How to Dote on Toads

Welcome these insect-gobbling amphibians to your garden with a properly placed abode

08-01-2006 // Cynthia Berger
Backyard toad by Judy Webb

PROMISES of princes notwithstanding, you don't actually want to kiss a toad. When it's startled or upset, a toad's skin oozes a gooey substance that's irritating and bad tasting. But toads do have plenty of charming qualities, including a voracious appetite for such garden pests as slugs, gypsy moth caterpillars and earwigs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that a single adult toad can eat 10,000 insect pests over the course of an average summer. Depending on your location, if there are toads living in other yards in your neighborhood, when their offspring hatch and begin to hop around, there's a chance some of them may disperse onto your property. In summer, you may see several fingernail-sized toadlets hopping. You can welcome them to your yard not with a kiss, but with a castle: a so-called toad abode.

Most lawn and garden stores carry premade toad abodes. The first time I saw one—it was a miniature terra-cotta cottage—I thought it was a just another too-cute lawn ornament, strictly nonfunctional. Still, I bought the thing; it seemed like the perfect accent for my herb garden. Imagine my surprise when, a few days later, my kids breathlessly announced that our little cottage was occupied.

About 21 different species of toads live in North America. The ones most at home in a backyard environment include the American toad (the Northeast and Canada), western toad (Pacific Coast states inland to the Rocky Mountains), Fowler's toad (southern New England and Mid-Atlantic states south to Florida and west to eastern Texas), Woodhouse's toad (Great Plains states south to central Texas), and southern toad (Florida and adjoining states).

Now, in case you're wondering: How can you tell the difference between frogs and toads? At the most basic level, the animals we call frogs tend to have smooth skin and spend more time in water. The animals we call toads generally have bumpy skin and spend more time on land.

Toads do need a ready source of water—not to swim in, just for a daily soak. Your garden will be most appealing to toads if you put a mini-pool near a toad abode. At my house, we use a 16-inch terra-cotta saucer, but you could use a birdbath without a stand or even a garbage can lid. Choose a shady location, nestle the container in the dirt and fill it with water. A daily spray with the hose keeps the pond fresh; scrub with a wire brush if algae builds up.

Designer toad abodes can be pricey. If you're on a budget, you can improvise. For instance, half-bury a large flowerpot on its side in a shady spot. Or take the same pot, drill holes at the rim in the shape of a door, tap gently with a hammer to remove the chip, invert and decorate to your heart's content (nontoxic paints, please). Another option: Arrange flat rocks with a toad-sized space underneath. Situate your toad abode in the shade—say, under a bush—and in the dampest spot in your yard, near a gutter downspout, air-conditioner drip or in a low spot that collects rainwater.

Check that the door of the abode is large enough to actually admit a toad. American and Fowler's toads can be 3 inches long and very plump. Also, don't buy a toad abode with a floor; toads usually like to dig in the soil to customize their daytime retreat. Garden soil, well amended with compost, is especially attractive to toads; it's easier for them to dig into and it supports plenty of sow bugs and earthworms. Pesticides and lawn chemicals are deadly to toads—their permeable skin takes up toxins all too readily. Avoid using them. With a garden toad on pest control, you're less likely to need pesticides anyway.

Don't try to relocate an adult toad into your yard—it has already chosen where it wants to live. Just put your toad abode out early in the growing season. Over the summer, young toads will be looking for a place to establish themselves, and one day, your prince will come.

Writer Cynthia Berger attracts toads to her yard at her home in Pennsylvania. For more information about attracting wildlife to your yard, see the Certified Wildlife Habitat  section. To learn more about toads and other amphibians, and how you can help scientists conserve them, visit our wildlife page.


Build a Winter Retreat for Toads

Toads in cold regions hibernate in the winter. They dig deep down into loose soil, which insulates them from freezing temperatures. You can offer toads a safe and comfortable winter retreat by constructing a hibernaculum (place to hibernate).

You will need a 14-inch section of 4-inch plastic drainage pipe. Choose a place in your yard with well-drained, loose soil and dig a trench. Position the pipe in the trench so that one end protrudes about 2 inches above the soil (forming an entrance hole) and the rest of the pipe slants down into the trench at a 30-degree angle. Backfill with soil to support and cover the slanted pipe. Then pour in loose sand to fill the pipe halfway. Fill the rest of the pipe with composted leaves.

A toad may use the hibernaculum as a summer retreat, burrowing into the leaf mold. When winter comes, it will dig deeper, into the sandy layer. After the toad tucks itself in for the winter, you can bury the protruding pipe end in compost or leaves for extra insulation. Remember to remove this layer before spring arrives so the sun can warm the soil.

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