I still remember the desperation of two Columbia Gardeners who approached me after my Master Gardener presentation on “How to Grow Great Tomatoes.” They were thinking sweet potatoes, not tomatoes. Voles were tunneling into their sweet potato beds and eating the growing sweets, “leaving just shells” for the gardeners.
I’ve never grown sweet potatoes but ventured two suggestions—peanut-butter baited snap traps or a physical barrier—some sort of wire, perhaps. Since then Erica Smith has posted a blog showing how Master Gardeners dig a trench and install hardware cloth at the Montgomery County demonstration garden to keep voles out of the sweet potato patch there.
And this week I’ve thought of another possibility—one that eliminates all the hassle and work of buying and installing a hardware cloth barrier. I am going to start a business where I’ll rent out trained black rat snakes, commonly called blacksnakes, to live in sweet potato patches and eat trespassing voles.
I got this brilliant idea on Monday, when I returned from buying a new battery for my pickup truck. Ellen the Quilter, busy at work on two gift quilts for young daughters of a friend, greeted me with her finest “you’ll never guess” look.
“Guess what I found in the utility room when I went to get chlorine tabs for the pool?”
“A white-footed mouse?”
No, that answer would have been too simple. To make a long story blog-length, Ellen had discovered a 30-inch black rat snake in the corner, “behind the broom,” of the small, 6×6 room.
“Did you catch it and let it loose in the woods?” I asked, hoping to indicate my faith that she was quite capable of doing so. You need to know that our son, Brian, during his teen years raised a “pet” boa constrictor from cute babyhood to about six feet—a boa, by the way, that Ellen and our daughter, Lynn, from time to time discovered exploring our downstairs living area when it escaped its cage.
“No, I didn’t catch it,” Ellen replied. “It’s still there….”
The pause was easy to fill in mentally … “and please, Bob, you do the honors.”
About 55 years ago, I had earned an “A” in a college herpetology class by catching a copperhead in the mountains near Headwaters, Virginia. And from time to time I still don’t mind doing such honors, especially when the snake is a blacksnake, a common non-venomous constrictor here in the East that preys on mice, rats, chipmunks, birds and their eggs, and voles.
Did you note that last word—“voles”?
Well, I used a Cape Cod weeder as a “snake stick” (L-shaped, with short lateral bar to press on snake’s neck just behind head) to catch the intruder. I must admit, the blacksnake wasn’t in a particularly happy mood. It retreated behind wires and storage bins in the small room. When I cornered it, it coiled and hissed and struck at the weeder.
But eventually I outmaneuvered the snake, got the weeder on its neck, grabbed the snake just behind its head, and marched triumphantly up the back sidewalk to our kitchen door, where Teddy, our guest Maltese granddog, began barking as if to say, “No way do you bring that thing in here.”
Later I released the small constrictor into a brush pile on the edge of our woods, the preferred habitat of blacksnakes, often known as “friends of farmers” because of the toll they take on rats and mice. Because blacksnakes are good climbers—remember they eat birds and their eggs—they probably are the most frequent snake visitors to homes in this part of the world. They don’t mind climbing a step or two that would discourage other species.
I suspect the blacksnake I caught wandered into our utility room while hunting for a white-footed mouse or a vole in our blackberry patch, which is just outside the door. How it got through a sliding screen and glass doors is a mystery, but in summertime they’re not closed 100% of the time.
But back to voles and sweet potatoes. Since blacksnakes love to dine on voles, I’m thinking of training a few as “Bob’s Sustainable Sweet Potato Protectors” and then renting them out to gardeners who want more than “shells” when they harvest sweet potatoes.
But the brilliance of my idea is beginning to fade already.
What if training a snake to guard a garden is as hard as training a cat to bring in the morning paper?
Second thought, I’m sticking to recommending hardware cloth for protecting sweet potato crops.