Toad Houses: Fun and Useful For The Garden
How to Build Toad Houses
If you're like me you don't like to use pesticides or harmful chemicals to prevent insects from entering your home or chewing all the plants in your garden. One of the most effective ways to reduce pest insects is to encourage their natural predators. Toads are one of the predators that do a great job helping clean gardens of insects and harmful pests.
Here in the Eastern US we have the common American Toad (Anaxya americanus). There is also the Eastern American toad, the dwarf toad, and Fowler's toad in our region. In the Western US there is the Western toad. Regardless of the species, they all play an important role in their ecosystem, they LOVE eating insects!
As you know toads are amphibians, but unlike frogs they can move farther from water, because they do not rely on moist skin to breathe. However, they do need water or ponds to reproduce. To support a population of toads in your area you need to provide the standard food, water, and shelter. The food will be the insects around your house or garden, but you will still need to provide water and shelter.
Water can take many forms, from damp vegetation to shallow dishes of water (changed regularly to prevent mosquitoes), or even nearby ponds and streams, but toad houses are where you can get very creative!
One of the activities that I love about teaching is the benefit of creatures that we consider "ugly." I'll usually do a short talk about the differences between frogs and toads, and the benefits of both. I'll then encourage students to see the beauty and benefit of those creatures that may seem scary, warty, or ugly at first. To support this concept we build toad houses. A toad house is a structure that provides shelter for the toads, during the heat of the day, or from passing children and predators. It usually has a small entrance, and is placed in a protected or shady part of a house or garden, near where you want insects or pests to be consumed by the toad.
A toad house can be as simple or elaborate as you want it to be. Usually it consists of some sort of structure, with a minimum diameter of about 4 inches and no more than 6 inches. This is the ideal size for a medium to large toad.
Your toad house can be made out of almost any material, though I've found terracotta pots work well because they retain moisture, they're cheap, and are easy to decorate or modify for kids. The pots are also biodegradable, which is preferable to plastic. You can use sticks, twigs, leaves, or other natural materials too. I've even cut open dried gourds and used them.
If you use a terracotta pot, or gourd, you can position the hut in two main ways. One method is to partially bury the pot in the ground, on its side, and cover it with twigs and leaves so that it has a narrow opening. The second method is to stand the pot on its end, so that it is conical. For this position you will need to break a small door into the lip of the pot (about 2 inches in diameter). You can use a pair of pliers to break a crude "door." The entrance doesn't need to be entirely symmetrical, just free of sharp edges (you'll need to assist children with this step). You can use a file to smooth the pot edges down. The "side" method requires less risk of sharp edges or breaking the pot. I've seen toads use both positions of the huts. Regardless of the arrangement of the house, you can paint the terracotta pot or gourd with different designs, using non-toxic paint. You may also attach twigs, leaves, or vines to the huts. Decoration is not required, you can simply partially bury a gourd or pot in your garden. Toads don't really much care about the decorations, but they add a touch of art to your home.
I haven't found a specific "ideal" distance between huts, usually I give at least four or five feet of room, making sure that the huts are in the shade, or moist areas, as much as possible. I've had up to eight in one garden at a time. The more the merrier!
It's nice if you can keep the houses in the shade, near bushes, or in areas that stay moist. If you can, try to water the ground around the hut to encourage the toads, and possibly frogs, to visit and stay.
This is a simple craft, with a very symbolic "giving back" to the toads which then support and "give back" to your house or garden. It's a great way to teach children about stewardship and caring for all living creatures, even the warty ones. Consider including toad huts around your garden or home, you may attract many helpful guests (frogs and toads alike).