark compared to the body.

While all these details can make them easily recognizable even by non-experts, other species such as the Ribbon snake and Butler’s Garter snake can look very similar to them. Some of these species are vulnerable in some states, so it is always a good idea to speak to professionals before trying to remove them.

Related How to Quickly Identify a Baby Cottonmouth (Water Moccasin).

Why Do They Call It a Garter Snake?

While you’re probably familiar with garden snakes, it might have surprised you that their actual name is garter snakes. So, where does this name come from, and why do we now call them garden snakes?

Due to the characteristic stripes that run through their bodies that resemble garters, such reptiles gained the name of garter snakes. 

The Unmistakable Garter Snake Stripe

Garters are a piece of clothing particularly common during the 1920s when ladies and girls would wear long stockings. These garments are circular straps that, when positioned on top of the long socks, would help to keep them in place.

These vintage garments have since gone out of fashion, but you can still notice them at weddings. But despite a change in which clothes are considered fashionable, the name stuck with the snake.

Interestingly, the Latin name and technical definition of these snakes is Thamnophis sirtalis, which also refers to the Latin word for “garter.”

Why Do We Call Them Garden Snakes?

In more recent years, garter snakes have been associated with the gardens and lawns that they love to roam so much. As garters are not everyday items anymore, yet the behavior of the snakes remained, such reptiles took the nickname of garden snakes. While this epithet might not give their look justice, it makes it easier to identify them and speak about them.

As we are about to find out in the next section of this article, garter snakes are usual inhabitants of the green areas of North America, whether these are public or private. Unlike the word garter, the term garden is still widely in use and fits the curious habits of these reptiles well.

Everything You Need to Know About a Garter Snake

These explanations make it easier to recognize what type of snake you are dealing with, right? Now let’s find out more about them. Indeed, in some cases, garden snakes are considered pests, and many property owners proceed to kill them when they start to produce offspring. 

However, it is essential to know that these species of snakes are harmless and, in some regions of the United States, particularly vulnerable. This range of endangered types includes Mexican, San Francisco, and Giant garter snake.


Without a doubt, the favorite habitat for a garden snake is your garden. These snakes thrive in green grassy areas that are not too far from a body of water, whether that is a pond, river, or lake. 

Garden snakes are excellent swimmers, but they are not as capable when it comes down to climbing trees and branches. That is why they prefer areas such as meadows and ditches, which provides them with protection without requiring them to find shelter on trees.

This species of reptiles inhabit the majority of North America, ranging from central Canada to Mexico. Different areas present diverse varieties of garter snakes, depending on the average climate and availability of food. They are absent from some regions of the Southwest.


Since garter snakes are not agile when it comes down to climbing trees, their diet includes insects, frogs, fish, and other small reptiles. Garter snakes hunt this game by inspecting the areas near the ground. In some cases, you can also catch them eating bird eggs, smaller snakes, and, occasionally, mice. Garter snakes’ preferred hunting grounds are farms, gardens, lawns, forest edges, and roadsides.

Are They Dangerous?

Of course, the main concern when dealing with a snake is whether it is venomous or not. But don’t worry, garter snakes are harmless. Even though we classify them as non-venomous, they do produce a very mild neurotoxic venom. However, this substance is not enough to seriously harm a healthy adult.

Moreover, due to their size, their bite will not cause additional harm aside from a light skin scratch. Even better, such snakes can be a gardener’s best friend. Garter snakes will hunt pests and insects that might infect entire cultivations. 

In any case, it is essential to remember that, for how harmless they are, garden snakes are wild animals. Therefore, they might try to attack and bite if they feel threatened or cornered. It is recommended to avoid a close encounter to preserve both your and the snake’s well-being. Besides, if you are not well-versed in the way snakes look, you wouldn’t want to chance it being something like a small or baby copperhead.

What If I Am Bit by a Garter Snake?

If you happen to get bit by a garter snake, there is generally nothing to worry about. While the bite can swell up a bit or possibly itch really bad, it almost never warrants a trip to the emergency room. However, if you show any signs of having an allergic reaction, then don’t hesitate to get it looked at or even call 911 if you see someone have a severe reaction. Rarely, some people can be allergic to saliva.

However, garter snake bites are not something to lose sleep over. Bites from other types of animals, like a common domestic dog, are much more dangerous. The only time you might want to go to the doctor is if you re due for a tetanus shot. In most cases, all you need to do is clean the bite area thoroughly with soap and water. This will help reduce the chance of infection, which is more of an issue than the bite itself in most cases.


Now you know all the essential information to deal with the snake that is roaming in your garden. Ultimately, the epithet “garden” indicated the common garter snake. Such a species of reptile prefers a garden or meadows as its habitat and lives across Northern America. If you encounter a garter snake, you will be able to identify it by looking at long stripes running across its body and the varying color pattern. 

If you are concerned about your safety, remember that garter snakes are harmless and non-venomous. In some cases, they can also be beneficial for crop or cultivation as they tend to hunt pests and insects, so don’t kill them! If you want to keep snakes out of your yard, I recommend picking up some snake repellant, like this kind found on Amazon.

And, if you can’t remember their name, you can call them either garter snakes or garden snakes. Thanks for stopping by.

Related Questions

Can you eat a garter snake? Garter snakes, as well as most other snakes, are edible if prepared properly. You will want to remove the head, skin it, and take out the guts. After that, all you have to do is clean it and prepare it to be cooked.

Should I kill garter snakes? While it might be scary to see a garter snake, you should actually not kill them. They are great for keeping undesirable pests out of your yard or garden. They are known to eat rodents, grasshoppers, and other creatures that can feast on the plants you want to keep. If you must get rid of them, I recommend pinning them down, carefully capturing them, and depositing them somewhere a distance away from your home.

What time of day are garter snakes most active? Garter snakes are known to be active all hours of the day. You can expect to see them hunting both day and night.

For more, check out What to Do if You Encounter a Snake While Hiking.