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FEBRUARY GARDENER: All creatures have their purpose in nature - and gardening

Master Gardener Phyl Strawbridge is pictured at the Dougherty County Extension Office at 125 Pine Avenue. (Staff photo: Laura Williams)

Master Gardener Phyl Strawbridge is pictured at the Dougherty County Extension Office at 125 Pine Avenue. (Staff photo: Laura Williams)

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Master Gardener Phyl Strawbridge is pictured at the Dougherty County Extension Office at 125 Pine Avenue. (Staff photo: Laura Williams)

Living in the country here in Dougherty County as I do, I’m always conscious of what I might find under a log or in a flower pot: something other than a plant, of course. I try very hard to respect wildlife and to help keep it for generations to come. The bird feeders are filled, the bird baths have water and worms are often transported by hand from one place to the other where they can make the soil richer for those other creatures who reside there. I find myself saying to a wiggling worm, “Be still, you’re being relocated to a much better spot.” When walking to the compost pile I catch myself putting down heavy footsteps saying aloud, “If you’re out here, snake, you go your way and I’ll go mine and we’ll both be fine.” I wouldn’t dream of hurting one, other than in self defense. I talk to the seeds I plant and the plants I trim and somehow feel attuned to all of nature. I want to tell you about some of the least popular creatures that none of us are enamored with but we have to put up with, and sometimes have to “do in” even if we don’t really want to.

Snakes

In the State of Georgia there are forty-one kinds of snakes that are considered native and 35 of these are harmless. Familiarize yourself with those that are non-poisonous and make an attempt to protect them, as they are important to our ecological system. Also, research the poisonous snakes and at least know which ones you should be aware of. Books are available in stores of course, but if you have a computer there is a wealth of information on this subject along with photos so you know which ones are which. Try the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (srelherp.uga.edu/herps.htm) for the snakes of Georgia and South Carolina.

The six poisonous snakes to be aware of are the Eastern Coral Snake, Copperhead, Cottonmouth Water Moccasin, Pygmy Rattler, Timber Rattler (aka Canebrake or Banded Rattlesnake) and the Diamondback Rattler, that is the most seriously dangerous snake of all. Never pick up the latter, even if you believe it to be dead, as his bite is so poisonous it can cause the loss of fingers or even an entire hand.

The Indigo snake is a beautiful blue in color and is the longest snake in the U.S., often growing to a length of eight feet. They love to eat venomous snakes, chewing on the head which debilitates it then swallowing the entire body. There is an Indigo Preserve here in Georgia where they go to great lengths to protect the Indigo that are actually raised from the mother snake’s eggs and released when they become ‘teenagers” sometime later.

Corn snakes and garter snakes are two very important non-poisonous snakes that are beneficial to us all. Corn snakes feed on rats and mice and without them we’d be overrun by these rodents. Garter snakes are one of the most common in this part of Georgia. They too eat rodents but also insects and other pests.

Spiders

Many families of spiders are found in Georgia but the only four we need to watch for are the tiny Brown Recluse and the North and South Black and Brown Widows. There are plenty of non-venomous spiders including the Daddy Long Legs, Crab Spider and the Jumping Spider. The Black Widow has a shiny black body with a red hourglass on its abdomen and is one of the most dangerous spiders in the US. The Black Widow and the Brown Recluse can cause severe damage to the skin. Few spiders are able to cause too much damage but just be careful when reaching into dark crevices or underneath objects, two places where spiders often build nests.

Again, do a little research on the Internet and know what to watch for and what to be careful of or to ignore. Look into Bugwood at www.insectimages.org for more information on what to look for.

Some of the other wildlife creatures you may encounter especially in the outlying county areas are rodents, squirrels, bats, opossums, raccoons and foxes. Squirrels, though “cute and cuddly,” chasing through the yard and stealing food from birdfeeders, can also cause major damage to wiring under the hood of your car. Raccoons, also cute little beggars, can get in your garbage if the can isn’t shut tight. They can carry rabies so be careful not to get bit by keeping your distance and not getting up close and personal with them. If you live in the country you’re apt to see fox, porcupines, armadillos or other small creatures or even deer who can do major harm to your plants that you’ve spent so much time, money and love taking care of.

Rodents

While mice and rats can be found in the best of neighborhoods they are especially destructive on the farm and rural areas as we have here in Dougherty County. Now that we have cooler temperatures it is easy finding them in places where there is warmth. While they are looking for food and shelter they can cause damage to structures as well as wiring in barns and sheds, can cause fire and even prey on chickens, new born animal babies and get into feed vats. It has been estimated that rodents can consume $250 – $300 worth of chicken feed for every 100 hens housed per year. Rodent losses in the U.S. are in millions of dollars each year.

Often keeping rodent populations down is simply accomplished by burying or burning trash and not leaving garbage where rodents can find it. Store feed for chickens, et al, in plastic or metal containers and any spillage needs to be cleaned up as soon as possible. One of the best ways of keeping down the rat, mouse, and squirrel populations is by having a few barn cats to keep them in check. If you’re not feeding them, they will depend on the rodents for their meals. If you’re using poisons, careful consideration must be given to the other livestock and pets who may roam the area as well as children. Place the poisons in places where only the rodents will have access to them.

Moles

First of all, moles are not members of the rodent family. They belong to the group of mammals, Insectivora. Our moles here in Georgia have pointed snouts and huge rounded front feet with very stout claws, and its tail is short and naked. They are usually gray or silver-gray and somewhere between five and eight inches in length. The ears and eyes are tiny and well hidden in the fur.

Besides being ugly they are very destructive in gardens, to plants, on the golf course and in cemeteries. They feed primarily on ants, grubs, and even on those valuable earthworms that are so important in our lawns and gardens.

There are two types of tunnels called runways that are produced by moles: sub-surface and deep runways. The sub-surface lanes are feeding tunnels, just below the soil surface and can been seen as the raised ridges running through your lawns. They are capable of extending these runways up to 100 feet per day! In cold weather they only use the deep tunnels providing them with a little more warmth and safety. The two runways are connected and are 3 to 12 inches below the surface. They have their babies there in the spring producing more moles to antagonize us as we do our best to rid our yards of the whole colony.

You can put in a call, or stop by your local Extension office for advice on dealing with troublesome rodents, or any other kind of nuisance wildlife.

Just don’t panic over any of the aforementioned creatures as most of them are likely to be just as afraid of you as you are of them. They’ve been here for centuries longer than we have and will continue to be here long after we’re gone. While we’re all here however it’s best to be concerned with those that might do us harm and how to get rid of them but tolerate and care for all of nature and its creatures that are beneficial.

Phyl Strawbridge is a UGA Cooperative Extension Master Gardener, Extension Volunteer, a member of and the 2014 President of the SOWEGA Master Gardeners.