Gardening with Reptiles

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If you are like me and your lizard brain apparently controls more of your actions than it should, then you can relate to a primal need to provide habitat for our reptilian friends. 

Urban and developed landscapes can often be difficult places for reptile and amphibian populations to flourish although our cold-blooded friends do provide many desirable services: pest control, increasing biodiversity and providing opportunities for recreational observation of wildlife. 

Before moving to Central Illinois last summer, my family lived in Southern Illinois on a property that abutted the Shawnee National Forest. Wildlife thrived in the amble habitat adjacent to our property and we really enjoyed living amongst nature. Snakes were regular visitors to our yard and we lovingly provided refuge to these valuable predators in the hopes they would knock back the mouse population in our outbuildings. Frogs, toads, and other amphibians each did their part to control insect populations. Without too much effort, the landscaped areas in our yard was an extension of the healthy forested ecosystem that surrounded us.

Since moving to central Illinois, I have seen few snakes on our three-acre property. As I attempt to update the dilapidated landscaping, I’ve started to think about how we can better attract wildlife species. Our property contains about one acre of Sangamon River flood plain, so we have a very healthy, and extensive, bottomland hardwood forest adjacent to our yard.

Manicured Landscapes Harm Wildlife

The clean, crisp and highly manicured landscapes that so many of us strive to maintain are often detrimental to amphibian and reptile populations. Removal of all leaves and plant debris takes away valuable places for shelter and foraging. Areas of unraked leaves or taller standing dead plants can provide excellent refuge for prey. Throw in a few piles of sticks and larger branches and you’ll have a nice oasis for both predator and prey. 

Aim for Microhabitats

Taller, unmowed vegetation can also create excellent habitat and cut back on some maintenance needs. Consider adding small pockets of native prairie plants that will not only attract reptiles and amphibians but will also add pollinator habitat to your yard. A mosaic of vegetation heights provides excellent habitat for all wildlife. Some open, mowed areas are great for basking reptiles. The goal should be to provide a variety of “microhabitats” with varying features.

Leave Woodpiles and Leaf Litter

I have retained a few small woodpiles and leave a nice unraked fringe of leaf litter all along the forested south border of our yard. With some planned neglect of small, out-of-the-way portions of your yard, you can provide needed habitat for amphibians and reptiles. Well-designed, small patches can easily accomplish the goal of providing more habitat. 

Aquatic Habitats

Although we live close to the Sangamon River Corridor, I have considered adding a small pond or two in our landscaping to better attract amphibians. Few things in nature fascinate me more than the science-fiction-like metamorphosis that transforms a wiggly tadpole into an adult frog. 

A pond provides crucial refuge for amphibians as they require aquatic habitat to reproduce. However, many landscape ponds mimic the clean, manicured design of our yards. If you are designing or installing a pond, provide shallow areas with a fringe of plants as opposed to sharp, rock-lined edges. A variety of depths is great, so be sure to have a deeper area that will not freeze entirely, and gently sloping sides are more wildlife-friendly than sharp drop-offs.