Toads aren’t just really cute amphibians: they’re a gardener’s best friend!
You’ve bought your dream home and are ecstatic that it comes with a yard with enough space for a garden. Maybe your new yard already came with a premade garden allotment, or if you’ve been in the same home for a while but have been contemplating getting into gardening, you’ll do what my parents did once the kids grew up and replace their sandbox with a couple planters.
More Americans than ever are growing their own food, even if you live in a big city like I do. The number of American families who are gardening has increased 200% since 2008 per the National Gardening Association. Urban sustainability and food justice movements have been taking off with people looking to do anything from save money on fresh produce to have a more personal connection to where their food comes from. Admittedly, the thought of having my own garden is the only thing that makes me want to give up life in the city and put all my time and income towards an energy-guzzling money pit that is the average American single family home. Stupid overpriced boxes of spring mix that probably traveled hundreds of miles to get to my grocery store and obtained through labor conditions that would make you run away screaming…
We’ve got a substantial urban sustainability movement going in The Bronx and a neat farmer’s market that comes to my neighborhood every summer. But while their cheap and incredibly fresh local produce is amazing, having a private or community garden brings an irreplaceable blessing: TOADS!
How can you NOT be overjoyed to get greeted by this amphibious baby?
I find it impossible not to love our bumpy and warty friends with their big citrine eyes and little toady paws. But I get it, not everyone is as crazy about toads as I am. But even if you’re not that into them, you’ll still want some to be regular guests at your garden. While it might not be in your power to totally deter all local wildlife, like bunnies, from eating your carrots and lettuce, toads will happily step up to do their part in keeping bugs away from your hard work.
Wild toads can eat up to 200 bugs in one sitting! That’s an awful lot of slugs, worms, aphids, and other creepy-crawlies that you won’t want munching on your homegrown kale and cukes. There’s no need to buy toxic chemicals that can harm the environment and make your garden-fresh food taste bad! You just need to get blessed with the presence of amphibious babies. Here’s how!
How to Build a Garden Toad Habitat
I’m calling Flatrate so I can move to this neighborhood STAT!
First, a couple differences between toads and frogs! This will help you better understand how to lay out a toad-friendly garden.
Frogs and toads are amphibians which is derived from Greek meaning “two lives”, one on water and one on land. Taxonomically speaking, they’re in the anuran order which means “tailless”. Frog and toad tadpoles lose their tails as they morph from tadpoles to froglets or toadlets, and they also live two lives in this sense because they’re vegetarians as children but become insectivores as adults. (Veggies are good for humans, but please don’t feed wild or pet frogs and toads veggies or store-bought pet food meant for turtles and the like. It can severely impact their digestive tracts.)
Toads are technically a type of frog, but not all frogs are toads. Generally, toads have drier and bumpier skin than frogs with shorter legs meant for hopping, walking and burrowing. Frogs have smooth skin and longer legs to propel them for far leaps. There are many other differences, but the chief difference for proper habitat formation is that frogs have a much higher dependency on water than toads do. Toads still need to get hydrated, but they can cover more ground and stray farther from water sources than frogs for this reason. A frog will require more water to maintain optimal moisture but a toad can do fine with just having really moist soil to burrow in. Subsequently, if you pet a toad it won’t lose any life-giving moisture but a frog will!
With all this in mind, toads need a shady place to hide from the sun when it gets too hot. You’re more likely to see toads out at night for this reason. Lots of home and garden stores sell prefab toad houses just for this purpose. Depending on how big toads get where you live, they might or might not be sufficient. An overturned terra cotta flower pot is also an inexpensive toad shelter that they’ll LOVE.
This flower pot is on its side, but you should also get one that’s upside down and has a crack or notch large enough for a toad to squeeze through. Flower pots come in all sizes so it doesn’t hurt to try with a bigger one first! Toads love burrowing, so there should be a good substrate to burrow under the flower pot. Organic dirt is the best bang for your buck, but you can also use toad mommy approved Eco Earth loose coconut fiber. All natural and earth-friendly, it’s the “toad litter” of choice for picky toad parents and toads!
Avoid sand and gravel in your garden. Toads are voracious eaters and while they’ll leave your plants alone, they can end up taking a big chunk of substrate with them when they snap up bugs. Chunky things like sand, cedar, gravel, and very fine rocks can impact their GI tracts and cause blockages.
Toads aren’t the best climbers, but sometimes they can surprise you. Unlike tree frogs that have sticky toepads that make them nature’s suction cup, toads just have these little pads on their paws called nuptial pads that help them navigate their environment. Cartoons lied to us for years about turtles being slow when they can yeet at warp speed, but some toads are also shockingly acrobatic and you may find an adorable warty surprise in a freestanding planter like this!
