Bob Oley, PE, MSPH
Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Prevention Expert
Public Health and Site Consultant

Lyme Disease, Ticks, and Gardeners

After all those hours of hard work, it is that time of year again when you are enjoying your garden and truly appreciating what you have created. Not to be enjoyed however, is the hidden threat awaiting you in your garden – none other than that seemingly harmless deer tick. Not only do the bites of deer ticks put you at risk for Lyme disease, but also other potentially debilitating diseases including babesiosis, anaplasmosis, bartonella, tularemia, and deer tick virus.


Ticks are parasites which survive by feeding on the blood of a variety of hosts including people. The peak of the deer tick’s activity begins in May and continues throughout the summer. It is during this time that the very tiny nymphal deer tick (about the size of a poppy seed) is most likely to crawl onto you, bite you, and infect you with Lyme disease and/or other diseases.


Deer ticks seek hosts by a behavior called “questing.” They do not jump or fly. Questing ticks crawl up the stems of grass or small bushes, or perch on the edges of leaf litter with their front legs extended. They also wait for you on fallen logs, stone walls or in vegetation along grass/woodland edges. When your body or clothing comes in contact with the extended legs of the tick, they grab onto you in a split second, and search for a suitable place on your body to attach and take their blood meal. Nymphal deer ticks will remain attached for a few days until they become fully engorged with your blood and then drop off. Because they inject a pain killer in you when feeding, most often you will never know they were there.


Removing ticks promptly can help prevent the transmission of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases. And that is why regular tick checks, both after gardening activities and at the end of the day, are so vital to your continued good health.


If you discover a tick attached to you, you should remove the tick using pointed tweezers to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible. You should pull the tick straight out, taking care not to twist or squish it. Finally, you should wash the bite site and apply an antiseptic. If at all possible, you should save the tick in a zip lock bag so that it can be sent to a tick testing lab for identification and a determination as to whether it is infected with any disease organisms. You should also seek the advice of your health care provider regarding timely prophylactic treatment.


If you are going to be gardening, it is strongly advised that you take personal protection measures by wearing clothing treated with the synthetic chemical permethrin, which repels and kills ticks. Permethrin has been approved by the EPA as safe for use on clothing apparel. With permethrin spray you can treat your own footwear and clothing (good for 5 washings), or purchase pre-treated clothing (good for 70 washings) with the proprietary Insect Shield label from suppliers such as: REI, LLBean, ExOfficio, Orvis, etc. Wearing an EPA-approved insect repellent on exposed skin parts will also provide added protection, but by itself does not work nearly as effectively as tick repellent clothing.


When managing your property to make it as tick safe as possible, you need to concentrate on those portions of your property that are most frequently used by you, such as lawns, gardens, play areas, eating areas, walkways, etc. Within these areas, keeping the grass mowed short, reducing leaf litter, eliminating ground cover such as pachysandra, using hardscape and xeriscape landscaping practices, keeping trees and shrubs trimmed, providing gravel pathways, using wood chips and mulch in flower beds, using plantings that do not attract deer, installing deer fencing, etc. will all contribute towards reducing the number of deer ticks on your property.