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How to Create Toad Habitat

Frog Blog, But For Toads

Today I have something special: the world debut of my daughter Celina as a blogger!

She accompanies me to most of the markets and plant sales, and she has been dying to write about some of the nature topics that she finds fascinating. We have been calling this one the Frog Blog.

There is only one problem - her post is about toads.

“Toad Blog” just does not have any ring to it; at all.

I looked up frogs vs. toads to see what the difference is anyway and found this on the site: “There’s a reason the two creatures seem so similar: frogs and toads are both tailless amphibians belonging to the order Anura. And that’s not all. Frog and toad aren’t exactly immutable categories. There’s no taxonomic basis for these labels. When it comes down to it, all toads actually fit in the category of frogs. The differences people have long used to separate anurans into these two groups are mostly superficial.” Conclusion: toads are frogs! We get to roll with the Frog Blog title!

Without further ado, here is the Frog Blog by Celina Stephens:

In Praise of Toads

a large toad who has stuffed its butt partially into a compartment in a seedling tray
If it fits, it sits

Do you want to know an underutilized and ignored source of entertainment? Toads. Toads are awesome. They’re cocky, brave, stubborn, delightful bundles of joy. And yet with all they have going for them, they never get any attention. Whenever you think of toads you may think of the superstition of warts coming from touching them or the creepy overgrown frogs that watch you eerily as you garden. And while they do have a staring problem, rest assured that if you pick up a toad, you are far more likely to get peed on than suddenly develop an outbreak of warts.

Toads are helpful in many ways as most gardeners probably know. They eat harmful garden pests such as slugs or crickets, and depending on the species they can eat 50-100 insects a night, or 20,000 insects in a single growing season! This removes the need for pesticides or other harmful chemicals that you shouldn’t be using around these absorbent-skinned amphibians anyway - or anywhere else for that matter.

Another interesting toad fact is that, like most amphibians, toads can change color somewhat depending on humidity, stress, or light. This helps them blend into the background and hide from predators. The warty bumps on their skin are an additional protection; poison glands that release bufotoxins, a distasteful chemical that deters predators but is completely harmless to humans. (Unless you lick one.) (Don’t.)

Toads face many problems in modern life. Their natural feeding and breeding grounds of lakes, vernal pools, and marshes are quickly being stamped out by human disruption; around every corner there’s a patch of fatal pesticide-filled terrain to which, I may add, they’re highly susceptible to; their migration to breed each year forces them to cross deadly roads and yards; and on top of it all, they have a lethal parasitic fungus killing them off. Chytrid fungus causes degradation of amphibians’ skin which kills off many growing toads as they develop new limbs. Although many older toads can fight it off, it is badly damaging the already declining populations. 

Unless you happen to run an illegal international amphibian trade and choose to shut it down after reading this blog, there’s little you can do to stop the spread of the fungus. But there are monumentally beneficial ways you can create the perfect toad haven in your backyard to protect them from the other main hazards. Creating toad habitat is cheap, easy, and can take up relatively little space depending on how you do it.

How to Create the Perfect Toad Habitat:

1: Create standing water

Toads are more terrestrial than frogs as they spend most of their time on land, but they still require a daily soak to keep their skin moist. Giving them a clean water source so their highly absorbent skin is safe is the perfect way to attract some backyard amphibians.

a toad sitting in mud
Spa time

Depending on the size of your space, you can put in anything from a shallow clay basin sunk into the ground to a deep pond. If the water contents of your land permit it, maybe even a linerless natural pond is right for you! Keep in mind that toads prefer just a few inches of water so make sure the sides are shallowly sloped, though frogs and other creatures will still enjoy the center immensely. You can even use a trash can lid if you’re running low on perfect 27” diameter 3” deep non-toxic waterproof dishes. Make sure you put it in a shady area with relatively high moisture levels, such as under a tree. It’s also best to keep it away from noisy areas like your driveway or a busy yard.

