For many of us this past year, our backyards took on a profoundly important role. In the era of social distancing, yards were transformed into outdoor oases, and even now, there are no signs that the trend is slowing down—increasing demand and a national lumber shortage has made it difficult to acquire wood to build a deck.
In order to stay safe in your yard this spring and summer, it’s crucial to avoid exposure to ticks, which can transmit about a dozen common diseases. The past few years have been some of the worst on record for ticks, and not just in the Northeast. At least one variety of disease-transmitting tick has been found in all of the lower 48 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And a lab at Cornell University has identified 26 species of ticks along the East Coast alone—far more than the deer ticks most of us associate with Lyme disease.
With a little bit of work, including cutting your grass more often, you can significantly limit exposure to the insects in your yard.
“Tick control is mostly about wildlife,” says Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, coordinator of New York State’s Integrated Pest Management Program at Cornell. “If you have an open yard where animals can enter, you’re almost certainly going to have ticks.”
One way to know for sure? Perform what’s called a tick drag. Cut a 5-inch-square swatch of fabric and tie it to an 18-inch-long pole or stick. Holding the pole, drag the fabric along tall grass or weeds, particularly near woodland edges of your lawn. Ticks will typically transfer themselves to the swatch.
If you spot them on the fabric, you’ll need to deal with the problem now to safely enjoy your yard. And even if you don’t find ticks, it could pay to be proactive. Follow these five steps to deal with them effectively.
1. Keep Your Grass Short
“Black-legged ticks, the type that transmit Lyme disease, don’t like dry, hot environments,” Gangloff-Kaufmann says. The taller the grass, the cooler the environment, because taller blades cast a shadow and create shade. That means that leaving your lawn a little shaggy is a bad idea in tick-rich areas.
Gangloff-Kaufmann says it’s okay to let your grass reach the 4 to 4½ inches that Consumer Reports recommends, then trim it down to about 3 inches with each cut. That strategy promotes healthy growth. If you shear your lawn down to an inch or two, you’ll send the grass into a panic and it will grow too tall, too fast, and suffer from a weak root structure. The trick is to be vigilant about keeping up with mowing and not letting grass grow to a height of 5 or 6 inches.
If you miss a week and the grass gets tall, it’s a good idea to use the bagging attachment with your tractor or lawn mower, because leaving those long lawn clippings behind can create the perfect environment for ticks.
2. Make a Mulch Moat
Many tick varieties, including the Lyme-transmitting black-legged variety, favor the dense cover of woodlands over open lawn. That makes any wooded areas adjacent to your property potential hotbeds for ticks. Adding a 3-foot-wide protective barrier of mulch around the perimeter of your yard does double duty.
First, it creates a physical barrier that’s dry and sometimes hot, something ticks can’t tolerate. Second, it serves as a visual reminder to anyone in your household to be especially careful once they step past the perimeter.
For the border, you want mulch made from broad, dry wood chips or bark, not the damp, shredded variety, which creates exactly the kind of cool, damp conditions ticks love.
3. Trim Tall Grass and Weeds
“Ticks like to climb to the top of tall grass blades and look for questing opportunities—the chance to grab on to animals like deer or humans,” Gangloff-Kaufmann says.
By keeping grass and weeds at bay with a string trimmer, you’ll minimize those chances and make it more difficult for ticks to latch on to you or members of your family, or to travel around your property by hitching a ride on your dog.
4. Eliminate Tick Habitat
CR has long recommended mulching grass clippings when you mow. That’s because these clippings break down and release nitrogen into the soil, feeding your yard and potentially reducing the amount of fertilizer you use by about 20 percent.
And in many instances, it’s okay or even preferable to leave behind fallen leaves to nourish the lawn for the same reason. But if you live in an area with a large tick population, you might benefit from a different approach.
By bagging grass and blowing leaves into piles for collection, you keep your yard clear and cut back on tick-friendly places. You’ll want to recycle leaves and grass clippings through your town if possible, or compost them in a pile far from the house.
Rather than letting them rot in a landfill, you can let your leaves and clippings break down naturally and use the resulting compost to feed and fertilize plants around your yard.
5. Consider a Targeted Approach
Following the four steps above will make your yard less inviting to ticks. But if you want to make a serious dent in the tick population on your property, you’ll need to focus on methods that kill them.
Many people opt for spraying their entire yard with pesticide, an approach that CR’s experts say is ineffective and potentially dangerous.
“Spraying your yard provides a false sense of security,” explains Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumer Reports. “Instead, consider products that treat the fur of mice or deer with small quantities of tick-killing agents.”
Why target mice or deer rather than your yard? “Mice play an important role in the transmission cycle of Lyme disease,” says Laura Goodman, senior research associate in Cornell’s department of population medicine and diagnostic sciences. If you can stop critters from transmitting ticks, you can curb the tick population in and around your yard.
“Tick tubes” are one product we’ve encountered. They’re essentially cardboard tubes stuffed with cotton treated with permethrin, a tick-killing chemical. Mice collect the cotton and take it back to their nests. The permethrin binds to oils on their fur, killing any ticks that try to attach without harming the mice.
The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (PDF) has found that such systems have resulted in statistically meaningful drops in tick levels after several years of use. And at about $4 per tube, they’re cheaper than tick bait boxes.
Bonus: Tickproof Yourself
When working in the yard, wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, socks, and closed-toe shoes. Use insect repellent; the best in our tests provide more than 8 hours of tick protection.
“And regardless of the time of year, perform a tick check as soon as you return indoors,” Goodman says.
If you do suffer a bite, Goodman advises properly removing the tick. For more information about ticks in your area, check your state health department’s website. Connecticut, home to the town of Old Lyme, where the disease was first documented, has a particularly comprehensive guide to ticks (PDF).
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2021, Consumer Reports, Inc.