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To Kill Ticks, Should I Spray My Yard? Is It the Best Option for Tick Control?

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Picture of an RTS (ready to spray) spray from Sevin.

Killing ticks with an RTS (ready to spray) product like Sevin's is a good option if you keep your hoses in good shape. Otherwise, I do not recommend it.

David Beaulieu
Question: To Kill Ticks, Should I Spray My Yard? Is It the Best Option for Tick Control?
Do news reports of Lyme disease have you considering the best way to kill ticks (or otherwise avoid being bitten by them)? Below I'll be helping you decide on a course of action. But reader beware: mulling over options for tick control in the yard may cause you to lose sleep tonight. Why? Because you may find yourself torn between deeply held convictions and the need to keep yourself and your family safe.
Answer:

You love being active outdoors, but you don't want to get Lyme disease So being prudent, you start researching deer-tick control in the yard. What preventative steps do the experts suggest?

Below, we'll explore some possible options. But first, to sharpen your focus, allow me to attempt a portrait of you as a gardener. Only you can decide whether my sketch describes you accurately or not, but I'm confident that it describes many of my readers (and there's certainly an element of self-portraiture here on my part):

You love growing plants. You may even raise some of your own food. If you're not currently part of the "back to the land" movement, at least you experimented with it in the past, and you'd consider taking another crack at it again in the future.

In short, you love the natural world. Communing with nature is high on your priority list. You never feel more alive than when frolicking through forest, field and garden. You try to stay organic, doing as little harm to the environment as is feasible.

But there's a problem: nature doesn't always love you back. Communing with deer ticks is ill-advised, since they can bear Lyme disease. You hate using chemical pesticides, but you know that you should take some sort of action.

So What Measures Do Experts Suggest for Tick Control in the Yard?

Tick control in the yard can take a number of forms. Each of these methods has its pros and cons. I'm not here to select the one(s) right for you: only you can do that. My goal is to help you make your choice with your eyes fully open, by spurring you on to an internal dialogue. After weighing the pros and cons of the various options, you can then attempt to strike the right balance between your "green" ideals and your need find a sensible way to address the tick menace.

First of all, let's define terms. It's specifically the black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis) that can transmit Lyme disease, so if you live within their range (Eastern North America), this type will be your biggest worry. Ixodes scapularis can be transported into your landscape by deer; indeed, they are also commonly called "deer ticks." Much of the information in this article is relevant to controlling other types of ticks, as well (just because a tick doesn't carry Lyme disease, that's no reason to let yourself be bitten by it!).

Secondly, a pesticide designed to kill ticks is termed an "acaricide." The word derives from the subclass of arachnids to which ticks belong: Acari. These pests are related to spiders and mites.

The recommendations for tick control in yards fall mainly into three categories (they're not mutually exclusive). You can:

  1. Modify your behavior
  2. Modify your yard
  3. Try to kill any ticks that may live in your yard

Let's look at each of these approaches to control in some depth:

Modifying Your Behavior

One possible course of action is to gird your loins when you enter tick-infested habitats (which could very well include your own yard). Said girding in this case can take on various forms, among them being:

  • Spraying yourself with repellents
  • Wrapping yourself in clothing from head to toe and taking such measures as tucking the bottoms of your pant legs into your socks
  • Wearing tick-repellent clothes

In addition, when you return from your outing, you can scan your body for ticks. Actually, a more thorough exam is possible if you have someone else do it for you (which can also be more fun -- depending on who's conducting the exam).

One problem with all that spraying and bundling up is that it's extremely time-consuming, assuming that you spend a great amount of time outdoors during the course of the year. Are you really going to go through this rigamarole every time you step outside for several consecutive months each year? Another problem is that folks tend to want to wear fewer, not more clothes during the summer months. Wrapping myself up like a mummy on a hot July day is not my idea of comfort. Furthermore, tick-repelling sprays applied to the body commonly contain DEET, which is hardly an organic product.

Modifying Your Yard

OK, so maybe modifying your yard sounds more appealing than modifying your behavior. How do you go about doing that?

If you're gearing your efforts specifically to deer-tick control in the yard, your objective should be to keep deer away from your landscaping, lest they bring Ixodes scapularis with them. Three common ways to achieve this goal are through:

  1. Using deer repellents
  2. Erecting deer fencing
  3. Planting only deer-resistant plants

More generally speaking, experts recommend creating an environment in your landscaping in which ticks are less likely to be able to survive. Ticks basically need two things:

  1. Humidity
  2. A host upon which to feed (in addition to deer, common hosts are rodents and birds)

Eliminate those two things (easier said than done), and you largely eliminate the probability of a tick infestation. Moreover, you should modify your yard such that you won't be brushing up against shrubs, for example, when walking down a path within your yard (ticks could be waiting for you on the branches). Dense ground covers can also harbor ticks. You get the picture: a neat, tidy yard with dry conditions and no wildlife holds no appeal for ticks.

