Guide to Staying Healthy in the Garden

How to avoid ticks in the garden

Tick crawling on a garden plantWe’ve written often about how to keep your plants and soil healthy, but much more important is that you stay healthy. Being out in the garden can mean being bitten by ticks and mosquitoes, and these can lead to Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, or West Nile virus. In this newsletter, we’ll tell you the essential things about these insect-transmitted illnesses, and explain how you can protect yourself from getting them.

Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is the most commonly reported insect-borne illness in the U.S. More than 90% of the approximately 30,000 cases each year occur in the Northeastern states, plus Minnesota, Virginia, and Wisconsin.  As you’ve probably heard, Lyme disease is mostly carried by deer ticks. The bad news about deer ticks is that they are so small you might not notice if one latches onto you. The good news is that it has to remain on you for at least one full day before it can infect you. That means if you carefully check yourself after coming in from gardening each day and have someone check the places you can’t see you don’t have to worry about getting Lyme disease.

Of course, if you find a tick on yourself, it’s crucial that you remove it quickly and correctly. That means: do not mess around with matches, Vaseline, or other folk remedies. And also, don’t just yank it out. To remove a tick you need a good pair of fine-tipped tweezers. Grasp the tick firmly, as close to the skin as possible, trying to clamp onto the head as well as the body. You then pull it straight out, away from your skin, slowly and firmly, with a steady motion. The object is to remove the entire tick, not just part of it. If you just rip it off, the head will almost certainly remain behind, and that disembodied head will infect you just as surely as if it were still attached to a body.

After you remove the tick, clean the area with antibacterial soap. Health authorities suggest that you circle the site with a permanent marker to help you to remember to keep an eye on it. If you see any rash or redness develop, especially a bulls-eye that looks like a red ring around the site with a red spot in the center, see your doctor immediately.

If you have a tick but fail to notice it, what will happen is that it will feed for several days and then drop off. Therefore you have to know how to spot Lyme disease early. The rule of thumb is that if you have flu-like symptoms plus an area on your body that has a red rash, especially the telltale bulls-eye, then see your doctor immediately. Lyme disease can be treated very effectively in its earliest stage, but if left untreated, you might be in for a long and difficult recovery.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) is usually caused by dog ticks or wood ticks. There are about 2,500 reported cases per year. Despite its name, more than 60 percent of those cases occur in North Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri, and the rest show up all over the country. Unlike Lyme disease, the flu-like symptoms come first when you catch RMSF, followed by the rash that consists of reddish-purple spots. More than half the people who come down with RMSF aren’t aware that they had been bitten. Therefore it’s very important that you check yourself carefully after a day of gardening, and that if you find any ticks, you remove them as described above. As with Lyme disease, it’s crucial to start antibiotics right away in order to treat it effectively, so be sure to see a doctor at once if you suspect you may have RMSF.

West Nile Virus Caused by MosquitoesWest Nile Virus

West Nile Virus is carried by mosquitoes and is less common than Lyme disease or RMSF: there have been fewer than 2,000 cases reported so far in 2012. Nevertheless, it’s something to watch out for, especially if you live in Texas, where 40 percent of this year’s cases occurred, or in South Dakota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Michigan, where most of the other cases were found.

West Nile can cause flu-like symptoms so mild that some people mistake them for a common cold. The problem is that with 1 person in 150, those symptoms will go from being flu-like to life-threatening: the virus can cause meningitis or encephalitis, conditions so deadly they can kill in a matter of hours.

So how do you know if you’re that 1 person in 150? Watch out for flu-like symptoms plus stiff neck and/or severe headache and/or difficulty in opening and closing your mouth (lockjaw). If you experience any of these combinations, hightail it to the emergency room or an urgent care facility. Better safe than sorry is the principle to keep in mind here.

Prevention Is Better Than Cure

Another key principle is, Prevention is better than cure. This old saying is true to the max when it comes to Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and West Nile virus.

We suggest a two-pronged approach. First, reduce the number of ticks and mosquitoes on your property. Second, reduce the number of ticks and mosquitoes on you.

