Apparel for today’s gardener?

News about the rapid spread of tick-borne diseases, especially the life-changing-if not-treated-in-time Lyme Disease, has me so freaked out that I’m now afraid to tend my garden, much less take a walk in the woods. I won’t stop gardening, but at least for my peace of mind I’m determined to take reasonable precautions from now on.

(Does my close-to-city location mean I don’t have to worry? My neighbor was recently diagnosed with Lyme from a tick she got in her own garden.)

In my online research, the best sources I found were, and a Tick Management Handbook by the State of Connecticut. Here’s what they advise:

  • Wear light-colored clothing with long pants tucked into socks to make ticks easier to detect and keep them on the outside of the clothes. Wear long sleeves. Don’t wear open-toed shoes or sandals. (Sources seem to agree that ticks start low and crawl up. They do not jump, fly or drop from trees.) Tie back long hair and wear a hat.
  • Use a DEET or permethrin-based mosquito and tick repellent, which can substantially increase the level of protection. A separate set of work or gardening clothes can be set aside for use with the permethrin-based clothing tick repellents.
  • After gardening, take a shower right away. This will wash away unattached ticks and offer a good chance to thoroughly inspect yourself. Feel for bumps that might be embedded ticks. Pay careful attention to hidden places, including groin, armpits, back of knees, belly button and scalp. Ticks may feed anywhere on the body. Tick bites are usually painless and, consequently, most people will be unaware that they have an attached tick without a careful check. Most people will be unaware a tick is attached and feeding. The poppy-seed sized nymphal deer ticks (the worst!) are especially hard to find.
  • Also remove, wash and dry the clothing. Many blacklegged ticks (“deer” ticks) can survive a warm or hot water wash, but they cannot withstand one hour in a hot dryer. (Other sources say 10 minutes in a hot dryer is enough.)

The “deer” tick nymph on the left is the most dangerous. Credit: CDC

Applying Tick Repellents and Killers

Options include:

  • Buying clothes that are pre-treated with the permethrin at outdoor recreation stores. (The protection lasts through 70 washings.)
  • Buying permethrin and spraying clothing myself. (Protection lasts 5-6 washings.) “Be sure to treat both the inside and outside of clothes,” one source cautions. Spraying footwear with permethrin will prevent ticks from crawling up your shoes. (In one study, those with treated shoes had 74% fewer tick bites than those with untreated shoes.) Here’s how to spray clothes with permetrin (after which it’ll take 1-2 hours to dry)  and here’s the soak method (which takes even more lead time).
  • This video demonstrates that ticks really don’t like permethrin.
  • On bare skin, repellents with DEET, picaridin or lemon eucalyptus oil are the most effective.

What Other Gardeners Do

I asked some other garden writers how they protect themselves from the real threat of Lyme Disease:

From Ellen Zachos: “I’ve had Lyme and would rather not have it again. Pants tucked into socks, shirt tucked into pants. Hat. Naked body check in front of mirror immediately upon entering house. Husband checks scalp and hairline. I used to soak my clothes in pyrethrum, but haven’t restocked the soak since I ran out. As a forager, I almost always come home with ticks in PA. If I can’t find one, I look again. Because they’re there. They’re always there.”

Asked what she would do without the nearby husband, she replied that “There are times when I am alone, and then I do a very slow, detailed finger exploration of my scalp. For some reason, that’s where I find most of them: scalp and neck. I can usually feel them on my arms and legs and catch them before they latch.”

Lois de Vries replied that she’s had Lyme Disease five times! “You live in the woods, you get ticks. I usually get by with wearing light-colored clothing and sneakers, white socks, and a light spray of DEET on my socks, pants legs,shirt sleeves (I always wear long sleeves), the back of my neck, and hair. Full-body tick inspection on coming indoors, then a shower. Fortunately, I’ve become sensitized and alert to the tiniest movement of small feet moving around on my body and generally catch them before they bite.”

Lorraine Ballato adds that “I disrobe in the bathtub or shower to contain whatever is still on me. Always shake out the day’s gardening clothes and never put them on the bed. If they wind up on the floor/carpet without being shaken out, vacuum said carpet. Those six legged beasties travel far, wide and fast! Remember that rodents are vectors so even with a deer fence which we have, ticks are ever present.”

And Trisha Shirey is “thankful for fire ants which have virtually eliminated ticks in South Texas when I read these comments!”  Thankful for fire arts?!  Yes, that’s what it’s come to.

Still Questions

  • Okay, if I put DEET on my skin and permethrin on my clothes, then after gardening put all the clothes in the dryer for 10 minutes (or an hour?) is that enough? Is washing the clothes every time still necessary?
  • Without someone else in the house to check my entire body for ticks, and without the eyesight of a 20-year-old, how am I supposed to see the damn things? A neighbor tells me she takes photos of the body parts she can’t see close-up and then examines the photos carefully for signs of ticks. To accomplish that, I fear I might need a selfie-stick.
  • If there’s no one to inspect my scalp, am I supposed to shampoo immediately after gardening each time?
  • After being outdoors (and this may be my imagination) I think I feel creepy-crawlies on my body (especially where clothes are tight, like the waistband) but I can never see them or feel them with my hands. Evidence that it’s not all in my mind is the presumably real itching I feel afterwards. It was somewhat of a relief to read one source’s comment that you cannot feel deer ticks crawling on your body and that the bites don’t itch. Yet, what’s biting me?

Parting Shot 

There’s very little online about protection specifically for gardeners, but Eve at Garden of Eating in Woodstock, NY has it covered. Screen shot below.

See her snarky remark that we’re supposed to avoid “basically, the entire frikkin’ outdoors”? More on that next week when I tackle the really depressing news about how to make gardens safer from tick-borne diseases.