When you have found the right spot and you have buried your container to be flush with the ground, add a bit of dirt to the bottom and line the sides of shallower containers with pebbles to allow easy escape. If you notice a worrying amount of algae, rinse it out with a hose then replace the dirt if needed. Keep an eye on the water level and make sure it doesn’t dry out because the amphibians need to return each day to proper water so they don’t need to search for more.

For bonus points add a perching spot across larger ponds such as a partially submerged log or a rock protruding from the water. Along with making the space look more natural, additions such as these help bugs in danger of drowning while creating a spot for frogs to sun or wasps to drink. (Don’t worry; these misunderstood insects will be too busy drinking to bother with a measly human.)

2. Make a toad house

A vast majority of toads are nocturnal; hunting by night and sleeping in dark, sheltered, moist nooks by day. Common daytime haunts could be a decomposing log, a rock pile, or just under dead plant material with damp soil. These spots must be somewhat hidden to protect them from hungry snakes or birds that fancy a lunchtime bite of toad. One place that seems to be a prominent favorite of theirs is our pampered and well-watered nursery pots. They dig in right up against the plant stems and lightly cover parts of themselves with soil - camouflaged and oft getting watered by many a fooled human. Did you know sleepy toads squeak when disturbed?

Unfortunately for them, (and for us when you think about it), purist modern gardening methods deny toads shelter by removing anything that could look “messy”. Without safe places to spend the day, toads are vulnerable to hungry predators or overheating in the sun. To welcome toads, embrace some mess like a rotting log or loose pile of stones. If you are worried about appearances, tuck the rough and tumble habitat away in a shady corner of your property where it won’t be noticed anyway.

a toad wedged between flower pots and a greenhouse wall
I'd prefer a fairy house

For a more decretive home, you can buy or make a small fairy cottage with an entrance big enough to fit a fat toad, keeping in mind that they need to dig into the soil so it can’t have a covered bottom. You may want to disturb the ground underneath it every once in a while although, when occupied, a toad will maintain the loose soil if it’s disturbed enough that they can get into it at first. You might even consider watering the house a little during a drought or an excessively hot day to make sure the ground hasn’t dried out. (It’s occupant may squeak, but no harm hath ever befallen a watered toad).

Want a simpler option? Our personal favorite is a loose pile of flat stones with an entrance and hollow interior that is shaded by a roof. Every summer my sister has constructed one of these in her garden bed. We got a charming red toad that rested there nearly every day that was akin to a pet, my sister going to check on it and keep the soil moist daily.

Make sure that whatever abode you choose, the most important takeaways from this section are to place the house in a sheltered spot (near a shrub, perhaps?), the entrance hole is big enough for a… lets say pleasantly plump amphibian, there’s disturbed soil underneath, and the toad can stay shaded and moist throughout the summer.

3. Plant native plants and feed your toad

a toad waiting by the entrance to a yellowjacket nest
Toads even hunt yellowjackets (under the trays)

Toads are insectivores and will eat almost any kind of insect you throw at them. But most of those insects are evolved to use the native plants that they have been interacting with for millennia and need them to survive and reproduce. Henceforth, insect populations increase when native plant populations increase and toad populations increase when native plant populations increase. These insect/plant relationships and the abundance of bug food helps support and balance the population of multitudes of other creatures from amphibians to birds to deer. We regularly have visits from many ginormous toads that prefer to frequent the area around our greenhouse to the much larger space of the surrounding fields, chock full of non-native and invasive pasture grasses. (We’re working on it, ok?)

Every morning, before they retreat to their flower pot of the day, they deposit an oval dropping. When this dries out and inevitably gets disturbed (RIP bare-foot walkers), the scattered toad feces literally glitters with shiny insect bits. A gardener’s helper who eats bugs and poops glitter! What more could you ask for? (To read about their role as greenhouse predators, check out our blog on Our Summer with the Yellowjackets.)

