Toads for the garden
Although he is far too old for bedtime stories, the boy and I have been enjoying a ramble through “The Wind in the Willows,” which quite coincidentally has been occurring each evening sometime between teeth brushed and lights out.
Between the two of us, we’ve read that book more times than we can count, but it’s been a few years and it’s nice to check in on some of our favorite friends: Mole, the water rat, Badger and, of course, Mr. Toad.
As Ratty explains it, Mr. Toad is not exactly clever. He is impulsive to a fault, haughty and thoughtless, and constantly getting into scrapes from which his steadfast friends endeavor to disengage him.
Mr. Toad is an English gentleman, busy squandering the fortune and good name his father left him, as Badger so often reminds him. By contrast the American toad, our most frequent neighbor in these parts, is a commoner.
In our experience, these toads are not nearly so reckless. True, they sometimes get themselves stuck in a bucket of water and need to be lifted out, but in real life their appearance on the front steps or in the garden is a welcome thing.
This time of year the American toads are still hibernating, sitting shrivelled and still, somewhere deep in the earth — toads can burrow up to 3 feet down for the winter. We’ll hear them when they wake up in the spring, sounding like crickets calling from any damp area in the woods, swamps or roadsides. They like dampness — they need to keep their skin moist — so in hot weather they will burrow again, under leaves or dirt in the gardens.
When we first moved into our house 20-some years ago, there were big toads all over, taking advantage of a homestead with no disturbing humans. For a while our bustling in and out seemed to drive them back into the woods, but slowly we’ve all learned to coexist, and we often find a toad or two sitting on the walkway to the front door on a summer’s night. We wonder if they are some of the same toads who lived here before us, or their children or grandchildren.
American toads can live up to 30 years, so it’s possible some could be our original toads.
Toads eat all manner of bugs, slugs and snails, and are therefore welcome in our gardens. They also eat earthworms and beneficial spiders, but it is generally considered that they do far more good than harm in a vegetable or flower garden. They can eat tens of thousands of insects over the course of a summer.
Toads are amphibians, and the past 50 years have been very hard on amphibians worldwide. Changes in habitat, overuse of pesticides, pollution and disease are all working to reduce the population of frogs, lizards, salamanders and toads. An alarming number of species are disappearing altogether. A wide variety of reports from scientists and conservation groups estimate that a third of the more than 6,000 species of amphibians are in danger of extinction. The nonprofit group Save The Frogs (www.savethefrogs.com) offers some tips on helping to prevent the decline of amphibians, as well as some information on why that’s important.
We can protect our own local amphibians by keeping pesticides out of our gardens, and protecting our wetlands.
The easiest way to make your garden habitable to a toad is to provide something for it to hide under during the warmth of the day. That can be as simple as a piece of board, propped slightly off the ground on one side, or as complicated as a toad house, a little terra cotta cottage made specifically for the purpose and sold at garden supply centers. I use an old flower pot — there seem to be no end of old terra cotta pots with chunks cracked out of them — overturned and set in the middle of the tomatoes or beans.
While my family is fond of toads and frogs, I know others are not. Just to set your mind at ease they do not cause warts and they are not slimy. They don’t eat plants so they can’t harm your garden.
And unlike Mr. Toad himself, they rarely crash their automobiles.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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