Weekly Gardening Tips: Lyme Disease Awareness Month

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Headshot of a man named Bob Beyfuss.

May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month and by now I would hope that everyone in our region is on the alert for the deer ticks that transmit this as well as other blood diseases.

Most cases of Lyme disease are easily treated with antibiotics, such as doxycycline, and the patient recovers completely, but a small percentage of victims have very serious long-term effects. Lyme disease has even been implicated in some untimely deaths.

I don’t think it is possible to avoid getting a tick on you if you spend much time in the great outdoors gardening, hiking, hunting or fishing. These eight-legged parasites are now found throughout the region in large numbers and a casual walk in a grassy field or sitting on a fallen log in the forest may result in picking up one or more of these unwelcome hitchhikers.

If you get bit, the important thing is to manually remove the tick with a tweezers as soon as possible. Most people notice the embedded ticks within the 24- to 48-hour time period that is usually required for infection to occur.

Do not pay attention to the internet reports that tell you to apply any sort of substance to make the tick release. Every few weeks it seems like I see someone posting the same misinformation on Facebook. Any substance, such as Vaseline, that makes a tick release its bite while attached to you, will also make the tick upchuck blood back into your body and this is how infection occurs.

Prevention remains the best option and the tick repellent, permethrin, sold under various brand names, is highly effective when applied to clothing and gear, not bare skin. A single application lasts for a month or more and will even persist through at least two washings.

I also think that spraying an insecticide around the perimeter of a yard, where lawn meets brush or forest, can significantly reduce the number of ticks. If your dog or cat is constantly bringing ticks into the house, outfit them with a good flea and tick collar and consider spraying places that might harbor ticks.

Piles of firewood, stone walls, brush piles and tall grass or weeds are prime tick habitat, whereas a mowed lawn presents less of a risk. Low-risk areas such as mowed lawns still present some risk, however. You can survey your property for ticks by rigging up a white piece of cloth, perhaps 3-feet long and just as wide, using a sheet or blanket, to a 3-foot long stick, so that you can slowly drag the cloth over the lawn and other vegetation. Stop every few minutes to see if any ticks are attached to the cloth.

If you catch many ticks, an over-the-counter insecticide, such as Sevin, will kill them if you do a spray in your yard. The spray need only be applied if you find ticks and only twice a season, in May and September. I sometimes use Sevin on my vegetable garden, so I figure if it is safe enough to use on the food that I eat, it is safe enough to spray around my backyard! 

Deer ticks are not born with the infectious bacteria. They acquire it from an animal such as a small mammal or a bird. The white-footed deer mouse is a very common source of the bacteria and newborn ticks often acquire it from them. Once a tick has acquired it in their larval stage, they carry it throughout their usual two-year life cycle.

Like most rural residents, I have mice in my sheds and outbuildings. I have been spraying permethrin on cotton balls and stuffing a few of them into recycled cardboard tubes from paper towels and toilet paper rolls. I found that the cotton was removed and presumably used for nesting, within 24 hours of placement! Hopefully, this will kill any larval ticks that may be feeding on the mice.

A reader has reported to me that by doing this, he has eliminated catching any ticks on his property. You can buy a product called “Damminix” at your garden center that is essentially what I described.

Finally, make sure that you perform a full-body check before you go to bed whenever you have spent time outdoors. If you find a tick, remove it with tweezers with a sharp yank! If the head breaks off and remains in you, don’t panic or try to cut it out. It will fester and eventually come out on its own.

You will have an itchy, inflamed, swollen area at the bite site for a few days in almost all cases. This is normal and not a sign of the disease, but if you should develop a rash, anywhere on your body, you need to call your doctor.

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