A Garden Toad’s Tale
Pam MacDonald – Halton Master Gardener
Henry the 8th is my resident toad. Last year Henry the 7th reigned; next year I expect the succession to pass to Henry the 9th.
Henry has a castle, a moat and royal gardens landscaped with Tom Thumb hostas and toad lilies. He climbs the boxwoods surrounding the royal gardens to survey his kingdom and goes on quests to neighbouring gardens. His wives and progeny are legion.
I am not the first to be charmed by a toad. The Wind in the Willows, Toad of Toad Hall, The Tale of Jeremy Fisher are all classic children’s stories with warty protagonists. They are indeed charming creatures and what’s more, very valuable as barometers of the health of the environment and hoovers of garden pests.
Toads do not tolerate environmental toxins. Their skin absorbs pesticides, fertilizers and other pollutants. Henry’s presence, good health and expanding family are all indications that our garden is a healthy environment. He reminds me daily with his baleful stare to leave the fertilizer on the shelf and to stop fussing about the dandelions. In fact, he has suggested that I might like the peppery taste of dandelion leaves in my salad. No fool, Henry knows if I’m eating those leaves, I’m not putting anything on them that will give him a rash.
Like his namesake, Henry has a voracious appetite -and the waistline to prove it. He is a carnivore and his taste for international cuisine, is a boon to my garden. Japanese beetles, escargot, and pretty much anything he can get into his mouth and swallow, he will eat. From his perch on the boxwood, he not only surveys his kingdom but slays errant insects. Since the reign of the second Henry, I have not used slug bait. A mature toad can consume 10,000 insects, slugs and snails in a single summer. My worry these days is that I may run out of slugs to feed Henry and all the members of the royal court!
I consider Henry royalty, but he is in fact an American toad, the species most common in southern Ontario. Don’t be fooled though by me calling him a commoner. Amphibians are the most endangered group of vertebrate wildlife on the planet with nearly one third of species at risk according to the National Wildlife Federation. The Fowler’s toad, our only other toad species in Ontario is listed as Endangered under the Ontario Endangered Species Act and the federal Species at Risk Act.
If you would like to create a kingdom for toads in your garden here are some tips:
- DO NOT move a toad (or any other wildlife) out of its natural habitat. Relocated wildlife rarely survive the disorientating experience. If you are familiar with the 1989 movie Field of Dreams you may recall the line “If you build it, he will come”. They weren’t talking about a toad but the principle applies. Create the habitat and your own Henry will come.
- Water – Toads are not as closely tied to the water as frogs but they do need a moist environment to live in. During the period eggs are laid and tadpoles mature (approximately March to end of June in southern Ontario) they need a pool of water they can easily get in and out of.
- Shelter – Toads will make homes under loose rock, tree roots and porches and they will choose these in moist, shady locations. You can create a simple toad house with a clay flower pot tipped on its side and partially buried.
- Food – Toads are carnivorous and opportunistic. They will eat a wide variety of insects, slugs, worms and any other small creatures they can swallow. They will not however eat anything that is dead. They are not carrion eaters and will die without live prey.
The habitat we created in our garden is in a shaded corner under cedars and other shrubs. The area has a layer of wood chips and we allow leaf litter to accumulate. The ‘castle’ is a broken flower pot. The ‘moat’ is a seedling tray 4 inches deep with river rock in it, and stone around and overhanging the edges. A twig or two is put in the moat/ pond for eggs to attach to. Water is topped up every couple of days and the plants that surround the pond can handle the moisture.
American toads breed from late March to early June, depending on how far north they are. They lay their eggs in two strands that are wrapped around aquatic vegetation or deposited on the bottom. The eggs hatch in a few days to a few weeks, and the tadpole stage lasts from 50 to 65 days. Emerging toadlets are among the smallest newly transformed amphibians and soon disperse into the surrounding habitat. Both tadpoles and toads have poison glands in the skin that reduce their susceptibility to predators. A dog that picks up a toad will drop it and may foam at the mouth but will not be hurt. These toads eat insects and small creatures that live in soil, such as worms and slugs. https://ontarionature.org/