Gardening Tips

How To Protect Your Garden From *Billions* of Cicadas

Erin Bunch

Photo: Stocksy / Tytia Habing
After the year we've had, it's tempting to look at everything through an apocalyptic lens—so when it's reported that billions of cicadas are poised to emerge from underground in coming weeks, panic is an understandable response. This is especially true if you've spent the pandemic carefully cultivating a garden you now fear will be annihilated by swarms of insects. What do you need to do—if anything—in order to protect your plants?

"Billions of these creatures will begin to emerge from their underground bunker starting in early May, or even April in some areas, to seek out a mate," says Finch and Folly's Allison Vallin of the coming swarms known ominously as Brood X. This type of cicada emerges from underground once every 17 years, making itself known in at least 18 states. A map showing the epicenters of the emergence includes Washington, D.C., Indiana, and Tennessee.

While this may not be a pleasant phenomenon for the insect-phobic, there's good news for gardeners. "Many folks confuse cicadas with locusts and fear crop destruction, but the good news is that cicadas are not locusts and [they don't] do much damage to a garden," says Vallin. "When cicadas emerge after being underground for so long, they’re actually not looking to go munch on your tomatoes or pepper plants—their focus is purely on mating."

Cicadas don't bite or sting. In fact, she says, they're more of a nuisance to your ears—male cicadas sing to attract their reproductive partners—than they are to your plants. "Adults really do no harm at all," Vallin says. "But females do seek out young trees and shrubs to lay their eggs in, garden plants in general have nothing to fear." And while cicada grubs, or young, do eat plant roots, any damage their appetites might have done to your garden has likely already taken place given they've been underground for the last seventeen years. "You would have seen it by now," says Vallin.

However, Vallin says you can protect any tender, young trees and shrubs with a polyester row cover ($18). "Especially young fruit trees in particular, as they are a favorite for females to lay their eggs in," she says. "It’s best to cover these plants as early as possible, before the cicadas fully emerge." Established trees, she adds, are not affected by cicadas.

What you should not do, according to Vallin, is utilize pesticides or insecticides as a deterrent. "Neither is needed in the least," she says. "Plus, spraying pesticides or insecticides can actually do more harm than good by hurting nearby beneficial insects. At the most, a row cover or mosquito netting will more than suffice."

And as for whether or not you should delay planting until after the cicada descend back underground, Vallin advises against it—especially for those gardening in shorter growing climates. "Any kind of planting delay can impact getting in a harvest before the first frost," she says. "As long as your plants are healthy and vibrant when you go out to transplant them, they should be all good to grow up nice and strong."

Back inside, here's how to choose the best plant for every room in your home:

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