Q: I like the style of more natural gardens, letting leaf litter be my mulch, etc. I’m concerned about this encouraging ticks, though. Do I have to change how I garden?
A: It’s a legitimate concern given the diseases ticks can harbor and transmit, but ticks can appear even in more manicured and minimally-vegetated landscapes, so I would rather reap the rewards of having a biodiverse and “wilder” garden than restrict myself and still wind up with hitchhikers when I go outside. Besides, some of that wildlife attracted by having a medley of native plants and leaf litter habitat may very well be killing some of those ticks. (Or doing the next best thing, eating their small-animal hosts that carry the pathogens we worry about.)
We at the Home and Garden Information Center (HGIC) are often asked about yard perimeter sprays and treatments for ticks, but pesticide use is not our suggested solution. Even when reasonably effective, these products are temporary measures and probably not substantially different in terms of efficacy than simply treating your own clothes or exposed skin with a tick repellent and/or doing a thorough body check once you’re back indoors.
Chemicals used to suppress tick populations (like for lawn applications) are non-selective and don’t impact only ticks. Their close relatives, spiders and any mites that aren’t plant pests (fun fact: some mites eat pests) are definitely worth having in our landscapes. They’re valued partners in natural pest management but can be equally vulnerable to the effects of sprays marketed for tick control. Some pesticide ingredients are even more broad-spectrum than this, potentially affecting ground-dwelling insects and other organisms. As with mosquito management, it’s more sustainable to use personal protection to avoid bites and to landscape in an eco-conscious way to make full use of any existing natural checks and balances that keep tick populations down.
By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun and Washington Gardener Magazine. Read more by Miri.
Have a plant or insect question? The University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension. Our horticulturists are available to answer your questions online, year-round. You can also connect with your local County/City Extension Office and Master Gardener local programs.