Creating a Tick-Resistant Garden

Pennsylvania leads the nation in Lyme disease cases according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Last year there were 12,092 reported instances, triple the number of the runners up: New York and New Jersey.

Ticks are the perpetrators of Lyme disease, a potentially disabling infection of the joints and nervous system. As 75% of cases occur in our backyards, gardeners need to be especially vigilant. Here are some important facts about ticks and ways to make your Pocono garden resistant to them.

The Tick and Its Life Cycle

The blacklegged tick, Ixodes scapularis, formerly known as the deer tick, takes two years to complete its life cycle. Females lay 2,000 – 3,000 eggs in May then die. The eggs hatch in July or early August and the larvae feed on mice, chipmunks, and birds that may be infected with the Lyme disease spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi. Some birds, including the American robin, Carolina wren, house wren and veery, carry the spirochete short-term. Mice may be infected for life. The larvae drop off their host animals, molt to nymphs, and overwinter in places such as rodent burrows and leaf litter. The nymphs appear the following spring. They molt to adults then feed on larger animals such as deer, humans, and pets. Although deer are immune to the disease and can’t infect the tick, they are important to its life cycle as 90% of adult ticks feed on deer. The tick spreads the bacteria into a human’s bloodstream when it bites and remains attached for 24 to 48 hours. Female adults are active in temperatures as cold as the mid 30’s, so you may find ticks on yourself or your pets at this time of year or earlier.

Lyme Disease Symptoms and Treatment

Early symptoms include a skin rash, fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes, headache, fatigue, and muscle and joint pain. Within three days to a month, you may see a characteristic “bulls eye” rash, called Erythema migrans, appearing as a red circular patch at the site of the bite. The disease is rarely fatal but can cause heart irregularities, facial paralysis, and impairment of the nervous system. Once diagnosed, antibiotics result in a full and rapid recovery when treated promptly. Early treatment is crucial to prevent permanent damage.

Habitats Where Ticks Are Common

Ticks prefer cool, wet, shady places and are mostly found in densely wooded areas. They like stonewalls, and woodpiles but are also found in grassy or brushy areas. The unmaintained edge between woodland or brush and your lawn, called the ecotone, is the next highest in tick population. Ornamental vegetation and the lawn have the least number of ticks. Ticks don’t like open, sunny areas. Knowing the ticks’ favorite habitats can help you make your property more tick-resistant.

How to Create a Tick-Resistant Garden

There are landscape changes you can make in order to keep your property as close to a tick-free habitat as possible:

  • Restrict areas where deer, rodents and ticks are common, such as forest and brush. Make them off-limits for family activities.
  • Create a three-foot barrier of woodchips or rock to separate the off-limits area from the lawn.
  • Keep woodpiles away from the home, or site them on the woodchip barrier.
  • Remove leaf litter.
  • Create a tick-safe zone, a nine-foot barrier of lawn between the woodchips and patios, gardens, and play sets.
  • Create open, sunny areas by pruning trees to let in more sunlight.
  • Place play sets in sunny areas.
  • Keep lawns mowed.
  • Trim shrubs near walks and patios.
  • Remove groundcover around trees.
  • Surround gardens with fieldstone, gravel or lawn paths.
  • Construct an eight-foot-high fence to keep deer out.
  • Select deer-resistant plants for your landscape.
  • Remove exotic-invasive species that deer love to browse, such as Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii).

More Tips to Prevent Tick Bites and Lyme Disease

In addition to avoiding their habitats, there are important precautions you can take:

  • Wear light-colored clothing so you can see ticks clearly.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants.
  • Tuck pant legs inside socks or boots.
  • When you go indoors, check your body for ticks.
  • Place clothes in a hot drier to kill ticks.
  • Use an insect repellent containing 20% to 30% DEET, 10% for children, avoiding hands, eyes, and mouth. Follow the instructions on the label.
  • IF ALL ELSE FAILS use a perimeter spray for ticks in the spring and again in the late summer, following the label instructions.
  • DO NOT try to remove a tick from your body with heat or alcohol. Using fine-tipped tweezers, grasp the mouthparts of the tick as close to the skin as possible. Pull straight out.

Deer-resistant Plants

Bear in mind, no plant is completely resistant to deer, and the best way to short-circuit the tick’s life cycle is to have a fenced property that eliminates deer completely. Deer-resistant plants may help if you use enough and place them strategically to surround the ones deer love to eat. Here are a few of the plants recommended by Penn State Extension for Pocono gardens:

  • To attract butterflies and hummingbirds: fountain grass (pennisetum alopecuroides), goldenrod (Solidego sp.), lavender (lavandula sp.), mint (mentha sp.), nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), ornamental onion (Allium schoenoprasum), and pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium.)
  • For the cut flower garden: blue salvia (Salvia farinacia), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), daffodil (Narcissus sp.), foxglove (Digitalis sp.), iris (Iris sp.), larkspur (Consolida ambigua), statice (Limonium latifolium), and veronica (Veronica sp.)
  • For dry borders: blue flax (Linum perenne), globe thistle (Echinops sp.), hen and chicks (Sempervivum sp.), lambs ears (Stachys byzantine), red valerian (Centranthus ruber), rose campion (Lychnis coronaria), and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia.)

Contact your Penn State Extension office for the full list that includes flowers, shrubs, and trees for all areas of your property.

Spring is here at last and, like me, I’m sure you are anxious to spend as much time as possible outside. By implementing a tick-resistant garden, you can minimize the risk of Lyme disease for you and your family.

Contact Information

Pamela T Hubbard
  • Penn State Master Gardener of Monroe County