Earlier in September I did a column where I briefly discussed the benefits of attracting toads and snakes to the garden. And I promised to go into more detail. Then fire struck Tillamook County and I felt it important to do a column on fire resistant plants. But here I am back to the topic of toads.
First let’s distinguish between toads and frogs. Both, of course, are amphibians and they look very much alike. Amphibians (frogs, toads and newts) begin life as eggs laid in water. They develop into tadpoles with tiny tails. Soon, the tadpoles will grow legs and turn into little froglets or toadlets. Amphibians will move onto land and spend most of their lives there except to feed and breed in water. Frogs and toads lose their tails before moving onto land, but newts keep their tails. Both frogs and toads eat an enormous amount – up to 10,000 insects, slugs, and snails over a season.
Frogs have a smoother, moist skin and long legs designed for hopping. Frogs prefer a damp habitat, perhaps near a pond or stream. Toads’ skin is rough and warty and they have golden eyes. Toads also have shorter legs making them more likely to crawl than hop. Toads are more acclimated to a drier environment and spend less time near water than frogs, so toads are ideal for a garden without a natural water source. We often think of frogs being green and toads being brown, but there can be many color variations in both frogs and toads, so it is easier to go by the type of skin (smooth vs warty) for identification than coloration. Both toads and frogs can also have stripes or spots. A field guide to types of amphibians is always helpful for identification as is knowing which types of frogs and toads live in our area. The most common toad on the coast is the western toad.
Now for the important part. How do we keep Mr. and Mrs. Toad happy in our garden?
First and probably most important is to keep them safe from predators. Snakes, birds and even cats and dogs can decimate the toad population in your garden in the blink of an eye. So it is crucial to provide lower-growing foliage (think shrubs and perennials) and elevated areas for them to hide.
Secondly, they need shelter. The name for where amphibians and reptiles live in the winter is called a ‘hibernacula.’ (New word for me to learn, too.) You can easily construct one from old bricks or logs covered with wood-chips and soil. This will give the toads lots of little places in which to shelter. Choose a shady, protected spot where the soil drains well and place some old bricks, stones, logs or rubble and pack the spaces a little with wood chips. Covering the mound with soil keeps the warmth in the hibernacula. You will find that grasses and other ground covers will grow over the top and it will look like a little mound in the garden. Do try to keep the weeds off, though, by planting ground covers thickly.
This type of hibernacula can take up quite a lot of space not to mention time to create it. So an easier solution would be a “toad home.” Find that same shaded, well-drained spot under a shrub and set a clay pot on its side, burying the lower half into the well-drained soil. Or you can place the pot upside down on a little bed of stones, removing a few from one side to allow entrance to the “toad cave.” Put a little grass or a few leaves inside to keep it cozy. You could also make a wooden house or, of course, you can buy a fancy one online, but they can be quite pricey.
And you will need a water source for your toad, because, while they do not need to live in water, they need it to drink. This is easily accomplished by sinking a small dish in the ground and keeping it filled with water.
Often times a toad will find his home on his own. But if the house remains uninhabited, you can go searching in the early summer for a toad to “adopt” in cool, shady woodland areas near a stream or pond. Given the proper environment and kept safe from predators, toads will grace your garden and help keep insect and slug populations in check.