It me, keeping your flowers safe from nasty bugs!
So long as you have safe places for toads to burrow and cool off, you’re likely to find them there!
Caring For Our Amphibious Friends
In addition to the right substrates that are good for both plants and toads, you’ll also want to avoid commercial fertilizers, insecticides, lawn chemicals, and so on.
All of these harmful chemicals are very dangerous to amphibians. Their skin is extremely porous and will absorb anything around it. This unfortunately includes these chemicals, which they can end up taking elsewhere or inadvertently ingesting. These chemicals not only harm air quality and are difficult to wash off of your produce, but they’re causing a massive decline in frog and toad species which is terrible for all of us! Amphibians are an important indicator species in that their decline more or less spells *our* decline.
If you want your toads to come and stay to naturally solve your bug problems, don’t buy lawn and garden chemicals. The same goes for pre-fertilized soil, toads have had adverse reactions to burrowing in this soil. We’ll have happier and healthier amphibious friends and veggies by using organic dirt and natural fertilizers that don’t contain any harmful chemicals.
Because toads are more terrestrial than frogs, you don’t need to build a pond with running water or anything. But having a shallow water dish is certainly helpful, especially during heatwaves. Amphibious babies will gravitate to pools when it gets hot and they stray too far from their ponds, so if you also have a pool you’ll definitely want to leave a shallow water dish out. Use bottled water because tap water has too many variables to determine if it’s safe for amphibians to bathe in. Old pipes, negligent cleaning plants, and so on can make tap water harmful to toads! Some room temperature bottled water is all you need to keep your amphibious babies happy and hydrated.
The dish needs to be shallow because believe it or not, toads can drown. They don’t have gills. They’re able to swim, but they can’t breathe underwater. You might’ve seen that cute viral video of the tree frog nesting in the bottle cap of water, frogs and toads more or less sit in the water to absorb it. They also pee in it. They don’t drink the water, but it’s still life-giving for amphibious babies no less, and part of their living two lives in water and on land.
And if you’re going to handle the toad to gently coax them out of a planter or because you want to experience the joy of petting a toad, you need to wash up with soap and water before AND after handling. Gently cup the toad in your hands like the picture above, and never grab a toad by the legs! And if you get peed on, don’t take it personally–the poor baby was just scared!
Toads Have a Homing Instinct!
Upon listening to many wonderful stories on Twitter about childhood toad sightings on porches and in backyard gardens, I’ve settled many debates about those childhood amphibious friends. Namely, “Was it the same toad or a different toad that we kept seeing?”
The answer is the same toad. Toads have a homing instinct! They’re fairly provincial creatures in that once they reach adulthood and stray from the breeding pool they grew up in, they wander off into the world and find a place that’s comfortable to burrow in and has plenty of bugs. Most studies of toads have shown that they’re also fairly solitary until mating season, but there are North American toads like the Western toad, American toad, and Fowler’s toad that sometimes live in groups which are called knots. (Groups of frogs are called an army and a group of turtles is a bale. Who came up with these terms?!)
If you make your garden a AAA Diamond rated toad abode with the right substrate–having plenty of organic dirt to burrow in is especially crucial if you’re in a deciduous clime where toads will hibernate–plus plenty of toad houses and safe places to burrow and get water, you could very well get a lone toad or small knot that you see regularly! So long as those bugs keep coming to your yard and garden, the more likely your new toad friend is to stay there for an incredibly long time and share your home with you.
If you’d like to take pictures of your toady pal, please be mindful not to use flash! Most phone cameras default to auto-flash especially if it’s dark out. Remember to manually turn your flash off if you’re going to take pictures, because toads have incredibly sensitive eyes. See how this baby looks particularly bleary-eyed?
That’s because toads have two sets of eyelids, an inner set for keeping dirt and irritants out and an external set that pushes food along. They might not have time to reflexively close both sets when you’re whipping out the camera, so please be courteous and go flashless. If you need a light source, moonlight or a standard porch light should suffice.
Toads and humans have a long-held symbiotic relationship. Some take it further by adopting toads as pets but wild toads need a different approach, even though they’ll come to love your home. By providing a wonderful home for amphibious babies, you’re helping the planet and keeping nasty chemicals away from your veggies you worked hard to grow!
Rachel Presser is a crazy toad lady from the Bronx who was exiled to New Jersey, spending a significant chunk of her youth where all the hideous 1970s couch covers and avocado shag carpeting went to die. Upon escaping the sea of brown and founding Sonic Toad Media, she decided to devote her time to writing from the fantastically-preserved Googie artifacts in LA and former speakeasies in Chicago, to forging new game worlds in the tea lounges of Taipei and Tokyo. She can be found at game jams, hardcore shows, vaporwave dance parties, and petting amphibians on a sensible corner loveseat.