New Look for Gardeners Freaked out about Lyme Disease

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Apparel for today’s gardener?

News about the rapid spread of tick-borne diseases, especially the life-changing-if not-treated-in-time Lyme Disease, has me so freaked out that I’m now afraid to tend my garden, much less take a walk in the woods. I won’t stop gardening, but at least for my peace of mind I’m determined to take reasonable precautions from now on.

(Does my close-to-city location mean I don’t have to worry? My neighbor was recently diagnosed with Lyme from a tick she got in her own garden.)

In my online research, the best sources I found were LymeDisease.org, TickEncounter.org and a Tick Management Handbook by the State of Connecticut. Here’s what they advise:

  • Wear light-colored clothing with long pants tucked into socks to make ticks easier to detect and keep them on the outside of the clothes. Wear long sleeves. Don’t wear open-toed shoes or sandals. (Sources seem to agree that ticks start low and crawl up. They do not jump, fly or drop from trees.) Tie back long hair and wear a hat.
  • Use a DEET or permethrin-based mosquito and tick repellent, which can substantially increase the level of protection. A separate set of work or gardening clothes can be set aside for use with the permethrin-based clothing tick repellents.
  • After gardening, take a shower right away. This will wash away unattached ticks and offer a good chance to thoroughly inspect yourself. Feel for bumps that might be embedded ticks. Pay careful attention to hidden places, including groin, armpits, back of knees, belly button and scalp. Ticks may feed anywhere on the body. Tick bites are usually painless and, consequently, most people will be unaware that they have an attached tick without a careful check. Most people will be unaware a tick is attached and feeding. The poppy-seed sized nymphal deer ticks (the worst!) are especially hard to find.
  • Also remove, wash and dry the clothing. Many blacklegged ticks (“deer” ticks) can survive a warm or hot water wash, but they cannot withstand one hour in a hot dryer. (Other sources say 10 minutes in a hot dryer is enough.)
The “deer” tick nymph on the left is the most dangerous. Credit: CDC

Applying Tick Repellents and Killers

Options include:

  • Buying clothes that are pre-treated with the permethrin at outdoor recreation stores. (The protection lasts through 70 washings.)
  • Buying permethrin and spraying clothing myself. (Protection lasts 5-6 washings.) “Be sure to treat both the inside and outside of clothes,” one source cautions. Spraying footwear with permethrin will prevent ticks from crawling up your shoes. (In one study, those with treated shoes had 74% fewer tick bites than those with untreated shoes.) Here’s how to spray clothes with permetrin (after which it’ll take 1-2 hours to dry)  and here’s the soak method (which takes even more lead time).
  • This video demonstrates that ticks really don’t like permethrin.
  • On bare skin, repellents with DEET, picaridin or lemon eucalyptus oil are the most effective.

What Other Gardeners Do

I asked some other garden writers how they protect themselves from the real threat of Lyme Disease:

From Ellen Zachos: “I’ve had Lyme and would rather not have it again. Pants tucked into socks, shirt tucked into pants. Hat. Naked body check in front of mirror immediately upon entering house. Husband checks scalp and hairline. I used to soak my clothes in pyrethrum, but haven’t restocked the soak since I ran out. As a forager, I almost always come home with ticks in PA. If I can’t find one, I look again. Because they’re there. They’re always there.”

Asked what she would do without the nearby husband, she replied that “There are times when I am alone, and then I do a very slow, detailed finger exploration of my scalp. For some reason, that’s where I find most of them: scalp and neck. I can usually feel them on my arms and legs and catch them before they latch.”

Lois de Vries replied that she’s had Lyme Disease five times! “You live in the woods, you get ticks. I usually get by with wearing light-colored clothing and sneakers, white socks, and a light spray of DEET on my socks, pants legs,shirt sleeves (I always wear long sleeves), the back of my neck, and hair. Full-body tick inspection on coming indoors, then a shower. Fortunately, I’ve become sensitized and alert to the tiniest movement of small feet moving around on my body and generally catch them before they bite.”

Lorraine Ballato adds that “I disrobe in the bathtub or shower to contain whatever is still on me. Always shake out the day’s gardening clothes and never put them on the bed. If they wind up on the floor/carpet without being shaken out, vacuum said carpet. Those six legged beasties travel far, wide and fast! Remember that rodents are vectors so even with a deer fence which we have, ticks are ever present.”

And Trisha Shirey is “thankful for fire ants which have virtually eliminated ticks in South Texas when I read these comments!”  Thankful for fire arts?!  Yes, that’s what it’s come to.

Still Questions

  • Okay, if I put DEET on my skin and permethrin on my clothes, then after gardening put all the clothes in the dryer for 10 minutes (or an hour?) is that enough? Is washing the clothes every time still necessary?
  • Without someone else in the house to check my entire body for ticks, and without the eyesight of a 20-year-old, how am I supposed to see the damn things? A neighbor tells me she takes photos of the body parts she can’t see close-up and then examines the photos carefully for signs of ticks. To accomplish that, I fear I might need a selfie-stick.
  • If there’s no one to inspect my scalp, am I supposed to shampoo immediately after gardening each time?
  • After being outdoors (and this may be my imagination) I think I feel creepy-crawlies on my body (especially where clothes are tight, like the waistband) but I can never see them or feel them with my hands. Evidence that it’s not all in my mind is the presumably real itching I feel afterwards. It was somewhat of a relief to read one source’s comment that you cannot feel deer ticks crawling on your body and that the bites don’t itch. Yet, what’s biting me?

