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Ask the Experts: How to Protect Yourself Against Ticks In the Garden

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Ask the Experts: How to Protect Yourself Against Ticks In the Garden

June 13, 2024

Gardeners have learned to put on a brave face when it comes to ticks: If you want to spend your days outside, you’re likely to encounter some. But there is much you can do to protect yourself from these pesky critters, and most studies show that people who actively protect themselves are less likely to get bitten.

You may be tempted to call a service to have your yard “sprayed for ticks,” but those pesticides don’t just kill ticks: They also come with negative impacts to people, pets, and wildlife. The most commonly used pesticides for tick management, for example, are synthetic pyrethroids, which are toxic to bees and other beneficial insects. “These are used widely in urban environments and end up at high levels in urban and suburban watersheds, where they pose risks to aquatic organisms,” explains Emily May, a conservation biologist with the Xerces Society. And the organic ones? They’re not yet proven to be effective.

Above: Getting rid of the Japanese barberry shrubs on your property may drastically cut down your risk of getting bitten by a tick while gardening. Photograph by Marie Vijoen, from What’s that Berry? Test Your Knowledge of Fall’s Red Fruits.

“We need for more research on how to most effectively integrate a variety of lower-impact methods, such as landscape modifications (keeping lawn mowed short, using a xeric border like gravel between wooded edges and lawn), host-targeted approaches, and lower toxicity options for tick suppression,” says May. But here at Gardenista there is one tactic we definitely recommend trying: Remove Japanese barberry. Not only is barberry an invasive species that’s taking over woodlands, it is apparently a favorite tick hangout. One study found that Japanese barberry shrubs are favorable habitats for black-legged ticks (aka “deer ticks”) and that management of the barberry reduced tick populations significantly.

Your best bet, though, is to protect yourself–not try to wage war with the whole landscape. I asked experts and everyday gardeners to share their advice for how to keep yourself tick-free and combed through the scientific research. Here’s what you can do to stay safe:

N.B.: Featured photograph by Claire Takacs, from Can This Garden Be Saved: I Don’t Like Mowing Around Trees.

Check for ticks daily.

A tick when it&#8\2\17;s at nymph stage is teeny-tiny. Photograph by R. Kriatyrr Brosvik via Flickr.
Above: A tick when it’s at nymph stage is teeny-tiny. Photograph by R. Kriatyrr Brosvik via Flickr.

Your most essential line of defense is to check your body every day for ticks, both after gardening and before going to bed. The Wilderness Medical Society recommends that you remove all your clothing and “systematically scan the body for ticks, paying special attention to warm places (armpits, knees, under underwear, around the hairline of neck, ears, and navel).” 

Spray insect repellent on exposed skin.

Use bug spray with an E.P.A.-registered product that contains Picaridin or Deet. “Natural” bug sprays might also work, but the CDC notes the efficacy of “natural” ingredients varies wildly, and “moreover, different products based on the same active ingredients (e.g., rosemary and peppermint oils) can have highly variable tick killing efficacy, underscoring the difficulty in making recommendations about unregulated minimum-risk products based solely on the active ingredients they contain.” 

Treat your gardening clothes, too.

Another tactic is to spray your gardening clothing with the insecticide permethrin; available as a spray-on treatment, permethrin usually lasts through several washings but needs to be reapplied with some frequency. Zinzi Edmundson, the founder of Treehouse newsletter, who gardens in Maine, suggests spraying your shoes, especially (she uses Sawyer’s permethrin). If you’re unsure about adding permethrin yourself, you can mail your gardening clothes to Insect Shield for professional application, which is supposed to last five times longer. 

Wear all white.

You’re familiar with the drill: Light colored clothes make it easier to see ticks. In her Quick Takes interview, Deborah Needleman shared her go-to white garden uniform: A pair of white Dickies or Carhartt pants, a white Hanes Re/done t-shirt, and white slip-on Vans. You could also consider the TickSuit, a full-body white cotton jumpsuit (with hood!) developed by a doctor who had Lyme disease four times.

Tuck it all in.

Above: Always tuck pants into your socks when you’re working outdoors. Photograph by Toshi Yano, from Ask the Expert: When to Start Cleanup and Other Spring Gardening Questions for Toshi Yano of the Perfect Earth Project.

We’ve all also heard the advice to tuck your pants into your socks, but too often gardeners skip this step. Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station’s Tick Management Handbook (an excellent resource) notes that “surveys show the majority of individuals never tuck their pants into their socks when entering tick-infested areas.” You should also tuck your shirt into your pants, so ticks can’t sneak in at the waistband.

Roll the tape.

For an extra layer of protection, my pal Laura Serino, who lives on North Haven in Maine, where ticks are serious business, came through with two ingenious suggestions. Wrap a ring of double stick tape around your sock-covered ankles to prevent ticks from crawling up your leg. Then when you get inside, use a sticky lint roller to go over all your clothing to (hopefully) remove ticks, including the nymphs which are so hard to see. 

Shower after gardening.

Don’t wait to hop in the shower. Make it a habit to rinse off as soon as you get inside.

Launder right away.

To make sure you’re not bringing ticks into your home, put your gardening clothes directly into the washing machine (don’t get a snack or a glass of water first!). Always wash on hot and then dry on high heat, as well. According to the authors of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station’s Tick Management Handbook, “Many blacklegged ticks and lone star ticks can survive a warm or hot water wash, but they cannot withstand one hour in a hot dryer.”

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