17-year-old cicadas are ready to hatch
Have you ever heard a shrill hum in the yard?
Have you seen pink-sized, hard-shelled insects flying around you that look like grasshoppers with bulging, orange-red eyes?
Keep your eyes peeled for Brood X’s emergence of the 17-year-old cicadas, a remarkable feat of Pennsylvania’s nature in which a massive amount of native locust-like insects appear for just a few weeks after spending 17 years under Earth.
While these bugs might look and sound ominous, there’s no need to curl up behind the compost heap.
They don’t bite, they don’t sting, they don’t spread disease, and gardeners believe it or not, they rank at the bottom of the horticultural chaos scale.
Dr Jared Ali, professor of entomology at Penn State University, says the main threat to the landscape comes from the insect’s habit of laying eggs.
Female cicadas cut small slits in young tree branches, then lay small white eggs in them.
This cutting can lead to wilting or death of branch tips from the spawning point outward, a condition known as “scarring.”
“The only trees you need to worry about are the smaller ones, those with branches that are a quarter of an inch to a half inch,” says Ali. Larger trees, he says, can resist splitting damage and likely won’t show significant damage.
The ends of the dead branches of the cicadas laying eggs can simply be pruned. Most trees will sprout new growth from the remaining interior wood and recover with a slight setback.
Very young, newly transplanted trees are at greater risk and can be protected by wrapping them in netting (with openings smaller than half an inch) or light fabric row covers (typically used to drape vegetables in the garden). Make sure to secure the covering to the trunk so that cicadas cannot enter from underneath.
This assumes that the cicadas are hiding in the first place.
Populations of cicadas are greatest near wooded areas and in areas with tall trees and shrubs that have not been disturbed for the past 17 years. They do not favor cities loaded with concrete or housing estates in which underground nymphs have been bulldozed.
If you’re about to plant a new tree, another option is to wait until summer or early fall – after the cicadas have receded into the ground until 2038.
Ali advises against spraying.
“You will probably do more harm to yourself or to butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects,” he says. “Besides, these are just going to fly, do their thing and die in a few weeks.”
The cicada nymphs feed on tree roots when they are underground, but Ali says this causes negligible damage and is also not worth dealing with.
However, if this worries you, prune off the egg-laden branch sections and destroy them before the nymphs hatch and burrow.
- Read George’s April column to learn more about plants and 17-year-old cicadas
- Read Marcus Schneck’s article on where cicadas will emerge and see and hear them in action
Petra tomato planting tips
Petra Page-Mann, New York Co-Owner Fruit seeds, has planted lots of tomatoes over the years and has learned some key tips for getting plants off to a good start.
The first is not to plant too early. Gardeners are often in a rush to grow their tomatoes, usually in the first step of frost-free safety (May 12 according to Harrisburg weather data).
“Timing is everything,” says Page-Mann. “Don’t think that tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are just frost sensitive. Think of them as sensitive to cold. Sure, a frost will likely kill them, but experiencing temperatures below 50 degrees is stressful for them, diminishing their health and resulting abundance.
She adds that it is also important that the ground is warm as well as the temperature of the air.
Six more tomato planting tips from Page-Mann:
1.) Start with chunky grafts. Look for plants that are short, sturdy, and dark green in color.
2.) Remove any early flowers or fruits. Plants do best when they focus on vegetative growth for the first two weeks, rather than reproduction. Cut off any flowers or young fruits until the plants have spent two weeks in the ground.
3.) “Harden” the plants. Be sure to give your indoor tomatoes at least five days to gradually get used to the outdoors before you plant them. This allows them to adapt to brighter light and outdoor breezes, reducing the shock of the transplant.
Even for store-bought plants, give them several days of reduced protection before planting. These transplants may have spent their entire lives so far in a greenhouse or garden center.
4.) Feed them … and the soil. “Tomatoes are big eaters,” says Page-Mann. “We feed our soil and our tomatoes with compost and organic granular fertilizer and a fish and kelp emulsion every two weeks, throughout the season.
She also waters each plant at the time of planting with a dose of fish emulsion.
5.) Give them enough space. “Two feet between the plants is a solid minimum, regardless of the size or small size of the variety,” says Page-Mann. “The increased airflow and reduced humidity dramatically reduce disease and increase abundance.”
Also make sure you have a trellis or sturdy supports in place, especially for the indeterminate types which can get really big and heavy in late summer.
6.) Bury as much of the stem as possible. Most plants will die if you bury the roots too deep. Tomatoes, however, have the ability to sprout roots from their buried stems.
“We plant between two-thirds and three-quarters of the stem, leaving the leaves to decompose in place,” says Page-Mann.
Some gardeners even plant most of the stem to the side a few inches below the soil surface, supporting the leafy “head” with a small pillow of soil.
All of this will get the tomatoes off to a good start, but a lot can go wrong from there. One of the biggest prohibitions on growing tomatoes is avoiding disease – especially the very common septoria leaf spot and the fungal diseases of late blight.
Page-Mann has written an excellent free 14-page guide – with photos – on organic disease management in tomatoes. It is available for free download on the Fruition Seeds Website.
How to plant a hanging basket
A quick and inexpensive way to add color to the porch is to use a hanging basket or two.
These flower balls on a string hang down at eye level and, if planted well and cared for, give non-stop Mother’s Day gel color.
Most garden centers have hanging baskets already planted that look good – ready to take home and hang up.
Less expensive in the long run is to invest in your own wire baskets, which you can replant each spring. Some tips to achieve this …
1.) Lean towards larger baskets, which do not dry as quickly as the smaller ones. Line the inside of your frame with fresh sphagnum moss every year … or with ready-to-use moss or fiber liner. Reduce evaporative loss by lining the inside (but NOT the bottom) of your basket with a heavy sheet of plastic.
2.) Fill the basket with light potting soil about two-thirds full. Use a light, high-quality potting soil made from a mixture of peat moss and / or coconut fiber (coir fibers), compost, perlite and bark (no manure or “forest products”) .
3.) Set your plants, spaced almost to the touchand cover the clods with additional potting soil. The mixture should end by an inch or two below the lip.
4.) Lightly scrape a dispersion of granular progressive-release flower fertilizer in the surface. Osmocote is the best-known brand, but similar generic versions are also suitable.
5.) Install hanger hooks and chain. Make sure the hangers are strong enough to support the weight of the basket, potting soil, and water. Hang the basket in a light frame that matches the preferences of the flowers you have selected.
Option: Attach a swivel hook to the chain (available at hardware stores) so you can easily turn the basket during the season, giving all sides more even access to light.
6.) Once in place, soak the basket until the water drains from the bottom.
7.) Start your skincare regimen throughout the season. Check the water regularly (daily watering is the norm in hot, dry weather) and add half-concentrated flower fertilizer to the water once a week throughout the growing season.
Cut the stems of plants that protrude from neighbors or that grow too long. Deadhead spent flowers.
- More advice when to do what: George’s “Monthly gardening in Pennsylvania” delivered