By: Robert Oley, PE, MSPH, Public Health Consultant
The primary goal of a tick management plan for one’s home and surrounding property is to create low-risk tick zones within commonly used areas. These low-risk zones should include recreational, eating, entertainment and gardening areas, as well as spaces close to walkways, storage sheds, firewood piles, and mailboxes.
Ticks require a high humidity environment to survive, and need vertebrate hosts to feed on to be able to grow and reproduce. Without these two key elements, ticks just cannot sustain themselves. If you want to make your property safer from ticks, you must cut down on the number of potential tick hosts, while at the same time creating a drier, less inviting landscape for ticks.
Unfortunately, a tick feeds on any number of hosts which can infect the tick with a disease organism that can then be passed on to you through the tick’s bite. Immature ticks (larvae and nymphs) generally feed on smaller vertebrates such as white-footed mice, chipmunks, shrews, voles and birds; the the somewhat larger adult ticks are more likely to feed on larger animals such as deer, raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, and opossum. Ticks are most often transported into your yard by the deer that like to browse on your plants, by the mice and chipmunks that live in the stonewalls and woodpiles, and by the ground feeding birds such as robins, finches, wrens, and blue jays that frequent your lawn.
To decrease the number of these hosts normally found on your property, you need to develop a plan that disrupts their habitat, i.e., the surroundings which provides them with the food, water and shelter they require. First and foremost, you must keep your property clean and clear of garbage or other food sources that may attract rodents, deer and other potential tick hosts. This includes bird feeders and the spillage of seeds and nuts that fall to the ground beneath them. Bird feeders should be relocated away from the house or removed entirely from the premises.
You should eliminate heavy brush and ground cover (pachysandra, ivy, etc.) close to your home, and replace this vegetation with mulch and less intrusive plantings. Open these areas up to as much sunlight as possible. The more open and exposed these areas are, the less rodents and other wildlife, which are looking for shelter and a place to hide, like it. Ticks like it no better because they lose those shady, humid surroundings required for their survival.
You should also relocate woodpiles away from your home. Woodpiles provide nesting places for small rodents. Do away with, relocate or seal those old stonewalls near your homes. They also serve as favorite nesting places for rodents, and where there are rodents, there are sure to be lots of ticks.
It is advisable, where possible, to deter deer from feeding on vegetation in your yard because deer can be hosts for hundreds of ticks which are likely to drop onto your lawn or in your gardens. To keep deer from entering your property, you can install deer fencing high enough (approximately 7 to 8 feet high) to keep them out. If this is not practical, you can try to eliminate those plants that attract deer to your property.
Deer enjoy browsing on a variety of vegetation including apple, pear and cherry trees as well as rhododendrons, mountain laurel, rose bushes, impatiens, pansies, daisies, lilies, tulips, and black-eyed susans. While no plant species is completely immune to deer browsing, plants such as daffodils, marigolds, lily of the valley, honeysuckle, common lilac, forsythia, common boxwood, American holly, Norway spruce, wisteria, and American bittersweet are their least favorite food items, and generally will not tempt them to your property.
Research has shown that the majority of ticks found on a property are located in close proximity to a lawn’s perimeter (ecotone) with woodlands, stone walls, shady perennial beds, and garden plantings. Thus, perimeter spraying of these particular areas with a pesticide that kills ticks, can prove an important component of any landscape management plan.
The most common tick control agents used today for perimeter spraying are synthetic pyrethroids such as permethrin, befenthrin, and cyfluthrin. Pyrethroids are organic compounds synthesized to be similar to the pyrethrin insecticide produced naturally by chrysanthemum flowers. When sprayed onto your property, these compounds do not leach through the soil, but are broken down over several days within the top few inches. Pyrethroids can however, prove toxic to fish in small ponds or streams, so caution must be used when spraying in close proximity to water bodies.
If you do not like the idea of spraying your property with a synthetic chemical, there are natural organic spray alternatives available that work about as well as the chemicals. One such organic compound is cedar oil, and another (Essentria IC3) is a mixture of rosemary oil, geraniol, and peppermint oil. You should spray three times a year, including the middle of May and the middle of June to kill the nymph deer ticks, and then again the middle of October to kill the adult deer ticks.
Hardscape and xeriscape landscaping practices are also beneficial to employ as part of your landscape management plan. Hardscape landscaping practices make greater use of hard surfaces (as opposed to vegetated surfaces), such as flagstone patios, brick or gravel walkways, wooden decks, and other similar features where family members may congregate. Xeriscape landscaping incorporates plants in the landscape that require less water, creating a drier environment hostile to high humidity loving ticks.
In summary all of these practices, taken in total as part of an integrated tick landscape management plan, will benefit you and your family. Being aware of your surroundings and smart about your landscaping practices can help you make your property safer from ticks, and give you some peace of mind as you enjoy the use of your land.