by Nanette Londeree, Master Rosarian
You’ve heard the saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and more than likely you have seen a toad and not thought of them as a beautiful creature. While they may be bumpy, jumpy, slippery and some think just plain ugly, they are one of the most beneficial creatures you can find in your garden. A toad or two in your garden is a real blessing, and contrary to wanting to get rid of them, you should encourage them to come and hang out in your garden. Maybe it is time to take another look at these little creatures and reassess your opinion.
The true toad is part of the family Bufonidae. Did you know that all toads are frogs, but not all frogs are toads? Frogs have smooth, slick skin, while toads have warty, bumpy skin (by the way, you can’t get warts by touching a toad!). They are nocturnal, cold-blooded amphibians characterized by stubby bodies with short hind legs (they use them for walking instead of the long legs frogs use for hopping), warty, dry skin and paratoid (or poison) glands. Most toads are brown or olive-brown, but you may occasionally see a brick-red young toad; it will become much browner as it matures. The toads skin can change color somewhat to match their surroundings, and make them less obvious to you and to predators.
Toads can handle dry conditions better than frogs. And while frogs leap away to escape danger, toads are protected by their camouflage colors and by the secretions called bufotoxins from their poison glands that look like swollen bumps on their heads. If caught, a toad will likely puff itself up with air, urinate, and secrete the bufotoxins in an effort to get dropped by the predator. Neither the toxin nor the urine is harmful to humans (unless ingested).
Mainly nocturnal, they hide during the day and emerge around dusk to feed on mosquitoes, insects and insect larvae, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, snails and slugs. Alas, they also do occasionally munch beneficial insects like ladybugs, ground beetles and earthworms. The average toad will eat 50-100 insects every night – that’s 10,000 to 20,000 insects throughout a gardening season!
Most toads live on land, away from the water, but, like frogs, they return to the water to lay eggs. Each female lays thousands of eggs at a time, in strings or slimy masses. The eggs hatch into tadpoles, which look very different from adults. The tadpoles live exclusively in the water and breathe through gills instead of lungs like an adult. Depending on the species, it can take a few weeks to a year or more for the tadpoles to grow up and go through the process of metamorphosis, changing from a tadpole to a toad. In our type of Mediterranean climate where rains are seasonal, tadpoles have to grow up quickly because they will die if their temporary ponds dry up first.
Given a suitable environment, a toad can have a life span of 4-15 years. In order to attract and keep toads in your garden, there are several things you can do. First, provide a safe place for them to hide – one that is in a shady place. Toads prefer homes that are humid and out of the wind. You can build a toad residence by digging a shallow depression in the soil and covering it with a board or a terra cotta flowerpot that is half buried in the dirt so the toad can burrow. Don’t forget to leave a door! A birdbath at ground level would provide just the right amount of water for your toads’ daily needs (they don’t drink the water, but rather sit in it and absorb it through their skin). If you really want them to settle in and raise a family in your garden, consider adding a water garden or small pond. Once they move in, they will stay for years, so the small effort required to attract them will pay off many times over.
Next, try to minimize the use of pesticides or other toxic chemicals in the garden. That’s good not only for the toads but most other garden creatures as well. You may also want to add a toad light – a low voltage one that is not more than 3 feet off the ground – when it is on at night it will attract insects that the toad can make a meal of! Now, take another look at this fella – isn’t he a real beauty?