How to Protect Yourself from Lyme Disease If You Love Wildlife
Scientists prove we can outsmart ticks without paving over the world.
Dear Avant Gardener, I recently moved to Dutchess County, NY, which has the highest rate of tick-borne Lyme disease in the country. This fall my backyard was infested with ticks, and it’s been anxiety-inducing – and gross! I found several on me each time I went out in the yard. I started using tick tubes and keeping the grass short, but what else can I do? Websites suggest things like gravel barriers between lawn and the forest edge, but I don’t like the look of that. Are there native plants that could keep the ticks away from my usable yard space? Do specific wildlife eat a lot of ticks and how could I attract them to my yard? – Ticked Off in Hudson Valley
Bravo for coming up with ideas to keep down the number of ticks on your property while increasing its biological diversity! That’s counter to much “environmentally friendly” tick advice that suggests eliminating all tick (and wildlife) habitat – plantings, leaf litter, brush piles – from our yards. As entomologist Doug Tallamy says,
To create a world with no ticks we could turn everything into lawn or pavement. The risk from Lyme disease would drop to zero, but so would the probability that we will persist on this planet much longer. – Doug Tallamy
However, you can vigilantly protect your own body without imperiling the ecosystem. And that includes creating tick-free areas where you regularly spend time. Pavement and mown lawns, particularly those in sunlight, are poor habitat for black-legged ticks because they tend to be dry. Ticks become desiccated in hot, dry environments. So, before implementing wildlife and planting solutions in your broader yard, my advice is to create dry microclimates in the areas for what I call “paths and play.”
Creating safe spaces
Ticks search for prey (you) by “questing” from plants – holding on with their legs and reaching out randomly with their little arms. Research shows even adult ticks don’t move more than three feet toward stationary prey, and nymphs move far less. So you will put sufficient space between yourself and ticks if you have dry paths wide enough to walk without brushing plants and dry play areas with at least three feet between you and lusher plant material.
Are your seating areas, your badminton court, your dog run, or the path from your car to your door, for example, damp and shady? Do you brush against bushes as you walk by? If so, by all means, trim or cut down trees to expose them to sunlight. Alternatively, install a stone patio for seating and move your badminton court to an already sunny area. You get the idea.
Protecting your person
Once you feel safe in your everyday activities, approach times when you work in the garden or explore other areas of your property as you would a hike in a local wildlife refuge. When I hike, I spray my boots and lower legs with evidence-based natural repellant and do a tick check afterward. In areas or seasons with heavy ticks, I also wear outfits treated with permethrin. I have avoided tick bites since taking these precautions. (See “Resources” below.)
Attract more wildlife, not less
So, finally, what about wildlife and planting solutions to decrease the number of infected ticks in your yard more broadly? Evidence-based wildlife approaches target the major tick hosts – white-footed mice for nymphs and deer for adults, not the ticks themselves. The “dilution” approach is to attract small mammals that are less efficient disease reservoirs than mice – rabbits, squirrels, shrews and moles, for example. The “predation” approach is to attract foxes – and potentially owls – to eat the mice. The “exclusion” approach is to keep deer out of the yard. You can provide habitat for small mammals, foxes and owls by maintaining a brush pile and a water source, planting shrubs that provide cover, and creating snags or installing owl nesting boxes.
Planting to discourage ticks
Beyond lawns, there is little research on the relative impact of various plants on ticks in the landscape. However, recent tests of essential oils as natural repellants suggest that some plants may deter ticks. Excluding exotics (because why?) and “deer candy” (geranium and juniper), the top contenders are the marvelous mint family (Lamiaceae), which include many of my favorite garden plants. Please do fill your garden with wild mint (Mentha arvensis), native to most states, and locally native species in the Salvia, Agastache, Monarda and Pycnanthemum genuses – see specific recommendations below.
Wishing you a tick-free future,
– The Avant Gardener
Why, How, Wow!
Ticks are indeed gross – and dangerous. The way they dissolve skin and burrow into it? Yuck. Plus, they transmit Lyme and other serious diseases. I once happily encountered a water moccasin, an alligator and wild boar on a spring hike in Florida, then fell apart back in the car when I found a bazillion lone star ticks. I jumped out, stripped, and finished my tick check in my underwear by the side of the road. Unfortunately, I was not quick or thorough enough and discovered I’m one of those people who itch for months from tick bites. That’s when I started taking the precautions I describe above.
The good news is that many researchers are studying Lyme disease ecology looking for ways to reduce the disease’s incidence and control its spread. Recent research shows creating habitat to attract diverse wildlife is part of the solution, not the problem. Richard S. Ostfeld and Felicia Keesing presented the “dilution” theory in their seminal paper, which they summarized as follows:
In North America, the most competent reservoir host for the Lyme disease agent is the white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), a species that is widespread and locally abundant. . . . Analyses of states and multistate regions along the east coast of the United States demonstrated significant negative correlations between species richness of terrestrial small mammals (orders Rodentia, Insectivora, and Lagomorpha), a key group of hosts for ticks, and per capita numbers of reported Lyme disease cases, which supports our “dilution effect” hypothesis. – Conservation Biology
Additional research determined that higher populations of foxes – mice predators – correlates strongly with lower Lyme disease incidence.
Here are four of the many great native garden plants in the mint family. Ticks avoid mint essential oils in lab tests. They are beautiful and smell great, too, so why not plant masses of them in your yard? You can find mint family plants native to your area by selecting your state and growing conditions to narrow this list of 548 native mints.
Want to buy effective tick repellants? I love Nantucket Spider’s Extra Strength Natural Tick Repellent Spray, with its blend of effective essential oils. I also use Sawyer’s permethrin spray for clothes.
Interested in updates on tick research? Sign up for the Cary Institute’s newsletter at the bottom of this page.
Ready to install an owl nest? You can find Audubon’s DIY plans for a screech owl nest here or buy a kit or ready-made box here.
Dear Avant Gardener is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
No mention of beneficial nematodes? There are at least 2 strains available specifically for tick control and no negative environmental impact