To Reduce the Number of Mosquitoes on Your Property

  • Remove, turn over, cover, or store equipment.
  • Remove debris from ditches.
  • Fill in areas that collect standing water.
  • Place drain holes in containers that collect water and cannot be discarded.
  • DO NOT use strong insecticides (esp. those with pyrethrins) that will kill off the mosquitoes’ natural predators.
  • DO use non-toxic products such as NOCDOWN III Organic Mosquito Control or Dr. T’s All Natural Gnat and Mosquito Repelling Granules.
  • If you have standing water that must remain, use Summit Mosquito Dunks. This great product has an active ingredient that is a naturally occurring bacterium that infects the mosquito larva and kills it. Yet it is harmless to people, fish, and other wildlife. Use mosquito dunks wherever you have standing water, including in ponds.
  • Talking about ponds, stock them with goldfish and/or mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis), both of which are good mosquito predators. Most native fish of any kind will go after mosquito larvae.
  • Burn citronella candles or torches to repel mosquitoes. They reduce the number of mosquitoes in the immediate area by about one half.
  • Use fans, inside and out. The mosquitoes’ ability to fly straight and to follow human scents is significantly deterred if you have a fan going.
  • Last but not least, put screens up in your house so that inside areas remain, for the most part, mosquito-free.

Chickens Clean Ticks from Your Garden and YardTo Reduce the Number of Ticks on Your Property

  • Remove leaf litter.
  • Remove, mow, or cut back tall grass and brush.
  • Discourage deer activity.
  • Keep chickens, one of the natural predators of ticks. One study found that a single chicken will eat 10 ticks per hour, and yet chickens are in no danger of getting tick-borne diseases.
  • Encourage wildlife. Newly hatched tick larvae are disease-free, but if all they have to feed on are rodents, they will likely become disease carriers. If there are squirrels and other mammals to feed on, as well as birds and reptiles, they most likely will remain harmless.
  • Maintain mowed buffer zones. According to the Mother Earth News, Ticks are most likely to find you as you walk through tall grass, work around low shrubbery, or hang out in shady, mulched areas. Open lawn makes poor tick habitat, so a swath of lawn makes a good buffer zone between your house and the wilder habitats preferred by ticks.

Using Plants to Repel Mosquitoes

The following plants repel mosquitoes to varying degrees. We can’t vouch for how much of a difference they will make, but they certainly can’t hurt and will probably help some.

  • Basil, Lemon
  • Clorinda Scented Geranium Plant
  • Lemon balm
  • Rose geranium
  • Rosemary

Personal Strategies to Keep Mosquitoes and Ticks at Bay

  • Wear a hat and light-colored clothing (easier to see the ticks on), preferably long-sleeved shirts and long pants tucked into boots or socks. Avoid open-toed shoes, and consider using mosquito-net shirts or hoodies.
  • Use an insect repellent. Those with DEET are good, but note that 35 percent is the maximum effective concentration; those with more don’t work any better. We recommend herbal repellents that use lemon combined with eucalyptus; Consumer Reports found these to be as effective as those with DEET.
  • Avoid prime biting times, which usually means dusk and dawn.
  • Some people report that 100 mg. of Vitamin B1 per day keeps the mosquitoes away. See if it works for you.
  • If you’ve spent time in an area with ticks, you can kill any that might have clung to your clothing by putting your clothes (washed or unwashed) in a dryer for 10 minutes at the highest setting.

We hope this information helps you to stay healthy in the great outdoors. Happy Gardening from all of us at GrowJoy!

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  • Reply
    September 19, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    Thank you for bringing together this important information. I haven’t seen it anywhere else in one place. I would like to chime in with one comment: about the plants used to repel mosquitoes: all of these will definitely repel mosquitoes if you take a leaf or two, crush them beween your fingers, and rub them on your skin. Doesn’t last as long as DEET but it works in a pinch.

  • Reply
    May 15, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    you forgot Praying Mantis’! I notice a huge drop in tick population every year after they hatch.
    and nematodes kill the larvae & eggs from under ground.

    • Reply
      May 16, 2014 at 8:40 am

      That is an excellent suggestion Katherine, thanks for sharing it! Joe

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