Frogs will just have to share the award. When the Association of Zoos and Aquariums declared 2008 the Year of the Frog (which they did in order to call attention to the global decline of frogs and other amphibians), they meant toads, too—because toads are a type of frog. And toads are actually more likely to show up in a typical garden, because they are more adapted than other kinds of frogs to terrestrial habitats (as opposed to aquatic ones).
What better way to celebrate than to roll out the red carpet for toads in your garden? They’re easy to attract and they make great garden inhabitants.
Learn to recognize toads. There are many species of toads, but they typically belong to the family Bufonidae. Toads generally have a stocky appearance, dry skin, and short, thick legs with little webbing between their toes. They move around by walking and taking short, quick hops rather than massive leaps or underwater dives. Many sport tan, gray, and brown patterns that camouflage them in dry leaves or rocky terrain. These adaptations allow them to range further from water for longer and survive in dryer ecosystems than other frogs.
Build a toad kitchen. To provide food for toads, select native plants for your garden. This isn’t because toads eat plants—like all amphibians, they are carnivorous, consuming any living thing they can capture with their sticky tongues and stuff down their throats. Some large species tackle mice, snakes, and even other frogs, but insects and other invertebrates are the most common prey. You have the best chance of attracting a healthy insect population—and thus, happy toads—with native plants.
Dial back your level of control. Garden designs that are not overly tidy provide good habitat for insects and shelter for toads. If you cringe at the thought of providing habitat for insects, remember that toads are voracious predators that will help keep pests in check. Toads are actually a far better method of pest control than toxic chemicals, which don’t kill just insects—they kill toads, too. Amphibians as a group are extremely sensitive to toxins, which they readily absorb through their skin. And speaking of toad skin and toxins, toads don’t have warts. The bumps on their skin are called parotid glands, and they produce toxins that make toads taste bad to predators. You cannot get warts by touching a toad.
Give tadpoles a pool. Although adult toads are terrestrial, they rely on standing water for their eggs and tadpoles. If you don’t have a lake or pond nearby, create a simple garden pond. Bigger is better, but even small, prefabricated plastic pools work, provided they have gradually sloping sides or plenty of vegetation and branches dipping into the water to allow the toads easy entry and exit. Toads will also attach their eggs, which they lay in long strings, to this plant material. Be careful about introducing fish, which will find toad eggs and tadpoles a tasty treat. If you have fish, provide plenty of aquatic vegetation and underwater branches near which tadpoles can hide.
It’s quite a sight to find dozens of toads mating in your pond in spring. The trilling calls of the males will be your first indicator, but toads are not shy and are easy to see floating on the surface. Even if you don’t attract a breeding population, just knowing that you’ve created a friendly habitat for these important little creatures will make you feel good.
Make a toad abode
Provide shelter for toads and other small wildlife by making a “toad abode.” Start by finding an old clay flowerpot—perhaps one that has cracked and is no longer usable for plants. Using a hammer and chisel, chop out a half circle from the pot rim. This hole becomes an entrance when the pot is turned upside down and placed on the ground. Pick a shady spot for your toad abode. Stack some rocks around it and plant some ground covers or ferns nearby. Toads will seek out the dark, damp overturned pot as a place to escape the sun and predators, as well as a place to hunt for insects.
David Mizejewski is a naturalist, television personality, and author of Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife (Creative Homeowner, 2004).