Reptiles and amphibians have a way of giving even the most levelheaded gardener the willies, but those slimy, slithering critters in your garden are actually a good thing.
From frogs and toads to salamanders, snakes and turtles, these coldblooded creatures are your garden's first line of defense against pests, so tempt them into sticking around with appealing landscape features, safe sunning spots and pesticide-free snacking grounds.
"Reptiles and amphibians are an integral part of an ecosystem in balance," says Dave Collins, curator of forests for the Tennessee Aquarium. "When a system is out of balance, certain species proliferate and can dominate the scene."
Take mosquitoes, for example. "If adult mosquitoes find a little pool of water that has no natural predators in it, they can quickly produce hundreds or thousands of new mosquitoes, but salamander larvae love to snack on mosquito larvae and keep these guys in check," Collins explains. "Most people don't even know these creatures are around them, but they're doing a big job day in and day out."
In fact, your garden may be home to all manner of helpful herpetofauna.
"All snakes and amphibians, as well as many lizards and turtles, are carnivores and help control populations of insects, rabbits and rodents that could otherwise become garden pests," says David Mizejewski, naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation and author of "Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife."
Yes, even the unsavory snake has its place.
"Snakes not only eat insects galore that can devastate plants but also consume rodents that can ruin a lawn and garden area," says Annette Pelliccio, founder and CEO of The Happy Gardener Inc. "They can take care of moles and voles, which are some of the worst visitors to any lawn. Garter snakes love to eat slugs, which can be a major pesky visitor to any flower or veggie garden."
In the process of providing natural pest control, reptiles and amphibians also help recycle nutrients back into the soil so plants can thrive, and burrowing toads, turtles and snakes help break up compacted soil.
"Some turtles, such as box turtles and gopher and desert tortoises, even help spread the seeds of plants when they consume fruits," Mizejewski says.
*Help Them Help You
Reptiles and amphibians are ectothermic -- that is, they rely on the environment to regulate their body temperature, moving from sun to shade throughout the day. Tempt them into the garden with well-placed basking areas and plenty of hiding spots to give them the warmth and security they crave.
"Avoid large unbroken expanses of lawn. They offer little to wildlife," Collins says. "Reptiles and amphibians love edges. Wide pathways between flower beds and gardens let the sun in for animals that need to thermoregulate. When warm, they can move back into taller vegetation for cover and forage for worms, slugs, bugs or greens."
Break up large expanses of grass with natural terrain features, such as brush piles, clusters of rocks, flower beds and tall grasses, all of which make appealing homes.
"Amphibians and snakes will use brush piles, rock piles and ground cover to hide from predators and ambush prey," Mizejewski says. "A whimsical 'toad abode' mimics these natural spaces. You can purchase one or simply put out a broken clay flowerpot."
Also, consider adding a water feature, such as a small pond or stream, to attract frogs, salamanders and turtles. It need not be large, Pelliccio says, but it should include gradual slopes so turtles and amphibians can enter and exit easily and a few rocks or logs for sunbathing.
Keep in mind that reptiles and amphibians are especially sensitive to environmental contaminants, so cut back on the chemical pesticides, especially near waterways. Pesticides not only eliminate the food supply but also can eliminate these natural predators.
Amphibians are especially susceptible. They can easily absorb toxins through their thin, porous skin -- and if it's strong enough to kill the most tenacious insect or rodent, it's strong enough to kill a frog or salamander. Skip the chemicals, and let these elusive creatures do the work instead.
"Whether it's a snake eating rodents, a box turtle eating slugs or a lizard or frog eating bugs, it seems a lot more sensible than spreading toxic chemicals in our yards, which sends the entire system out of whack and exposes pets and families to toxins," Collins says.
THE GOOD GUYS
Encourage these common interlopers to stick around. They're your first line of defense against garden pests.
Characterized by black, brown and green "racing stripes," these little guys help keep slugs, snails, grasshoppers and small rodents in check. You may spy them basking on rock piles, woodpiles or even concrete walkways, but there's nothing to fear.
As with most garden visitors, the old adage holds true: They're more frightened of you than you are of them. They may bite, but they have tiny teeth that are usually incapable of breaking the skin. They're likelier to defecate in defense, so handle them only if you must.
A woodpile or brush pile located off the beaten path offers the ideal home.
You may find them grazing in the strawberry patch or sneaking a bite of tomato in the garden, but a bit of homegrown produce is a small price to pay for the service of this hearty reptile. Box turtles are omnivores, so they may nibble at the veggies, but they also take a big bite out of snails, slugs, grubs and worms and help spread seeds from native flora.
Box turtles generally do not bite. Instead, they simply hide when disturbed; they are the only kind of turtle capable of fully retracting into and closing its shell. Though they tend to have a lot of personality -- some might say they're even cute -- never take in a wild box turtle as a pet. They are protected in many areas and, like all reptiles, require care beyond what many families are prepared to give.
Toads have voracious appetites, and they'll eat just about anything that crosses their path. From beetles and grasshoppers to grubs and tomato worms, if it moves and fits in their mouths, it's fair game.
They may look rugged and bumpy, but like all amphibians, toads have sensitive skin, so only handle them if they are in harm's way. Be forewarned, though: They won't give you warts and they generally do not bite, but they do store a formidable reserve of urine to release in defense.
Help them find refuge by adding a few "toad abodes" in the garden; a few overturned terra-cotta flowerpots will do the trick.
Chances are you won't even know these amphibians are around unless you happen to unearth one while digging in the garden, yet they pull their weight when it comes to keeping pests in check.
Salamanders are primarily nocturnal and prefer the safety and comfort of damp soil. They often burrow into the garden or hide out under rocks or rotting logs during the day, but at night, they emerge to feed on all manner of insects, grubs and worms -- and their appetite is unmatched.
If you do find one while digging in the garden, be sure to cover it back up with loose, damp soil, but refrain from moving it. Like toads, salamanders have sensitive skin, which can be damaged easily by well-meaning humans, so hands off unless they face direct harm.