High-Risk Behavior



A good place to contract a nasty disease

Is gardening high-risk behavior where you live?

It certainly is in my part of the world. In Washington County, NY, it seems as if everybody outdoorsy gets Lyme disease. This includes all the hikers and canoers as well as gardeners, and it includes my outdoorsiest child. 

So it was clearly just a matter of time for me. Last Saturday night, after a day in the vegetable garden, I pulled a tick off my knee and instantly became sick with a weird fever, chills, and body aches. In addition, everything looked strangely green and nothing tasted right. I was so sick, in fact, that I went to the doctor, who took one look at my red-ringed knee and prescribed doxycycline.   

I love all God’s creatures–but ticks are clearly diabolical.  If they’d been designed expressly for the purpose, they could not be more carefully engineered to drive a gardener crazy.  The things I find particularly evil about them include…

1. They like mulch. I like mulch.The mice from whom they get the Lyme bacteria like mulch. Spreading mulch on the garden is the surest way to get bitten.

2. They are so efficient as to be practically unkillable.  They only need to feed three times in their entire lifecycle. 

3. They are such balletic stalkers, you’ll never notice their approach.  They like to dangle at the top of tall grasses with their legs waving free and then, when they sense heat and C02, just to brush off onto you.

4.  They make me question my beautiful meadows, since they like hanging out in the long herbaceous stuff. Carefully clipped lawn grass is too hot and dry a habitat for them.

5. They’re smart enough to make their way to places you won’t instantly find them–folds of skin, for example, at your knee or armpit. 

6. They drug you for their own nefarious purposes.  Tick saliva doesn’t just carry an assortment of diseases, it can also include neurotoxins and anti-coagulants, everything possible to keep you unaware and juicy until the parasite finishes feeding.

7. They are a reminder of climate change and environmental degradation even in paradise.  Washington County, NY used to have truly brutal winters that cleaned out all kinds of pests. I can remember one when it got to minus thirty or below every night for weeks. My vet says that he never even saw a tick on a dog or cat until ten years ago. Now, the winters are balmy and the ticks are thriving.

Are there any ways to fight an enemy this clever? There are a few.

1. Give up gardening and take up on-line poker.

2. Spray your property.

3. Get Guinea fowl, which are ferocious tick eaters.  Since these birds are only half-domesticated, however, and will fly off at the drop of a hat, you’ll only keep them if you babysit them.

4. Tuck your pants into socks or boots so the ticks can’t crawl up a bare leg.

Number four is the only defense I see myself adopting in the near future.


  1. We have it in my side of the world too. I fell sick with it las january. You really feel bad and I could’t eat anything for days. Death to all ticks I say!

  2. Lyme disease is terrible. My mom had it and it was not diagnosed before she had really serious, long-term problems. My husband and I have nightly “tick inspections” during the summer. It’s a fun way to check out those spots that are hard to see.

  3. Susan, probably not what you use. But I’ve noticed tunnels underneath the straw that I use to blanket my vegetable garden. I’m sure mice are nesting there over the winter.

    I also get bit by a tick every time I move leaf mold.

  4. I think my chickens (who are not nearly as flighty as guineas) must eat ticks like crazy. At least, I used to have a major problem with them and since we got the chickens two years ago I haven’t even seen a tick. I love those birds! They eat hornworms and all manner of veggie pests, too. If I could just keep them out of the strawberries…

  5. Poor you, Michele! Ack, how horrible, especially about not eating. You are quite right about the guineas, though. They are true insectivores as opposed to regular omnivores like chickens. Their little face hoods actually help them to scoop up all manner of bugs. I’d say that’s the only good thing about them as they are quite noisy, but…their eggs aren’t bad either. If you raise them with chickens, they’re not half as wild. But yes in 10,000 years they might too be rather tame. Not soon enough to make a dent in deer ticks, though!

  6. I have a really bad problem with ticks in my yard (I live in a woodsy area). I have a 2 year old and it is impossible to keep his pants tucked in. Is that spray safe?

  7. This sounds awful. Sorry you and your child have to deal with this. We don’t seem to have a problem with Lyme disease here, at least not in areas outside the foothills or mountains. But I have to confess, if anything could induce me to spray, that could.

  8. I’m sorry to hear that you got Lyme’s!

    I had another kind of garden nightmare recently–I got a small puncture wound on my calf while gardening last week (I was wearing shorts because it was awfully hot here in SoCal) and ended up getting an antibiotic-resistant infection that landed me in the hospital! Of course I am right back in my garden now, but I am wearing long jeans now when I’m out there!

  9. Wow. Hope you recover quickly, Michele. Chickens sound like a good option to me. Is there any kind of non-toxic spray you can wear that keeps them away? Tea tree oil or some such thing?

  10. We have a lot of ticks in our wooded areas but I have never gotten bit by any while gardening in the yard. I might start being a little more watchful now though.

  11. There’s an old article, published in the 1950’s, that says garlic extracts will repel ticks. It was a good scientific article, but I’ve never tried it and I’ve never heard of anyone else using it.

    Most of the standard sprays for ticks are beyond what I’d consider really safe — at least for using on a regular basis. Permethrin, if used very carefully, isn’t all that bad — but I’m not sure if you can use it in NY.

  12. Ticks have been very active here too. I found one crawling on me the other day, luckily I found it before he took a bite, but I always worry. I hope you’re feeling better soon.

  13. we have deer ticks ( and the deer) with lyme disease and mosquitos with EEE, so sorry, I have to cut my grass, although I would love to turn the old horse field into a meadow – the risk of very dangerous diseases is too great! So we cut the grass, and run a mosquito magnet , slather on sunscreen , and when gardening in the hot humid New England summer yes, we do use mosquito/tick repellant, because wearing long pants, socks and boots is a sure fire way to get heatstroke!!

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