Eastern Collared Lizard_DesertMuseum-AZ_LAH_4796Here it is the middle of winter. Garden pests are out of sight and out of mind. Yet, we know that those critters are out there, waiting for warm weather to bring out the first sprouts of spring—just so they can gobble them up! It’s a very good thing, then, that there are other creatures biding their time, waiting to eat those garden pests! We’ve already talked about bug-eating invertebrates. This time the focus is on those animals with some backbone, so to speak.

Toad_ColoNat'lMon-CO_LAH_3622One of the most helpful animals to welcome into your garden is a toad. Like their close relatives—frogs and salamanders—toads eat tons of bugs, and they don’t need a pond to live in. Experts say they eat up to 100 bugs every day, and while they don’t discriminate between “good” bugs and bad ones (they’ll nab anything that moves), it’s nice to see cutworms, grasshoppers, flies, and slugs disappearing into their wide jaws.

You can encourage any local toads to move into your garden by catering to their need for food, shelter, and moisture. A saucer of water on the ground offers amphibians a way to keep their thin skin damp, essential for their survival. Leaves and other garden debris offer shelter. And of course you’ll need to skip the insecticides. Finally, a toad house, either purchased, or scavenged from the potting shed—an upside-down flower pot, with a hole broken into the rim, is just right—can provide a place of safety for them to sleep away the day, ready to emerge at dusk and continue their pest-eating duties.

Snakes and lizards get a bad rap. Both eat insects such as crickets and worm-like larvae, and snakes eat baby rodents as well. I’ve got several garter snakes that spend their summers under my zucchini leaves. Aside from the occasional shriek followed by heart palpitations when they startle me, I’m delighted they’re there. Really, I am.

I was quite dismayed when I searched the web for articles on using snakes for pest control—the overwhelming majority of sites advised ways to get rid of the snakes! But, except for those few species that are venomous, snakes and lizard are handy creatures to have around. It’s much better to have these reptiles in our gardens than mice, rats, crickets, slugs, grubs, and grasshoppers.

The next time you mow your grass, do the snakes a favor and walk around your lawn to scare them off first. They can’t hear the mower coming (they have no sense of hearing, but rather rely on ground vibrations). Be even more hospitable by giving them a safe corner to hang out in, such as under pieces of plywood or other flat material left on the ground. We used to have a pile of river rock intended for a future construction project, and the snakes loved the sun-warmed stones.

Article and photos by Leslie Holzmann, Certified Colorado Gardener

Next time: Birds and Mammals