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Literary Gardener: Are crickets a gardener’s friend or foe?

“To have a cricket on the hearth is the luckiest thing in all the world!”

— Dot Peerybingle in Charles Dickens’ “The Cricket on the Hearth,” 1845

In “The Cricket on the Hearth,” one of five Christmas stories written by Charles Dickens, Mrs. Peerybingle believes her house cricket is the family’s guardian angel. She is certainly not alone in thinking crickets are lucky.

More than 1,000 years ago, ladies in China captured field crickets and kept them as pets in ornate cages. The crickets lulled the ladies to sleep at night with their melodious chirping, and the songs were thought to bring good fortune.

Not everyone loves crickets, though. Nocturnal chirping, caused by male crickets rubbing their forewings together, is far from soothing for some people, and gardeners often complain about damage to plant leaves caused by hungry, chewing crickets.

I enjoy listening to chirping crickets (as long as they’re outside), but I’ve always associated the sound with late summer, so I was surprised to hear them recently in my yard. I did a little research and learned that our area has spring crickets as well as fall crickets.

Spring crickets overwinter as nymphs and mature quickly when the weather warms up. That’s when male crickets begin singing to attract mates — until June or July when the female crickets finish laying their eggs and the parents die off. Fall crickets hatch in the spring and begin chirping as adults in late summer.

As omnivores, crickets find tender shoots and leaves in our vegetable gardens irresistible; but in most cases, the damage is not too severe, and the plants recover (perhaps only to be attacked by other insects, but that’s too depressing to think about so early in the season).

Crickets offer benefits to our gardens, too. They eat small pesky insects, such as aphids and scale, and they gorge on weed seeds. One study conducted at Michigan State University found that one female cricket ate 223 weed seeds in just 24 hours.

Crickets help to break down dead leaves and other plant debris into “gardeners’ gold,” or humus, the dark organic matter in soil that contains many nutrients and improves soil health. Cricket manure has an N-P-K (Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium) analysis of 4-3-2, and makes a great organic fertilizer. In fact, it’s commercially sold as Cricketpoo and KricketKrap — no kidding!

An important part of our garden’s food chain, crickets make a tasty treat for birds, mice, toads, lizards and spiders. Parasitic wasps, a beneficial garden insect, use crickets as hosts for their larvae.

Even if you like crickets, it’s possible to get too much of a good thing. To reduce the cricket population in your garden, get rid of leaf piles and other plant debris and stacks of firewood. I discovered about 50 crickets living under a stack of pavers in my backyard.

Vacuuming up the crickets is one option, or sprinkle diatomaceous earth around the garden to kill them on contact. Be forewarned, though; according to some folklore, killing crickets brings bad luck.

If crickets are attacking your vegetable plants, try spraying the plants with an organic repellent made by mixing one blended garlic bulb, one teaspoon of red pepper powder and one tablespoon of liquid soap with one quart of water.

You can capture crickets in a pretty container and keep them as pets as the women in China used to do. Or eat them deep-fried as they do in Southeast Asia — I hear they taste just like chicken.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.