Parting Shot 

There’s very little online about protection specifically for gardeners, but Eve at Garden of Eating in Woodstock, NY has it covered. Screen shot below.

See her snarky remark that we’re supposed to avoid “basically, the entire frikkin’ outdoors”? More on that next week when I tackle the really depressing news about how to make gardens safer from tick-borne diseases.

22 COMMENTS

  1. Great information – thanks. I’ve often wondered how scientists can make a potion that deters/kills ticks on my dog but can’t make a similar product for me? Must be a simple explanation…

  2. My bad. I said pyrethrum but I meant permethrin, for the clothing soak! And here’s another thing: cats and dogs can bring them indoors, so even if you don’t go outside, you could still be vulnerable. You’re welcome.

  3. This is timely. My new neighbors down the road are worried about ticks getting on their grandchildren. So I did a little research and found an article about landscaping to deter ticks. The best thing to do is to put concrete in a 25′ radius all around your house. I exaggerate a little. You must understand that we live in a rural area. These people bought a house that has woods all along one side and the rest is 10 acres of grass (very popular in rural areas in the Midwest, which makes me nuts). Anyway, while I am also concerned about ticks, I don’t want to live in a sterile environment. My dogs take the flea/tick pills that our vet recommends. I check myself. I put on deet repellent but guess what, nothing is keeping me out of the woods! If you want a tick-free life, move to the middle of a big city. End of rant.

  4. The first line of tick defense should be population control. Stash tick tubes all over the garden and get all your neighbors to do the same. They can be extremely effective with reductions in the 70-80% range.
    (PDF) https://tinyurl.com/y8wsa2kv

  5. 1. I have a nest box trail and I garden. I walk through tall grass a number of times a week.
    2. My pets bring in ticks. I have a large cat enclosure in my backyard where my cats enter from the house and most likely bring in ticks.
    3. I pull attached dog ticks and deer ticks off my body daily. I pulled three off today.
    4. I’ve been doing this for 23 years.
    5. I’ve never tested positive for lyme and I feel fine.
    6. ( I do now worry about the new exotic tick species. I check the news often.)

    Do daily tick checks. Never miss a day. Use DEET and if you forget, no biggy. Do an extra tick check.

  6. The question regarding itching without seeing any critters: probably chiggers. They love to get in to tight places like waistbands and bra straps.

  7. Thank you for this and UGH. I found a crawling tick on my back one night while I was sleeping. I grabbed it off and crushed it in the sink. But I stayed awake for hours itching and scratching at imaginary bugs. I swear, some days, Mother Nature scares me and I just want to live in a bubble.

  8. Since I got my backyard hens I have not found a tick on myself or my dog from the yard. I let my girls free range in the evening and they gobble them up. I have also read guinea fowl love ticks (but they are very loud).

  9. Also on tickencounter.org see the info on Insect Shield. You can get any article of clothing treated with permethrin and it’s good for 70 washes. It costs $10 per item (or pair of socks) plus postage. Takes about a week. Besides being a long-time Master Gardener, I am also an avid hiker. I get all my gear treated by Insect Shield. The order form is on the above-mentioned website.

  10. Went to Amazon to purchase concentrated permethrim to make DIY tick tubes … but they won’t ship it to Vermont!! Frustrating!

  11. Ticks have almost, but not completely, ruined gardening for me. For years, I gardened whenever the mood struck me. I might be in my bare feet, wearing shorts, and a short-sleeved tee shirt, no gloves. I would sit on the ground happily pulling weeds or planting herbs. No more. Too many bites and bullseyes. So now I use tick tubes, I spray my dedicated gardening clothes/shoes with permethrin before I do major gardening, and I try to avoid wading into heavily shrubbed areas as I once did. But the habit I still cannot break is all of the minor tweaking and weeding and pruning I do as I’m, for example, taking the trash out, or going to the mailbox at the curb, or moving something into my car, or filling up the bird feeders. These are all opportunities to stop and pull a weed or two, pluck some errant leaves out of a bedding area, etc. No more whimsical random gardening for me. And that makes me sad.

  12. One quick method for cleaning up after being outside in tick country which I find very effective: a lint roller of the sticky sort, which you can roll across all exposed surfaces (skin, clothes, dog or cat fur) and catch the b@strds before they stick. Works wonders. Anything you catch goes into the trash!

  13. I’ve learned that those nice barberry plants you can purchase at your big-box hardware store or nursery are excellent habitat for ticks. Birds love to eat ticks, but the birds can’t get into the barberries to eat the ticks. Also, barberry is good habitat for mice to hide (mice are a bigger vectors of ticks more than deer) because predators can’t hunt through the barberry. Under the barberry, the mice pick up the ticks and spread them to other places. Our forests here in PA are full of this invasive barberry, meaning the perfect habitat for ticks has been increased…

  14. Recently ordered the Insect Shield pants, tops and socks! I shower after gardening. The sad truth is that protection from ticks and mosquitoes has been difficult and challenging….Suiting up in our heat and humidity is not fun. There aren’t many spontaneous garden visits these days.

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