The Rigors of Chiggers

Chiggers, you're there in our garden, somewhere?
Chiggers, you’re there in our garden, somewhere?

Some of you had cotton balls stuffed in your ears this past month, deafening the sound of droning cicadas.  But relax.  They will be gone soon for another 17 years. Chiggers, meanwhile, are my unwelcome garden guests. The name copperhead sounds menacing, as does black widow, while chigger sounds downright benign—for a bug so odious and unseen. My invisible assailants arrived unsolicited, five or six years ago, from God knows where. They’re hiding nearby, waiting for me. I can’t get rid of them.

Unusually, there were no late frosts in Louisville past March, and there was decent rainfall straight through June. We were spared any damaging winds. Last year it was miserably hot and dry, but this spring was obliging. There were moments when I wondered what I had done to deserve such beauty.  I know all hell and hail will rip it apart one day, but in the meantime the garden looks pretty good.

It’s senseless trying to explain the wonderful season we’ve just had, especially to a killjoy. Why are some so fearful of storm clouds when I can only see blue skies? They’ll say, “We’re going to pay for this nice weather.” Then they think that their forecast of gloom deserves an uplifting verse, “…for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.”  Maybe chiggers are the wages I pay for the garden I love so much. And so it seems: Sow, chiggers, reap.

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Gardening is a pitched battle, nonetheless. Nothing comes easily to the newly sown. Our one-third-acre city garden is a minefield of weeds, dead and dying plants, chipmunks, and bugs. I stay vigilant and don’t worry too much about the unknown. But it’s hard to walk out the back door, knowing that I’ll be attacked by something I can’t see.

Chiggers are meant for blackberry patches or the woods, not for my garden. I have only 100 sq. feet of turf.  The rest of our garden is covered in trees, shrubs, perennials and scree beds with alpines and succulents. After 18 years, the garden has grown up. It’s jungle-like, along the garden’s edges—a ripe environment for chiggers that have no predators and for which  there is no effective chemical control. I don’t know where they are, anyway; and only a fool would douse the whole garden with pesticides.  The next of several annual broods is around the corner.

Chiggers were late arriving this year. They have shown up as early as mid-May in years past, but there were no telltale signs this year until mid-June. They found me with no eavesdropping from the N.S.A. I had foolishly hoped that I might have sucked them all away last year when I dragged the wet-vacuum around my little patch of turf four or five times in July and August. “You can’t hide from me. I’ll get you, you nasty little buggers!” It’s a good thing that my back garden is sheltered from the alley. Anyone who had seen me vacuuming the lawn would have wondered how the heat had swept me into janitorial delirium.

Chiggers have punctured my soft skin. There are dozens of little red bumps, each with an itch that lingers for weeks. Forget the notion of applying fingernail polish on the bites to suffocate them. Chiggers don’t hang around; they’re gone after injecting a digestive enzyme causing an itch like that of a mangy dog covered in fleas. Dabbing a little Listerine on the bites gives slight relief.

I don’t gird myself to ward-off chiggers, anymore. I have, in the past, secured the bottoms of my pant legs with rubber bands, but it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Now, I go out in the morning for an hour or so, return to the house, strip off my clothes on the back porch and run to the shower. Chiggers are on a slow march up my legs in search of my inner thighs, groin and waistline.  Hosing them off, or showering, gets rid of them.

Until I wander again down my primitive path.


  1. That’s my ritual, too. Rush into shower and scrub them off. They are horrid, nasty critters that have ruined spontaneous visits to the garden to catch that fantastic light or the bird perched just so, unless, of course, I have time for another shower! gail

  2. There is an answer – diatomaceous earth (food grade) is dangerous to critters with an exoskeleton but safe for everything else! Not expensive and if you dust with it in early spring – not chiggers, fire ants, grease ants or wood eating ants, brown recluse spiders…, roaches – use inside and (shhh – they will even do in bed bugs!

    • Ned, this is interesting! If it works, it will be a whole lot easier than showering -after leaving the garden – or dabbing Listerine to cure the itch. Do you have a recommendation for how many lbs to apply per 1,000 square feet?

  3. I, too, suffer badly from chigger bites – but I’ve got a real remedy for you. Put a dab of cortisone cream on each chigger bite as soon as you notice it. If the bite is already inflamed, you may need to repeat once or twice, according to the directions on the tube, but if you do it as soon as you notice you’ve got a bite, once will probably do the trick. If you’ve got several bites, antihistamines can help, too, especially to get a good night’s sleep. Of course, I do the showering thing if I know I’ve been exposed, but if I manage to pick up a couple bites accidentally, the cortisone cream really works well!

    Also, you may have had chiggers around for years and not known it. Rather like poison ivy, I think that some people just aren’t sensitive to them – and that your sensitivity/reactivity can change. Here in the central plains, chiggers have been a fact of life for ages. I moved in as a teenager and could never figure out what people were talking about…until I was in my late 20’s and went blackberry picking. I must have had hundreds of chigger bites that night, and they all puffed up to quarter size or bigger, with intense itching. Ever since, I’ve been extremely sensitive to the little darlings.

  4. I’m allergic to the little buggers, too. Shower, then a layer of a colloidion stuff “Chiggerid or such) that keeps the air from reacting with the blister when it opens. That’s all I’ve figured out.

    Yes, you do get sensitized. After years of outdoor stuff, I ran into an especially nasty mob and now a bite or two will keep me up all night. I have a fantasy I haven’t tried yet…..

    Fill a wading pool and put a few cups of oil in. Turn a large bowl upside down in it, and place a cat in the bowl. In theory, the cat will attract the buggers and they will drown. In reality. the cat will probably climb up your more sensitive parts and you’ll forget about the buggers while you run around chasing the at with a hose. But it’s a nice theory…

  5. Allen, I have always thought it curious that the highest chigger concentrations in our area were not in the blackberry patch but in the small gardens I tended in Cincinnati proper. That being said, people think I am weird since I would rather have chiggers than mosquitos, deer flies, gnats… and anything else that annoys you as they are biting. Those creatures distract me from my work.
    Since sulfur is a miticide, I always thought spraying a micronized sulfur product would be helpful.

  6. N+1 on cortisone cream and antihistamine tablets (the OTC generic chlorpheniramine maleate works best for me; YMMV).

    Our mosquitos here in TX don’t make me itch as badly as the Oregon ones did (I think they’re intimidated by the chiggers); I’d rather have them than the chiggers because they give warning and I can (sometimes) swat them *before* they bite. I’ve never done that to a chigger.

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