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Cicadas, ticks and moles in your garden

Friday - 4/19/2013, 3:53am  ET

mole_garden.jpg
A mole pokes its head out of the ground. (Thinkstock)
Meet Mike in person. Saturday, April 27 at the Community Home Show in Ocean Pines, Md., or Saturday, May 4 at Prince William County Compost Awareness Day at the Balls Ford Road Yard Waste Compost Facility in Manassas, Va.

Mike McGrath, wtop.com

Cicadas are coming - but not for your tomatoes

Pat, in Kensington, writes: "Are the soon-to-appear cicadas a threat to my tomato plants?"

Pete, in Laurel, also writes: "I'm getting excited about planting my veggie garden, but am concerned about the upcoming cicada emergence. Are they going to wreak havoc? If so, what can we do to prevent it?"

There is a massive brood of the huge insects due to emerge from their 17-year sleep this season, but the curious creatures do not feast on garden plants. Despite an unfortunate (and completely erroneous) common nickname, they are not locusts. In fact, these giant buzzers don't feed at all in the adult stage. They did all their eating during their long underground slumber, sucking gently on tree roots.

The only danger they pose is when the female cicadas lay their eggs in slits they make in the limbs of small, young trees (especially newly planted fruit trees). But even this rarely causes any serious damage.

Time to protect against ticks

Jan, in Bethesda, writes: "Your pieces on tick control last year were great, especially as few people in town seem to be aware of the Lyme disease issue. When spring arrives, please remind everyone about the protection offered by Tick Tubes."

My pleasure, Jan. Tick Tubes are little cardboard tubes filled with cotton balls soaked in permethrin, which is deadly to ticks. You scatter the tubes around brushy areas of your landscape, and field mice, the prime carriers of diseased ticks, take the cotton to their nests to use as bedding, killing any ticks that come into that nesting area for the entire season.

That's right, mice. Many so-called "deer ticks" never see a deer. But they all spend part of their life attached to white-footed field mice. Tick Tubes are low- tech but because they target mice, a common pest, the tubes are a highly effective method of tick control.

You can't poison moles

Bix, over in Sunderland, writes: "What do you recommend to rid my lawn of moles? Traps? Poison? Grub killer?"

Bix, moles don't eat these stupid poison gummy worms, or ingest any other kind of poison. Moles only eat live, warm food, specifically earthworms, grubs and cicada larvae. They would never chow down on something that wasn't warm and alive. Sorry, all you Juicy Fruit believers.

Killing the grubs in your lawn might help a bit. But if you do decide to go this route, use non-toxic beneficial nematodes (like these specialized ones from Gardens Alive) instead of the chemical grub killers that also can kill you.

A heavy application of a castor oil-based mole repellent is your best bet. These castor oil products are very effective and readily available in both liquid and powder formulations at retail outlets and via mail order.

If a couple runs of castor oil don't work, you'll need to turn to deadly traps, which are very effective, but can be tricky to set up. Or adopt a "ratting" dog like a Jack Russell terrier.

Unfortunately, live trapping doesn't work with moles.

Deck your deck with the plants of spring, not summer

Karen, in Clifton, has a timely question. She writes: "Dazzled by the lovely weather we've been having, I am inspired to get my deck beautified earlier than usual. I usually wait until Mother's Day, but can I put my indoor plants outside now? And what about all the hanging baskets and such for sale in the stores? Or am I rushing things?"

Of course you're rushing things, Karen, and so is everyone else. My spring fever thermometer currently reads 104! But some areas in the region are going to drop below a very sobering 40 degrees this weekend. So put on the brakes: no house plants or other summer lovers quite yet.

But you can brighten up that deck with cool, weather-loving plants like pansies, potted spring bulbs and brightly colored lettuces.

Never use straight peat moss in a garden

Chris out in Burke writes: "I built a new garden bed and filled it with top soil, composted manure and a big bundle of peat moss. I planted tomatoes, beans, zucchini and cucumbers, but they didn't do well, even after fertilizing. A person at my local nursery thinks that the peat was the cause, and that I need to add Lime to increase the pH. Is this true?"

It is absolutely true, Chris. Peat moss is highly acidic and should only be used on plants that require an acidic soil, such as azaleas and blueberries.

But your other two components weren't great ideas either. "Top soil" has no legal meaning. It might be decent dirt, but it could just be nasty clay. And manure isn't good for fruiting plants. Its high nitrogen content grows big plants but can actually limit flowering and fruiting.

Test the soil in that bed. If the pH is below 6.5, raise it up with a little lime - or even better, ash from a hardwood stove or fireplace. But not too much. A little goes a long way!

Then add a couple of inches of high quality compost to the surface of the soil - that's what your crops of summer are craving!

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