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Strawberry rhubarb crumble bars will be the reward after a battle against garter snakes.
Strawberry rhubarb crumble bars will be the reward after a battle against garter snakes.

Friends or Foes?

May 29, 2014

When we purchased our home, there was an overgrown flowerbed at the back of the house full of old fashioned poppies, tulips, peonies, irises, a lilac bush and several garter snakes. Eventually, many of the flowers were transplanted and the lilac bush was pulled out in favor of a patio for summer lounging, dining and sunning. The snakes moved to other areas of the yard and, friend or foe, weren’t given much thought.

As I became more interested in gardening, we installed raised beds along the property line for my herbs, vegetables and a few flowers. Soaker hoses seemed to be the most effective watering method, and created a damp, cool oasis beneath the lush foliage of cilantro and tomatoes. The snakes were happy and came back. Again, aside from jumping a little when one would slither away as I harvested basil for pesto, I didn’t give them much thought. After all, garter snakes eat bugs, right? It was a natural ecosystem for my garden.

In time, the raised beds were expanded to include a double-tiered area for strawberries and rhubarb. Here was the perfect environment for the garter snakes. The shade of the broad strawberry and rhubarb leaves in combination with crevices between the railroad ties was their new home. My neighbors squeamishly kept their distance, but I would just brush the berry plants with my feet to warn random snakes to move before I reached in to pluck the ripe berries. I was one with nature. The snakes were my friends. Or, so I thought ….

Last weekend, Hubs and I were doing some spring gardening and chores to ready the yard for a Memorial Day cookout when I suddenly, and without a doubt, lost all love for the stealthy lurkers in my garden. As we passed the outside of the fence where the double-tiered beds are planted with strawberries and rhubarb, there, gloriously sunning themselves was a huge ball of snakes. Most were only about a foot long, but squirmed and twisted together in a mass of more than a dozen garter snakes. I was speechless. I was horrified. Instantly, those snakes that I have allowed to feast and flourish in my garden became my foes.

I don’t know exactly what we are going to do about these snakes, but my stomach is in knots just thinking about the den that must be living beneath my berries. They have to go. I can’t be raising garter snakes, no matter how harmless they may be, in my garden. A random snake here and there to rid us of slugs, crickets and ants is great. An undulating mass of snakes must go.

My strawberries aren’t yet flowering, and berry harvest is still a month or so away, but even with my nerves of steel, I might take volunteers for picking if the snakes aren’t eradicated. I can tell you that I don’t go out to cut rhubarb without a sharp butcher knife. I wouldn’t wish this predicament on my worst foe.

If I share strawberry rhubarb crumble bars with you this summer, you can count yourself among my friends. You will know the battle I have waged to harvest those sweet summer berries and tart rhubarb. You will know that the snakes have not won when you taste the buttery shortbread crust, and when crumbs of streusel fall into your lap with each bite you will know the garden is still mine.

Fran Hill has been blogging about food at On My Plate since October of 2006. She, her husband and their two dogs ranch near Colome.


Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble Bars

(adapted from Everyday Food and A Farmgirl’s Dabbles)


    1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted

    3/4 cup brown sugar

    1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

    1-1/4 cup flour


    1/2 pound rhubarb, chopped

    1/2 pound strawberries, sliced

    2 tablespoon brown sugar

    1-1/2 cups flour, divided

    3/4 teaspoon baking powder

    1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

    3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

    1-1/2 cups powdered sugar

    3 eggs

    1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, leaving 2-inch overhang. Butter and flour parchment paper and pan, tapping out the excess flour. Set aside.

Whisk together the melted butter, brown sugar and salt. Add flour and mix with a fork until large crumbs form. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Combine rhubarb, strawberries, brown sugar, and 1/4 cup of the flour. In another bowl, whisk the remaining 1 1/4 cup of flour, baking powder and salt. Using a mixer beat butter and powdered sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. With mixer on low, beat in vanilla, then flour mixture. Spread batter in prepared pan. Top with rhubarb and strawberry mixture, then top with prepared streusel.

Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with just a bit of moist crumbs attached, about 50 to 55 minutes. Let cool completely in pan. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and, using the parchment paper overhang, lift cake from pan. Cut into bars. (Yield: 16-20 bars.)


12:25 pm - Thu, May 29 2014
Rebecca Johnson said:
Great column! And good luck with the snakes. I hope you make friends with them. :)
03:07 pm - Thu, May 29 2014
Emily VanDerhule said:
Eww. I can handle a garter snake or 2, but a ball of them? Snakes, but no snakes. However, I would take the bars. Flat, in a ball, any way they came.
07:19 pm - Thu, May 29 2014
*Just Fran* said:
Rebecca -- Do you want any garter snakes for your garden?
Emily -- The bars are good, and I very much agree... 1 or 2 snakes are no big deal. This is intervention time, though.
08:09 pm - Thu, May 29 2014
Matt S said:
A guy once told me that water with some bleach in it drives garter snakes away. Tried it once for a den that was behind a set of stairs and it seemed to work. Not sure what the bleach would do to the strawberries but they certainly would be clean......sorry that is the best I can come up with.
07:13 am - Fri, May 30 2014
Ruth said:
My husband and our dog, Lucy, once came upon an undulating, slimy ball of garter snakes such as you are describing. Lucy, without hesitation, plopped on her back and began rolling in them. For this kind of response, you have to know the slime doesn't smell great.
07:15 am - Fri, May 30 2014
Rebecca Johnson said:
Sure, send me some snakes if it will help!
Ruth, my mom's dog does that, too.
01:11 pm - Wed, June 4 2014
Joanie said:
Had to google what that actually was and now I am not hungry for the crumble bars.... #creepedout

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