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Why Your Garden This Spring Could Be Tick Infested

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Four types of Ticks

A new study warns that improper home landscape management can increase the risk of you and your family falling victim to Lyme disease and a multitude of other tick-borne diseases this spring.

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Spring is here, and while most equate tick warnings with the hot months of summer, it turns out that the spread of ticks in your backyard and garden can happen as early as today. How is this possible? Oddly enough, by using green practices such as mulching your garden and other plants with dead tree leaves from last Fall.

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Medical Entomology, researchers found that the landscape management habit of raking or leaf-blowing last year’s Fall leaves to the edge of the yard results in creating a prime habitat for the dreaded blacklegged tick—the principal carrier of Lyme disease in the Eastern United States.

The Blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) is commonly known as “the deer tick” and is responsible for a large proportion of the estimated 300,000 annual cases of Lyme disease in the United States. However, aside from Lyme disease, the Blacklegged tick is also responsible for the spread of other diseases such as human babesiosis and human granulocytic anaplasmosis.

Tick-Borne Diseases Other Than Lyme

Human babesiosis is the infection of red blood cells by a parasite transmitted through a tick bite. While it may be asymptomatic by many, it can cause severe pathology in the young, the old, and those who are immunocompromised. What makes it especially serious is that blood transfusion-transmitted human babesiosis is a real problem and there are no tests to screen blood for the pathogen.

Human granulocytic anaplasmosis is a rickettsia-related infection commonly found in the Northeast and Upper Midwest U.S. For most who are infected via a tick bite, a mild fever results that usually resolves itself through the immune system and/or can be treated with antibiotics. However, in some patients, as many as 3% may develop life-threatening complications and nearly 1% die from the infection.

The reminder here is clear—now is the time to start thinking about tick prevention to minimize human-tick encounters in your home and neighborhood.

So, how was the study performed and what did the results show?

Researchers created test site habitats for ticks with piles of leaves along areas that bordered between backyards and a wooded environment in three residential properties in Monmouth County, New Jersey. Some of the test sites were located right at the backyard edge while others were place deeper within the wooded region. In addition, naturally occurring leaf-fall habitats were analyzed as well as more-managed test site habitats with some added raking and leaf-blowing to make the dead leaf piles a little thicker.

Earlier research has shown that fallen leaves provide Blacklegged ticks with a suitable environmental habitat due to the higher humidity and lower temperatures within the leaf litter, as well as protection from freezing during winter. In addition, the test site choice was important due to that earlier research has shown that human-tick interaction is more common in backyards than in parks or other nature areas.

After the test sites were designed, the habitats were left alone for the winter and then analyzed the following spring for the presence of nymphal (juvenile stage) Blacklegged ticks. In addition, presence of the common Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum), which is distributed throughout much of the eastern United States and is another source of multiple tick-borne diseases, was also examined.

The data revealed that the results for Lone Star tick nymphs were inconsistent, but the number of Blacklegged tick nymphs in the managed backyard edge plots was approximately three times that of the natural backyard edge and forest plots.

What the researchers found was that while the results for the Lone Star tick nymphs were inconsistent, the tabulated number of Blacklegged tick nymphs in the thicker, managed backyard edge test sites was approximately three times that of the natural backyard edge and forest plot test sites.

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"Our study showed that the common fall practice of blowing or raking leaves removed from lawns and landscaping to the immediate lawn/woodland edges can result in a three-fold increase in blacklegged tick numbers in these areas the following spring," says Robert Jordan, Ph.D., a research scientist at the Monmouth County (New Jersey) Mosquito Control Division and co-author of the study.

Recommended Landscaping Management Practices

"While we expected to see more ticks along lawn edges with deeper leaf-litter accumulation, we were surprised about the magnitude of the increase in ticks that resulted from leaf blowing or raking," added Dr. Jordan, who recommends that “…properties with considerable leaf fall, the best option would be complete removal of leaves from areas most frequently used—such as lawns, outdoor seating areas, and in and around play sets. If this is not possible or practical, leaf piles should be placed in areas least frequently used. Where neither of these options is possible, or where leaf fall is minimal, mulching in place may be a good option, since this encourages rapid decomposition of leaves, which may reduce habitat suitability for ticks."

So, the message here is that while it may be tempting to use last Fall’s dead leaves that were piled up along your backyard fence for mulching around your garden this spring, the safer option is to find another natural mulching solution and stay away from those tick habitats. Then, next Fall, follow proper landscaping management practices by either composting all of your leaves, mulching them, or depositing them on the street-side for leaf-litter pickup service disposal.

For more about gardening and your health, here is an informative article titled “Does Gardening Really Count As Exercise?

Have you or someone you care about suffered from a tick-borne disease? Let us know so that others may understand the seriousness of tick prevention in the home.

About the Author
Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with a background in farming and an avid home gardener, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between plant biology and gardening for healthy living. For continual updates about plants and health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

References:

To Reduce Tick Encounters, Where You Dump Your Leaves Matters” Entomology Today news report provided by the Entomological Society of America.

Artificial Accumulation of Leaf Litter in Forest Edges on Residential Properties via Leaf Blowing Is Associated with Increased Numbers of Host-Seeking Ixodes scapularis (Acari: Ixodidae) Nymphs” Terry L Schulze, Robert A Jordan; Journal of Medical Entomology, 2020; doi: 10.1093/jme/tjaa033.

Human Babesiosis: Pathogens, Prevalence, Diagnosis and Treatment” Ord, Rosalynn Louise, and Cheryl A Lobo. Current clinical microbiology reports vol. 2,4 (2015): 173-181. doi:10.1007/s40588-015-0025-z.

Human granulocytic anaplasmosis” Bakken, Johan S, and J Stephen Dumler. Infectious disease clinics of North America vol. 29,2 (2015): 341-55. doi: 10.1016/j.idc.2015.02.007.

This story has been reviewed by Dr. Inaam Schneider, MD of Schneider Medical Group. According to U.S. News Health, Dr. Inaam Schneider is an internist in Raleigh, North Carolina. She received her medical degree from Wayne State University School of Medicine and has been in practice for more than 20 years.

Dr. Schneider, after reviewing this article says, "this a great common sense article. Most people probably do not know that piling leaves at the edge of the lot cause a very favorable habitat for ticks. Reusing them on the garden will spread ticks closer to where they live and play. The best way to dispose of leaves is to bag them or put them on the edge of the street to be picked up by the city. Tick born diseases are serious and can result in disability and morbidity and take their toll on the human body. In addition, there is a big economical factor as related to the cost of treatment and loss of workdays and decreased productivity."

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