Toads are the garden’s heroes. Here’s how to help them thrive.
May 25, 2023 Updated Thu., May 25, 2023 at 6:01 p.m.
American toads can eat 100 insects a night. (Michael F. Benard)
Last year, Cynthia Berger tried for an autumn spinach harvest in her Pennsville, Pennsylvania, garden. The pests got there first.
“It was slug city,” says Berger. The slimy, shell-less mollusks turned the delicate leaves to Swiss cheese, leaving trails of sticky ooze in their wake. This year, Berger hopes to lure in a solution: hungry toads.
Though other garden wildlife – think bees and butterflies – tends to get more press, the often-overlooked toad can transform a vegetable plot. When it comes to pest control, toads are nature’s Orkin men. They can quickly plow through bug populations, eating just about any insect, larvae, snail or slug they can get into their mouths.
It’s clear what toads can do for us. But they need our help in return, says Gina Della Togna, executive director of the Amphibian Survival Alliance. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists 41 percent of all amphibians on its Red List of threatened species. “It’s an alarming situation,” says Della Togna. “It’s the highest percentage of threatened species compared to mammals, birds and reptiles. It’s a crisis.”
Despite their imperilment, the creatures are widespread. There are at least 20 types of toad in North America, with native species in every state except Hawaii. The amphibians are a subspecies of frog (all toads are frogs; not all frogs are toads). They breed in water but spend most of their adult lives on land.
And while they may seem squat and sedentary, they’re actually dynamic predators, says Michael Benard, a herpetologist and interim biology department chair at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. The American toad can shoot out a sticky tongue quicker than you can blink and eat as many as 100 insects in a night. Over the course of a gardening season, that means 10,000 fewer bugs to infest your crops.
“They will eat all sorts of things,” Benard says. “Really, anything that’s moving. They’re going to key in on a beetle crawling, a fly landing in front of them, and that visual cue will set them off.”
Toads are especially sensitive to pesticides, herbicides and even some fertilizers. “That’s one of the big reasons we see amphibians that are going extinct or rapidly declining around the world,” Benard says. Some of the primary drivers of amphibians’ plight are habitat loss and the use of chemical contaminants. “When open space and farmland is converted into suburbs with no ponds and wetlands and no forested patches, you’re going to lose your toads,” he adds.
The situation is dire, but in our gardens, at least, we can do something about it. Toads need a few basic things: water in which to breed (a small backyard pond or even a ditch that holds water in the spring will suffice), a moist, dark place to hide and soil to burrow into.
Most any gardener can become a toad landlord, says Benard. Garden centers and greenhouses often sell premade “toad abodes” – small decorative clay cottages and huts. But a toad home is also easy to DIY. “Just provide cover objects: logs, rocks, pieces of wood, with toad-sized spaces between them,” Benard says. “They’re looking for a moist, tight place where they can wedge their body and burrow themselves into the soil.”
Berger uses overturned flower pots to create toad shelters in her garden. “It doesn’t have to be fancy,” she says. “You can just take a rock and prop the pot up so the toad can get underneath.”
They also need a spot to soak. “The joke is that toads drink with their butts,” says Benard. “They have vascularized skin on the underside of their legs and bellies, and they sit in water and absorb it through their skin.”
Create a basic toad bath by placing a clay saucer of shallow water in a shady spot near the shelter. Just be sure to keep it clean and replace the water every day or two. Once you’ve created an appealing toad habitat, all that’s left to do is wait.
“It’s an ‘If you build it, they will come’ kind of thing,” Benard says. And once they move in, you can protect them by avoiding the use of chemicals in and around the garden. Even common bug sprays can harm them, so make sure to apply those far away from the toad’s home.
Della Togna says the most helpful thing people can do for toads is simply get to know them. “There’s often a social or cultural component to people not liking amphibians,” she says.
Beliefs persist that toads can give you warts (false) or that they’re poisonous to the touch. The latter is half true: When threatened, they can secrete a toxin from lumpy glands behind their eyes. It’s harmful if swallowed, but if you use caution with kids and dogs and wash your hands after any contact, says Della Togna, you should have nothing to worry about.
Toads are creatures of habit: If they find a home they like, they might stay more than a decade. “People want to know if they have the same toad coming back night after night or even year after year,” says Benard. “If you look carefully, they have unique spot patterns on their back that can let you identify one individual from another.”
When her children were young, Berger recalls a toad – or maybe several of them – that was the long-term tenant of a terracotta hut in a corner of her herb garden. “The kids would go and check on it, and sometimes he’d be home and sometimes he’d be out,” she says. “It was really fun for them to have this wild sort of ‘pet’ that they could see and interact with.”
Toad husbandry isn’t hard, says Della Togna, and every gardener can help make a difference. “We can see it as one person and one garden and one toad, and that doesn’t feel like a big impact,” she says. “But think about 1,000 of those gardens. That’s a significant impact on this amphibian population and a huge contribution to citizen science and local conservation.”
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