The problem is, it may not hold much appeal for you, either.

For many, gardening practically goes hand-in-hand with enjoying the sights and sounds of birds and other wildlife. As for neatness, the popular cottage-garden style is more or less the antithesis of a tidy yard, as it strives for more of a "natural look." Finally, where there are garden plants, there is going to be watering -- and thus, very likely, humidity.

Killing Ticks

Do you sense that your options are being whittled down? If you're not prepared to modify your behavior as discussed above, and if a well-manicured (some would say "sterile") landscape is not your style, what choices are left to you? Well, you could just kill the little buggers.

But this option, too has its drawbacks and presents its share of challenging questions that you must answer. For example:

  1. Should you use a chemical or an organic acaricide (which can come in the form of a spray or granules)?
  2. What's the best way, place and time to apply the acaricide?

Not being a chemist, I'm not about to "get into the weeds" on the subject of which acaricides are organic and which are not. Nor will I address the issue of how effective the organic ones are, other than to point out that, according to the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES), "Some organic pesticide products are less effective, breakdown rapidly, and multiple applications may be required."

The correct place to apply an acaricide is along border areas, where a potential tick habitat (woods, brush, etc.) meets your lawn. Spray several feet into both sides of such a border (i.e., into both the woods side and the lawn side). Regarding the best time for the application, CAES states, "Chemical intervention should focus on early control of nymphal I. scapularis ticks, the stage most likely to transmit Lyme disease, by spraying once in May or early June."

Below I address some of the ways to apply an acaricide. But first, let's deal with the fundamental dilemma:

So Should I Spray My Yard With a Chemical Acaricide to Kill Ticks?

This may be a case where reality challenges our neatly-constructed world views. Only you can decide, but you'll have to make a tough choice and engage in some prioritizing. What's most important to you? Is it convenience and comfort? How about a low-maintenance yard? Is landscaping with a more "natural" look at the top of your priority list? Or does staying organic trump all other concerns?

Some people will decide that they'll risk a tick bite and/or put up with the inconveniences detailed above (i.e., in modifying their behavior and/or their yards), and avoid spraying with harmful chemicals. Other people, confronted with the risk of contracting a debilitating illness (Lyme disease), will decide that this is a case where they'll bite the bullet and (reluctantly) spray. I'm not here to be a proponent of one position or the other. Rather, I'm here to serve both groups of people by stimulating thoughtful reflection on the various issues involved.

I've Decided to Spray for Ticks. How Do I Go About It?

Even if you do decide on spraying as the best option for tick control in the yard, that's not the end of the decision-making process. There are different ways to spray to kill ticks, including calling in a pro to do the job for you. If you wish to kill ticks on your own, you may do so using:

  • An RTU product (ready to use)
  • An RTS product (ready to spray)
  • A spray that you mix yourself

The Sevin product pictured above is an example of an RTS product. See the yellow object in the upper right-hand corner of the photo? That screws onto the end of your hose (you may be familiar with similar products available with which to fertilize your plants). By contrast, with an RTU product, you don't need a hose: the product that you purchase has a built-in sprayer. The third choice is to buy a concentrate and use your own pressurized garden sprayer.

Some recommend the RTS product, reasoning that the powerful spray that you can get from a garden hose allows you to cover a bigger area in less time. But how wise this recommendation is may well depend on how good you are about maintaining hoses. Let me explain:

Are you the type who keeps all your equipment in tip-top shape? Do you keep your garden hose in perfect working order? Bless your fastidious little heart, because I'm not. You know those rubber washers that fit into the ends of garden hoses, the ones you're supposed to replace every so often? I tend to leave the old ones in way too long. The result? Leaky hoses.

Leaky hoses are never a good thing, but they are especially bad when using an RTS product to spray a poison: you may get some of that poison on your body. Then you have to stop what you're doing, go inside to wash up, and, upon returning, replace the washer. Don't have one lying around? That would mean a trip to the store to buy one.

See my point? You may have initially calculated that using an RTS product would save you time. But, in fact, it may not. If your hose maintenance is as sloppy as mine, it may take less time, in the end, to use an RTU spray, even though it involves more manual work. Yes, you'll have to physically take the spray to the targeted vegetation, which means you'll be doing more walking and spraying. But unless you have an enormous area to cover, this will still take less time than going to the store to buy a rubber washer.

I Don't Want to Spray With Chemicals. Is There a Compromise Position?

This is a complex matter, so yes, there are a number of compromise positions. One possible compromise would be to try an organic spray, while hedging your bets by doing all you can to keep deer (and, consequently, deer ticks) away from your landscape. Remember, it is specifically the deer tick that is your gravest concern, since they pose the greatest threat to your health. So focus on controlling that type of tick first and foremost.

Given the severity of the potential health problems that surround the issues presented above, I can't take responsibility for the course of action you end up taking: you'll have to make that decision yourself.

Have other pest concerns, in addition to ticks? Check out my resources on garden pest control.

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