The word conjures images of distant, mist enshrouded hilltops and druids – or perhaps hobbits and elves á la Tolkien.  The context here, however, is decidedly less mystical, although still magical.

I’m talking about creating a shelter for reptiles, one that is especially attractive to toads and newts, and perhaps the occasional grass snake as well.


A cairn for those unfamiliar with the term is a pile of placed stones, often used as a landmark or memorial.  In this instance, I’m talking about a small pile of stones that can be placed in your border.

A mini cairn serves not only as shelter to the local reptiles, but in turn benefits the gardener by bringing the reptiles closer to certain pests you may not want in your mixed borders, namely slugs and snails.  The toads will be eternally grateful for the feast.


Making a cairn is quite easy.  Choose a variety of stones, dig a small, shallow pit beneath where you want to locate the pile, and start placing the larger stones on the bottom, forming a rough circle to create the base, and continue to pile the stones on top of each other forming a small mound, leavings gaps throughout as small entranceways for your little reptilian friends.   The pit creates a cool, damp home for the toads.  Best to place your cairn in a somewhat shady location as well, since stones do tend to retain heat if in direct sunlight.  The goal is not to roast the reptiles.

The one in the photo above is not my neatest attempt — I sort of threw the pile together in the late fall and will need to add a few more stones.  But this mini cairn resides in one of the shade borders, filled with columbine, astilbe, ferns, grasses and aruncas dioicus (Goat’s Beard).  It’s densely packed and attracts snails and slugs, so I’m hoping the cairn will attract some of their natural predators.  Our bird feeders are also in this border, so we do get some ongoing assistance with the local pests from the local birds.  A win-win for all — except the snails and slugs.