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Abodes For Toads E-mail
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Friday, 10 March 2006
Abodes For Toads


The Tampa Tribune

By George Graham

When Shawna Himelright took up pottery, she soon discovered not every piece turned out the way she planned.

She decided to bury her mistakes.

Or, more accurately, partly bury them. In her garden. As toad houses.

So when she was hired by Plant City's Water Resource Management Division recently to coordinate its environmental education program, the 23-year-old fine arts major figured one way of getting her message across would be to teach area gardeners how to make toad houses.

Water from farms, roads, parking lots, lawns and gardens is the state's biggest source of surface water pollution, said Himelright's boss, Al Miller. It contains such pollutants as fertilizers, petroleum products - and pesticides.

One of Himelright's objectives is to make local gardeners aware of alternatives to pesticides. That's where the toad houses come in.

The whimsical looking pottery pieces attract toads, which eat bugs by the thousand.

The program is a small part of a wide-ranging initiative that includes such activities as collecting used oil, preventing and cleaning up household chemical spills, and keeping waterways and ditches free of weeds.

But it's attracting a lot of attention.

When Himelright announced a free toad house building class held Tuesday night at the city's Planteen Recreation Center, she received so many responses she had to close the attendance list.

"You can't do an effective job if you have too many people," she said.

Using her pottery-making skills, she showed about 20 adults and children how to shape lumps of clay into shelters that toads might find attractive.

Himelright concedes that a broken flowerpot or a coffee can with a hole in it works about as well as a fancy piece of pottery. However, as in any real estate project, the most important thing is location.

Toads prefer locations that are shady, moist, cool - and private.

But cracked flower pots and rusty tin cans are not nearly as decorative as an artistically shaped piece of pottery. Even if the toads don't care, the gardeners do.

Toads are just one of many creatures that devour garden pests, Miller said. He listed such species as praying mantises, lacewings, nematodes "and lady bugs - the strawberry farmers use ladybugs."

A thriving industry has developed in beneficial insects and plants that repel pests, Miller said. They are sold by area suppliers and on the Internet.

Building Worm Bins

Himelright, who attends University of South Florida night classes and expects to graduate this year, has other projects designed to raise local awareness of the need to curb groundwater pollution.

She recently held a Planteen class in making worm bins, for example.

Homeowners - even apartment dwellers - are encouraged to use the bins for such items as table scraps, reducing the amount of garbage for the city to dispose of and creating the kind of rich compost that red wigglers delight in.

Red wigglers are a type of earthworm, which, unlike the larger dew worm, thrives in a compost bin. Himelright bought the wigglers for her demonstration from Green Top Worm Farm in Dover. They also are available on the Internet.

Himelright paid $12 a pound for her wigglers. Two cups of worms cost $3.

The great advantage of worm composting is that it can be done indoors as well as outdoors, which makes it ideal for urban residents, Himelright said.

"When we had the class, about 30 people showed up, adults and kids," she said. "You should've seen them tearing newspaper into strips for the bins."

Where does Himelright recommend keeping the bins?

Anywhere dark and quiet, she said. A closet would be good.

The idea is eventually to add the compost and worms to the garden, reducing the need for fertilizers and helping to aerate the soil.

"And the worms make great gifts for your friends," Miller said. "Especially if they're fishermen."

Himelright is planning a class on building bat houses.

Bats are much-maligned, she said. Only about half of 1 percent carry rabies, and they are voracious insect eaters.

Wastewater Background

Miller and Himelright worked as wastewater technicians.

Himelright, who grew up "in the country" north of Plant City, started working part time in Hillsborough County's sewer system, then went full time before joining the Plant City staff in 2003. She was appointed environmental education coordinator in September.

Miller, 38, a biologist who has been with the city's Water Resource Management Division for 15 years, was appointed environmental coordinator about five years ago after federal regulators ordered the city to make residents more aware of the need to protect surface water.

The environmental education program includes distributing educational pamphlets, visiting schools and holding seminars for city employees.

Early in the program, Miller got a teaching package from Miami, which was built around a character known as Officer Snook. The giant fish character visited grade schools to tell students about pollution prevention.

Miller, who is 6 feet 1 inch tall, couldn't fit into the Officer Snook costume, however. That job went to his assistant, Julia Klupacs.

Officer Snook was retired when Klupacs left the city staff about two years ago.

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