Gardening: Yikes! I think there are snakes in the berry patch

For the News-DemocratMay 24, 2013 

Q. My daughter is a caregiver for a 93-year-old woman who has blackberries and raspberries gone wild. She has not been able to tend them for years and they are huge. Each plant is about 5 feet tall and at least that wide.

I am concerned that there are snakes in the berry patch because there are a lot of holes and my parents used to warn me that there are always snakes in berry patches. Do you think they're in there? Would they be up in the bushes or just on the ground? If there are snakes, how can we get rid of them?

Also, my daughter wants to take some of these plants. Can she dig them up and divide the berry plants without killing them?

-- S. C. of Belleville

A. The holes in the berry patch are caused by voles, mice and other rodents, but not by snakes. With the rain of this spring, the holes could even be caused by crayfish if the land is near a low spot. But constrictor snakes, such as rat snakes, could hang out in the berry patch when the berries are ripe to feed on these above- mentioned rodents.

Snakes will mainly be on the ground and not up in the plants as the thorns could injure a snake, too, if it went off balance trying to move through the plants. Snakes do not eat berries. I have seen green snakes up in plants trying to feed on insects that may be feeding on the plants. But usually they blend in so well with the foliage, you hardly ever see them.

I was lucky enough to watch one for about an hour and study its movements. It moved when the wind made the plant move. Snakes could be in the patch but many people pick wild berries without ever seeing a snake. So if there are any snakes present, I recommend she wear a pair of high rubber boots to prevent snake bites if she would step on one. She could prevent snakes from coming into the patch by spreading sulfur around the outside boundary of the berry patch as snakes do not like to crawl over sprinkles of sulfur.

I was raised on "left-handed blackberry jelly," which my mother made every year. She was deathly afraid of snakes so I would not be too concerned about running into snakes in berry patches. I suggest your daughter to make a lot of noise to scare the snakes -- the noise will not scare the berries.

For digging berry plants: There is a simpler way to propagate berry plants by "tip layerage." All she has to do is bend the outside branches of the older plant down to the soil, cover the tips of the branch with soil and place a rock or small brick to keep the tip from moving. She could make a small cut into the branch to stimulate rooting. In about three or four weeks she can come back and check to see by gently tugging on the stem to make sure that the stem has anchored into the soil and has developed roots. She can then cut the branch about 8 to 10 inches long up from the soil, dig up the small plant and place it in a smaller container to carry home. This will save her from many injuries trying to move a larger plant with so many thorns.

Also, she should wear rose gloves which have longer sleeves to cover her lower arms to prevent injuries to her arms when she is working in the berry patch. It will take about two years at most for these little plants to bear fruit.

Charles Giedeman is a local contributing writer. Send your gardening questions to Lifestyle Editor Pat Kuhl, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427.

Do it now

SHRUBS AND TREES: Water newly planted shrubs and trees every seven to 10 days if rain is lacking.

CUTTINGS: You can propagate small cuttings from forsythia, lilac and weigela from stem cuttings.

MULCH: Apply around plants to prevent weed growth.

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