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You Bet Your Garden
Question of the Week © 2017 Mike McGrath

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Attracting Amiable and Advantageous Amphibians

Q. Back in March you had a caller on your radio show who said she was 'being overrun by toads and frogs' and wanted to try and discourage them from hanging around her house. She should be rejoicing at her success! Amphibians in general are having a tough time in our modern environment. According to the United States Geological Survey they are disappearing at an alarming rate even from protected habitats, and nobody is quite sure why.

My habitat included. The back of my property line is a wetland boundary, and I've noticed that it's gotten a lot quieter out there in the past 10 years. I try to respect the environment, and the property is mostly undisturbed—no mowing, no chemicals, and minimal leaf-raking. Behind the house is a little decorative pond that is best described as two overgrown puddles with a small circulator pump that runs 24/7 to discourage mosquitoes and attract wildlife. (It's the only water in the neighborhood that isn't brackish.) But alas there is no longer a single bullfrog 'harrumphing' on summer nights and only a few peepers peeping in the Spring. Where have they gone? I miss their cheerful cacophony.

P. S. On a trip to Chiapas Mexico I learned that the toad is revered by indigenous people as a symbol of new life because in the autumn it disappears into an underground burrow (death) and reemerges in the spring (resurrection).

----Gary in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

A: Back in 1994 when I was the editor of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine, we won the first of four consecutive Best of Show awards at the Philadelphia Flower Show for a major exhibit that was dominated by hundreds of hot pepper plants and ringed with a little runway filled with toads to demonstrate natural pest control. In an article we published the same year, we explained that research had found that a single toad eats tens of thousands of garden pests every season—including grasshoppers, cutworms, slugs, spruce budworm, plum curculio and even cucumber beetles, an insect that tastes so bitter birds and mantises won't go near them.

I learned a lot about attracting amphibians while editing that story; and some of the best basic advice came from Craig Tufts, manager of the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program for the National Wildlife Foundation, who said you need to provide three important things to have lots of frogs, toads and salamanders: "water, shady shelter, and an absolute absence of pesticides."

And while our listener seems to have all three, I'll suggest that he might actually only have one base covered; not using pesticides.

His 'two puddle pond' might be too small if he wants froggies to breed and sing to him in season. A curator at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History we interviewed for that story back in '94 stressed that frogs need large, deep bodies of water in which to lay their eggs. And an experience I just had while appearing at a home show in Fredericksburg, Virginia seemed to really prove that point. There was a big retention pond between the hotel I was staying at and the Expo Center where I was appearing. Very little greenery in the area; lots of pavement and roadways—but the water was full of Spring peepers. Instead of watching TV, I went out and sat by the pond with a glass of wine in the evening!

And an expert we interviewed from the North Carolina Natural Science Museum added that toads don't like to breed in ponds that have pumps or fountains; that it's better to add the non-toxic larvacide BTI to the water to control mosquito breeding. (But he added that having aquatic plants in the water is good; they shade the water and help protect frogs and toads from predators.)

And third would be those 'shady spots'. Toads really need deep, dark wet shady places to hide in during the day. The ideal 'toad abode' is a little depression dug in a damp shady area that you place a long, wide board on top of, supported by a few bricks. Then cover the board with soil, old carpet, potted plants, whatever. You can even buy pre-made toad houses—just make sure you place them in full, all-day damp shade. (Because if you put them in full sun they'd be toad microwaves!)

Oh—and another researcher we interviewed, Robert Johnson from the Toronto Zoo, added that ferns might be the favorite land plant of amphibians; ferns grow naturally in wet shady spots and provide excellent protection from predators.

Now it's possible—maybe even likely—that our listener does have toads but doesn't realize how many because they don't peep or croak like frogs. His environment seems mostly perfect for them, and toads are mainly active at night. (I mostly see mine in my raised beds in the late evening.)

But if he wants to go for the froggy gold, he can place a light out by the improved, enlarged, deepened pond to attract the insects that these amphibians also need to breed. Point the light down towards the ground so it doesn't cause light pollution and interfere with star gazing.

If it works, he can go out frog and toad gazing instead!


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