A large toad in the middle of a lawn
No poisons on my grass, please

It should go without saying that applying lawn chemicals and spraying for ticks, mosquitos, ants, or anything else is detrimental to having toads in your yard. Not only does it poison their lunch, (and possibly them when they eat the poisoned insects), toads and other amphibians have extremely absorbent skin. The sprinkles and sprays of “modern” gardening can kill toads, or at least make your yard uninhabitable.

4. Leave the leaves and love the mess

Many toads, not to mention literally hundreds of other creatures from caterpillars to salamanders, hibernate under leaf litter to last out the winter. But the majority of people are accustomed to raking or mowing any leaves out in the fall to promote the health of spring grass. I urge you, whenever possible, to leave the leaves! They provide irreplaceable shelter to so many species that have nowhere else to stay. Even things like bees and butterflies hibernate under leaves in the winter and need a good amount of leaf litter on top of them to keep them insulated and warm. Over the year, toads need leaves to rest in to keep their skin hydrated and healthy. Decomposing leaves over the spring also naturally fertilizes the soil and feeds the millions of microorganisms living within. These tiny creatures help provide healthy soil, healthy plants, and an overall healthy environment. For more information, I encourage you to go to this Xerces Societies article and look farther into all the great benefits that I cannot begin to list.

Along with the help a lushly leaf-littered lawn can bring to overwintering invertebrates, our amphibian friends need it too for all seasons. In summer toads can nestle into the loamy leaf-scattered soil to stay cool and wet, in fall they can burrow deep into the ground to protect themselves from frosts, in winter they can sleep the icy months away in the deep, cool burrows, and in spring the warm sun wakes them up to feast on a variety of larvae eating the mushy organic goodness of your leafy and nutritious soil. Healthy and turf grass free yards are a necessity to countless creatures- toads not the least of them.

5. Enjoy!

A fat toad sitting in the greenhouse door
Our Greenhouse Guardians return year after year

If you manage to make a successful amphibian paradise and balanced ecosystem supporting hundreds of species, either directly or indirectly, you will get the same toads returning year after year. They can live up to 15 years in a stable ecosystem and usually return to the same breeding grounds every time. If they like your spot enough, they may even take up permanent residence there! They are often identifiable by general color and pattern, so I suggest you name each and every one. (This might not be important, but make sure you name at least one of them Herbert or Blem. Voted by me to be the two best toad names of the century).

Keep in mind that your toad habitat will support dozens of species beside our amphibian friends and nature knows what to do to keep balance. It’s ok if you find a snake resting in one of your toads' abodes or eating Herbert. There will always be more Herbert’s the II, III, IV, etc. Predators are just as important in your toad pond as the toads themselves. In order to properly enjoy, make sure you go outside and just sit, watch, and listen to the beautiful soap opera of nature. You never know what you will find.


Summer 2024 Plant Sale Schedule

You can get native plants for your favorite toad and meet the author of this Frog Blog at our 2024 summer plant sales. Note that Chatham and Grand Marais will be attended by Vern Stephens of Designs By Nature Laingsburg and the Alger Conservation District, respectively. Michelle and Celina will be at all the rest. Check our What's Happening page for details, but here is the general lineup:

  • June 1, Hancock (Keweenaw Wild Bird REC)

  • June 8, Marquette (Marquette County Conservation District)

  • June 8, Chatham (Alger Conservation District)

  • June 8, Grand Marais (Alger Conservation District)

  • June 21, Sault Ste Marie (Chippewa Luce Mackinac Conservation District)

  • July 5, Ironwood (Gogebic Conservation District)

  • July 6, Watersmeet/Marenisco (Gogebic Conservation District)

  • August 21, Manistique (Schoolcraft Conservation District)

  • September 7, Marquette (Marquette County Conservation District)

  • September 14, Houghton (Houghton County Conservation District)

Note that this does not include farmers markets or open house events. We are still working on that schedule; keep checking back or watch our social media.

Thanks for reading! Drop me a note if you would like to give Celina feedback on her blogging debut, and as always, Thanks for planting native.

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I loved your article. I set up a new toad habitat in my garden!

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