Tickscaping: Preventing Lyme Disease
with Landscape Design

Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. is a Gynecologist, Director of the New York Menopause Center, Clinical Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Assistant Attending Obstetrician and Gynecologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She is a board certified fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Allen is also a member of the Faculty Advisory Board and the Women’s Health Director of The Weill Cornell Community Clinic (WCCC). Dr. Allen was the recipient of the 2014 American Medical Women’s Association Presidential Award.

I always looked forward to landscaping projects even before we moved into a part of the country known for interesting people and peaceful village life as well as its population of black-footed ticks and their favorite host, the white-footed mouse. The infectious agent, the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi that causes Lyme disease, lives in the white-footed mouse for most of its life. The black-footed ticks feed on the white footed mouse, become infected with the bacterium,  then that transmit the bacterium into humans and other animals. In addition to the transmission of this bacterium, these tick bites can transmit Ehrlichiosis, Anaplasmosis and Babesiosis and an even more alarming tick borne pathogen, the Powassan virus.  As many of our readers know, I have a healthy abhorrence for infectious diseases and do all that I can do avoid them.

I have a phobia about ticks and tickborne illnesses, and for good reason. It’s not just that I want to avoid Lyme disease and other tickborne illnesses transmitted to humans by tick bites. It’s that I know how these blood suckers attach to the human body and how they stay on for days. The process is really like a horror movie. If you are really brave, watch this video to understand why I want to do everything I can to avoid tick bites.

As you see in the video, the term tick bite may be misleading as ticks do not bite and depart nor do they feed rapidly like a mosquito. Ticks attach and feed gradually over a period of several to many days. Once a tick has found a suitable place to feed, it grasps the skin, tilts the body at a 45-60° angle, and begins to cut through the skin with its frightening mouth covered in hooks. This allows the tick to dig under the skin so that it can push in its long stubby mouth part, covered in rows of hooks that give it the look of a chainsaw. After the mouth part penetrates the skin, it becomes encased in “cement” secreted by the tick. The cement serves to hold the mouth part in place while the tick feeds. Compounds in ticks’ saliva help blood pool under the surface of the skin. Ticks sip it like drinking from a straw.

Tickborne diseases are on the rise and prevention should be on everyone’s mind.  I find it astonishing that many people still do not know they are at risk. According to a recent report from the CDC:

“Each year, more than 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported nationwide, while studies suggest the actual number of people diagnosed with Lyme disease is more likely about 300,000. Despite these numbers, a recent national survey reported that nearly 20 percent of people surveyed in areas where Lyme disease is common were unaware that it was a risk. Additionally, half of people interviewed in another study reported that they did not routinely take steps to protect themselves against tick bites during warm weather.”

The black-legged tick is found mainly in densely wooded areas and unmaintained  areas between woodlands and open areas. Fewer ticks are found in ornamental vegetation and lawn. Within the lawn, most of the ticks (82%) are located within three yards of the lawn perimeter particularly along woodlands, stonewalls, or ornamental plantings. The lawn perimeter, brushy areas and ground cover vegetation, and most importantly the woods, form the high-risk tick zone. The idea for residential tick management is to create a tick-managed area around your home that encompasses the portions of the yard that your family uses most frequently. This includes walkways, areas used for recreation, play, eating or entertainment, the mailbox, storage areas and gardens.

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  • lk July 17, 2018 at 8:05 am

    Why don’t you just pave your front yard and be done with it????

    • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. July 17, 2018 at 11:05 am

      Dear LK,
      Thanks for reading and asking your thoughtful question.
      In order to answer this question, I wonder, did you watch the video of what black legged ticks do to humans in order to get their week of feeding on our blood? That is before we get Lyme Disease from the gift of bacteria and viruses they leave behind in our bodies….I don’t want ticks on my person and plan to do what I can to make the property around my house safe for children, family and friends as well.
      So, you would like to know why I don’t just “pave the front yard and be done with it?” First, I would never pave anything, as in creating a parking lot like area instead of lawn. However, the Husband wouldn’t let me create an attractive and safe hardscape instead of a lawn. So, the granite steps are working for me so far. I stay on those and off the grass. But next year, I have plans…creating a large granite stone patio behind the kitchen porch for outdoor dining. Just don’t tell The Husband. He will like it once he arrives and finds it finished.
      Dr. Pat