Avoiding Ticks While Gardening - with Judith Taylor of Seeds2Plate

Guest Post Written By Judith Taylor

Judith has been gardening in Massachusetts for over 25 years and has hands-on experience with growing all sorts of perennials, fruits and vegetables as well as landscape design.  She is a graduate of the UMass Green School and enjoys sharing her passion with new gardeners as well as exchanging tips and tricks with those more experienced.  She is using her teaching experience at many local universities to spread the word on seed starting, saving seeds, growing your own food, and creative ways to use the plants that you grow. Her mission is to inspire people to get hooked on gardening!

 Judith Taylor of Seed2Plate with Her Blooming Bushes

Judith pruning one of her mock orange bushes (left) Judith tending to her peonies in her Littleton, MA garden (right)

My passion is gardening! Some would call it an obsession, but passion sounds so much less problematic! I think there’s a gardening gene buried somewhere in my DNA so I can’t be blamed for this hobby that has become my lifestyle.  

It started in my childhood. We’d make a family trip to Maryland to visit my grandparents. I have fond memories of spending time in their expansive yard, gardens, and greenhouse. They had vegetable gardens, huge swathes of multi-colored azaleas, boxwood hedges, a sunny lawn in the front and a shady forest in the back. I spent hours enjoying the beautiful orchids in the greenhouse, smelling the boxwoods, and playing in the leaves in their back woods. I’d also listen in amazement to my grandmother as she’d explain to me how she’d take a cutting from an azalea and just stick it in the ground nearby to make a new plant. She did the same thing with African Violets and orchids. I was hooked!

My time growing up in Iowa gave me another perspective of gardening. One that I swore I would never participate in as an adult because it was too much work and prevented us from going on vacation! My father would till up a huge patch of garden every Spring and plant the seeds and then it was up to the kids to take care of it.  While I didn’t mind weeding and harvesting when I came home from school, and I certainly didn’t mind the delicious food that we enjoyed as a result, it prevented us from going on summer vacations. There was always something that was going to ripen that week!

Now that dreaded thing has happened. I’ve become my parents! I have even more garden beds than they did, and I can only vacation during the winter when there isn’t any gardening to do or crops to harvest. There’s nothing I can do but blame genetics and make the most of the situation!

Judith staying warm and safe from ticks while deadheading irises in her yard

Judith staying warm and safe from ticks while deadheading irises in her yard

Research has shown that gardening is actually a very healthy sport. It is good for the mind, the soul, and the body.  There is a reason that so many people decided to take up gardening during the pandemic last year.  I can attest to the fact that spending time in my yard during the lockdown was the primary thing that kept my stress levels in check. The produce coming from the fruit and vegetable beds also provided me with a sense of security knowing that we wouldn’t starve when the grocery store shelves were empty! Spending time in Nature, no matter how and where you do it, helps to put life in perspective.

There is a dark side to gardening and time outdoors, however!  Especially if you live in New England. Poison ivy, ticks and mosquitoes lurk around every corner and the climate change that we’re experiencing is making them even more tenacious.  For me, the summer of 2020 will not only be remembered for the COVID lockdown, but also a severe case of poison ivy and Lyme disease.

I was fortunate on both counts and was able to get medical assistance to resolve the issues. I also learned a lot about tick bites in the process and about the many other diseases that they carry in addition to Lyme. I’ve been gardening in Massachusetts for over 25 years and have often found ticks crawling on me but have never had a bite.  The really concerning thing about the bite I got last year was not realizing that I had one.  I never found a tick and if it hadn’t been for the bull’s eye rash that appeared, I would have a chronic case of Lyme disease right now.

Later that Fall, I attended the University of Massachusetts Green School (virtual edition!) during the lockdown and got connected to Larry Dapsis, an entomologist who is quite the expert on ticks.  Having been recently diagnosed with Lyme, Larry’s in-depth knowledge of ticks and practical suggestions for how to avoid bites got my full attention!  The factoid that surprised me the most was that ticks don’t go away during the winter, they produce their own antifreeze that keeps them alive and well during cold spells. This was concerning to me because so many people were outside during the winter due to the pandemic and were not protecting themselves from ticks. We assumed they were gone until Spring, but you know what happens when you assume!

As a public service to my Seeds2Plate followers and anyone else who would listen, I decided to spread the word about the dangers of tick bites. Larry was kind enough to present what he’s learned while working for the Barnstable, MA county extension on a Zoom session for me. He is a delightful presenter and a knowledgeable scientist and offers practical, no nonsense methods for protecting yourself and your family (including the family pets!). The interview can be found on my website. I plan to take Larry’s advice and wear permethrin treated clothing when outdoors working in my garden from now on!

Judith inspecting her Deutzia next to the waterfall and pond in her garden

Judith inspecting her Deutzia next to the waterfall and pond in her garden

This Spring, the ticks are worse than ever, so I continue to tell my gardening customers about the dangers of ticks. We gardeners tend to take a more laid-back approach to tick protection than hikers. After all, we’re usually working outside in our own yards…ticks wouldn’t dare attack in our territory! I have a habit of going outside for just a few minutes to do a couple of things and return about 4 hours later, having done a lot of things. No sunscreen, no insect protection, no sunglasses. I call it “drive by” gardening because I complete a lot of tasks, but seldom finish everything. Hopefully it’s just me that has this problem!

I’ve been gardening for over 25 years and haven’t been bitten (until last year!) so why worry now? Turns out that climate change is to blame for this issue too. Studies have shown that as the temperatures increase, the geographic area for ticks has expanded as far North as Canada. The incidence rate of ticks carrying disease is going up in addition to the number of diseases they are transmitting.  All good reasons why gardeners (and everyone else) need to beware! 

I’m protecting myself with Insect Shield clothing and will find out if they can stand up to a full season of extreme gardening. So far, they are working out very well. The clothes I selected allow for freedom of movement, wick away sweat on hot days, and don’t snag on thorns and fences.  I’m ready for a productive, and most importantly SAFE, summer in the garden!

Judith's Top Insect Shield Picks