Everybody is talking about cicadas.
However, as noisy and messy as this spring's invasion may be, cicadas aren't dangerous and they don't do much damage to plants.
Meanwhile, there are lots of other creatures out there every year preying on your lawn and garden. There's not much you can do about cicadas except to put insect netting over smaller trees and shrubs you want to protect. But there's plenty you can do about deer, rabbits, moles, voles, aphids, cutworms and other pests.
The first thing to do when you spot damage to a plant is to identify the culprit. These days, fighting critters is not about eradication, it's about management. It's about prevention first and specific remedies as needed later. There are beneficial organisms and harmful ones. The idea is to encourage the good ones and discourage the bad ones -- not just to kill everything that moves.
It may take some detective work to figure out what's gnawing on your plants, making holes in your yard or tunneling underneath it. A lot of pests, as well as the creatures that help get rid of them, come out at twilight or after dark. You only know they've been around when you see damaged leaves or dying plants. If you have mystery damage, you may need to patrol the garden for a while at various times to catch the culprit in the act.
Once you know what the varmint is, you can decide how to discourage it appropriately. Some creatures, including frogs, bats, snakes, ladybugs and parasitic wasps, are actually good for the garden because they eat garden pests, including mosquitoes. Even annoying pests such as moles can have some good qualities: A mole's favorite food is lawn-destroying grubs.
There are some simple measures you can take to discourage wildlife from invading your territory. The most obvious is to put up a fence. It can be short, about two feet tall to keep out rabbits, or tall, up to eight feet, to exclude deer. It should be buried in the ground at least two inches and as deeply as 10 inches. Electrified fencing, which gives animals a discouraging but not deadly shock, is effective. However, it has drawbacks in expense and maintenance, plus it will shock anything that touches it, including children and house pets.
Pets -- dogs and cats -- can be effective at discouraging or killing wildlife, but you might not want to remove cuter creatures such as cottontails and chipmunks. And, because cats might kill songbirds, chipmunks, fish, frogs and other wildlife, there may be times you will want to protect these animals from your pets.
One way to discourage deer is to install plants they don't like to eat, especially around the perimeter of your property. Generally, plants that have sticky or hairy leaves, thick, leathery foliage, or medicinal uses, or plants with a minty or lemony fragrance are seldom damaged. Evergreen shrubs and trees that have the best chance of surviving browsing deer include firs, hollies, junipers, pines, spruces, boxwoods, cherrylaurels, mahonias, nandinas, pyracanthas, rhododendrons and viburnums. Commercial repellents can also work, but they may have to be constantly renewed to be effective.
Removing sources of food and water and keeping property clear of debris can persuade smaller animals such as squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons and opossums to go elsewhere. Garbage cans should have tight-fitting lids. It may be a good idea to keep them inside garages or sheds on non-pickup days, or to fasten them firmly to a post so they can't be tipped over. Remove standing water to discourage mosquitoes. Use bird feeders that are squirrel-proof and consider limiting birdseed to one kind per feeder, so the birds visiting will eat it all and not push away what they don't want. Squirrels have been known to gnaw on bulbs, but much of their damage is limited to digging in plant pots and beds to bury nuts and dig for food. Some people have found that misting plants with water and dusting them with cayenne pepper discourages squirrels from digging. Keep lawns mowed and remove scrap wood and other debris. Don't throw food onto an open compost pile. Try not to feed pets outdoors. If you must, then remove uneaten food and containers immediately.
Some animals are protected by law. Others act as disease vectors or are dangerous when cornered, so you may need professional help to get rid of them. The Wildlife Services program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service can offer advice on solving wildlife problems. Call 866-USDA-WS (866-487-3297) for the office in your area, or visit www.aphis.usda.gov/ws.
Lawn pests such as moles and voles can be discouraged by commercial repellents, but the best way to get rid of them is to trap and remove them. Moles are non-rodent insectivores that eat grubs, earthworms and other soil-dwelling insects. They don't eat plants, but in their tunneling they can dislodge plants or damage roots. Voles are small, mouselike rodents that also tunnel under grass. Unlike moles, however, voles eat grass, flower bulbs and some food plants, such as potatoes. They may also be guilty of eating the roots of plants such as roses and boxwoods. Tunneling moles leave mounds; voles don't. But voles sometimes use mole tunnels. Avoiding dense ground covers (such as creeping juniper and English ivy) and keeping mulch away from the bases of trees and shrubs can discourage voles. Devices that make noise or cause vibrations are rarely effective.
Damage by insects and other creepy-crawlies can come from chewing (missing leaf parts or tiny holes) or sucking (discoloration, twisting or curling). Many are nocturnal, so you'll need a quiet night and a flashlight to capture and identify them. If you don't know what you've got, ask your county Cooperative Extension Service for help.
Many pests can be controlled by handpicking them off, or by removing all dead or damaged foliage as soon as you notice it. It's not a good idea to use pesticides, if you can help it, because they will kill beneficial life, too. You can trap slugs with beer in a jar lid and discourage cutworms with plastic or cardboard collars around the stems of plants. Controlled use of horticultural oils or soaps can rid plants of spider mites, adelgids, scale, aphids, whiteflies, mealybugs and other soft-bodied insects.
Look for plant species and varieties that are naturally insect- and disease-repellent. Keeping the garden neat and encouraging natural predators can go a long way toward controlling garden pests. Your landscape may never be completely free of all pests, but with a little care you can keep damage to a minimum.
As far as the cicadas are concerned, some plants may actually benefit from the kind of tip pruning that is their worst effect; it can encourage new, vigorous growth. And besides, by the end of June, the cicadas will be mostly a memory.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.