They leap and swim, jump and croak and, in some parts of the country, keep us up all night with their love songs. Our knobby friends are a gardener's delight. These friendly amphibians consume copious quantities of insects and every garden should have at least one resident frog or toad.
What's the Difference?
Frogs and toads are both amphibians in the order Anura (meaning "tail-less") and, therefore, have many similarities. Determining whether it's a frog or a toad is easy if you know what the main differences are between the two.
Frogs usually have webbing between the toes, they typically stay close to bodies of water, have great swimming abilities, and are carnivorous. Frogs usually have smoother skin than toads.
Toads have short, thick legs and little to no webbing between the toes; they are more adapted to varied habitats and only require a source of fresh water for egg-laying; their dry skin in camouflaging shades of tan, gray, and brown patterns allows them to live in leaves or rocks, where they have greater access to insects and anything else they can catch to eat.
Over 5,000 species of frogs have been described, and toads classified in the family Bufonidae number over 500 species in 35 genera. Around the world, toads and frogs come in exotic colors and various sizes, from tiny to huge. Many are poisonous, such as the Golden Poison Frog or the Bumblebee Poison Frog. For a fascinating look at some of the world's most dangerous amphibians, visit this exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.
Making Them Feel Welcome
Here in Ohio, we have several charming frogs and toads, many of which have taken up residence in my garden. In April, the evening air reverberates with the love-calls of the tree frogs. It can be deafening at times. They started up one evening while I was talking on the telephone to a friend in Oregon. She finally asked me if I was standing in a sawmill!
I love my frogs and toads. It is always such a delightful surprise to move a leaf or pick up a rock and discover one of these creatures, waiting to pounce on whatever insect or bug happens by. For the past three years, a very large Eastern American Toad has lived in a toad house, a clay pot I placed beneath a holly bush in a secluded corner of the garden. He hunts all morning and in the evening, keeping my gardens free of insects. Last spring, as I weeded a new flower bed, he appeared under a hosta and, for the next hour, snaked his sticky tongue out to grab anything I disturbed while weeding. It was such fun that I started tossing worms toward him. He stayed with me all morning as we cleaned up that flower bed!
The green frogs in my garden are very fond of the swimming pool and on any given night during breeding season, we can tiptoe out with a flashlight and see dozens of them floating on the surface, their throats ballooned out with song. The love-songs apparently work, since in early spring, my garden is peppered with tiny toads and even tinier green frogs.
Attracting toads and frogs to your garden is easy. By using native plants, you attract the native insects and, therefore, provide a steady source of food for your garden predators--not only frogs and toads, but dragonflies, praying mantids, and other beneficial insects. While you may shudder at the idea of purposely attracting insects, using natural predators to keep the balance is far better than chemical means. One very important point about chemicals in your garden. Frogs and toads are extremely susceptible to toxic substances, which are quickly absorbed through their skin.
Another way to attract and keep these critters is to provide a sheltering habitat for the midday hours when they typically rest. For toads, something as simple as a clay flower pot half-buried on its side in a shady spot will do just fine. If you feel more creative, paint and decorate a large tin can. Be sure to flatten or cover any sharp edges. Putting a few "toad houses" around your garden will give them a place to rest between their assaults on your bug population.
Frogs prefer the shelter of foliage or rocks near water, so if you have a pond, they will stay hidden during the day in whatever is planted nearby. Tree frogs obviously live in trees and shrubs, so having plenty of leafy places to hide will encourage them to live on your property.
One last thing: toads do not have warts! Those bumps are called parotid glands and they provide protection from predators by releasing a bad-tasting toxin. Handle a toad all you want, but be sure to wash your hands thoroughly, as the toxin can cause irritation if it gets into eyes or mucous membranes.
Learn which frogs and toads live in your region, then give them an open invitation to visit. You'll be glad you did. Ribbit!
About Toni Leland
Toni Leland has been writing for over 20 years. As a spokesman for the Ohio State University Master Gardener program, she has written a biweekly newspaper column and is the editor of the Muskingum County MG newsletter, Connections; she currently writes for GRIT, Over the Back Fence, and Country Living magazines. She has been a gardener all her life, working soil all over the world. In her day job, she scripts and produces educational DVDs about caring for Miniature Horses, writes and edits books about them, and has published five novels.