To Spray Or Not to Spray

The Unvarnished, Untold Story of our Pleasure Garden

Many of you commented on my recent posts about the wonderful spring we had here: a lovely blend of copious rainfall, balmy temperatures and sunny days that produced boundless garden bouquets.

Now I must confess the rest of the seamy story.

The underbelly of our garden is an iniquitous den of bloodthirsty despicables. This year they took advantage of moist growing conditions to multiply and gear up and gang up. They specialize in guerilla tactics and sneak attacks and they have taken over our garden like the thugs they are. We are being held hostage inside our house.

Beneath this tumultuous landscape lurks a hidden horde of ne’er do wells waiting to pounce on a trespasser

What’s a gardener to do? We mounted a blitzkrieg on the bugs.

After all, we have our reputation as gardeners to consider, which is not particularly sterling when it comes to controlling unruly guests. Summer visitors often come away from our gardens with souvenirs they didn’t count on.

Worse, we are probably the culprits in dispersing armies of villains by grinding litter from some beds and returning same, homogenized, to other beds. Fortunately, friends and relatives have been good-natured, but there are limits.

We clear the garden beds and the critters obligingly came along

As you may have guessed, the despicables are ticks, chiggers, and mosquitos.

So we called Jess, maestro of the blitzkrieg. She’s experienced. She’s on target. She’s a bugs-in-common friend.

Back in 2013, when our reputation was at a low point, I asked Jess, who had recently picked up a franchise for spraying despicables, if she could treat our garden with only natural ammunition, no synthetic chemicals. It would be an experiment. We’d take our chances on success.

Her parent company agreed with the plan. Jess sprayed only with garlic. The despicables were routed. We became her first customers to go “all natural,” and now most of her spraying is done with natural oils.

Essential oils are best purchased and stored in tinted bottles and should not be adulterated with other ingredients


This year Jess sprayed with a combination of garlic – lots and lots of garlic—and essential oils from a variety of plants: tea tree (an Australian native), cedarwood, lemon grass, citronella, rosemary, geranium, and chrysanthemum.

(Helpful Tip: Jess recommends a mix-it-yourself tea tree oil spray to repel ticks when you are outside: 8 or 10 drops to one cup of water in a spray bottle. Tea tree oil is readily available on-line or in drug stores.)

Since the garlic in the spray can be irritating, Tess wears safety glasses and a respirator, (standard Personal Protective Equipment or PPE) and dresses in layers with a hoodie. We stay in the house. She uses a gas-powered blower and carries a pack that weighs 68 pounds.

Jess geared up and ready to spray

You can smell the garlic for a few hours, but bees, butterflies and birds don’t seem to mind. They were out and about shortly after the fog dissipated.

Dragonflies were active, too, but I worry that they will go to bed hungry tonight. They can reach flying speeds of 30 miles an hour, twisting and turning to scoop up mosquitos and other fliers, but the mosquitos don’t seem to be flying now!

Some other animals may go hungry for a while. We may be dinner for chiggers, but chiggers are dinner for ants, beetles, centipedes, spiders and birds. And ticks are dinner for chickens, frogs, possums, ants, and probably some others. They all fit into a food web that we civilized people mostly try to ignore.

Well, I can’t worry about the world all the time. Spraying with essential oils, which are the volatile aromatics that plants produce to protect themselves from becoming some animal’s meal, sure beats using Sevin ready-to-use with carbaryl.

It is such a joy to garden without a nest of baby chiggers under foot ready to scale the heights of my torso, stopped only by bands on clothes. I know these tiny, almost microsocopic, larvae of the red bug or harvest mite are just trying to make a living but I’m not crazy about their dissolving my skin cells with their saliva for a feast. These relatives of spiders do not burrow, by the way, a common misconception.

A 1790 lithograph of a chigger. PBS

Itchy bumps are caused by your body breaking down the feeding tube chiggers leave behind after they fall off or are brushed off. They are best treated with anti-itch cream and calamine lotion. Teenagers (nymphs) and adults are pretty benign, feeding on decaying matter and soil insects.

The best thing about chiggers is: They do not carry disease, at least not here in the United States. They do carry a disease called scrub typhus in a wide swath of Asia and Australia, and most recently in Chile.

The redbug, or adult version of the chigger. Note the 8 legs which makes it a relative of the spider.

Ticks, also kin to spiders, are another story. They can carry serious diseases like lyme disease and spotted fever that need immediate treatment. Lone star ticks, recognizable by the prominent white blotch on their backs, can cause alpha gal syndrome and allergy to red meat that can be life-threatening.

Size comparison of ticks, from larvae to adult. CDC diagram

Ticks are blood suckers from the time they hatch as six-legged larvae, then grow to eight-legged nymphs, and finally to adulthood. They only need one meal per stage, but if you happen to be dinner during one of these stages, that’s one meal too many. The good news is, they die if they don’t eat during each stage. Most of them die, thank goodness.

How do they latch on? They have a behavior that is, quaintly, called questing. For me, it brings up images of knights in shining armor on their quests in the old days (though I was never quite sure of what their quests were – the hand of Guinevere maybe?)

Female lone star tick, identified by bright white spot on back, is questing, or extending front legs hoping it can hook onto a hapless animal passing by.

Snakes don’t quest. Rabbits don’t quest, but ticks do. They perch on foliage near the ground with their two front legs extended, hoping to snag a passerby. If they succeed, they will explore this new (involuntary) host till they find the right spot, tender and. perversely, just beyond easy reach.

They are alerted by an animal’s breath, body odor, body temperature, moisture and vibrations. (And here you thought that morning shower made you invincible.)

Greatly enlarged, this group of larval ticks is cluster questing; they are hooked to one another and will automatically tag along when the first tick attaches to an animal. Photo by Brenda Leal, Entomology Today

As they bite, ticks may transfer some saliva into their host. If the tick’s saliva is carrying pathogens, it can cause disease. On the other hand, if the involuntary host is diseased, the tick will drink blood that will infect a new host the next time it feeds.

Proper suiting-up before gardening and a thorough check afterwards will prevent most insect trespass. Detailed information on ticks, chiggers and mosquitos is available on a variety of government and medical sites.

We are once again the Grand Pooh-bahs of our garden, (more realistically. the lowly caretakers.) Now there is no excuse for not putting the summer rioters and the invading vines and those galloping shrubs back in their places.

Crepe myrtles are next to be groomed, but they are such a welcome part of the July landscape, we can put this off for a while

If you live in northeastern North Carolina and want to contact Jess, email her at

Jess, out from behind her PPE

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1 Response to To Spray Or Not to Spray

  1. Linda says:

    Deliver us from chiggers and ticks! Good advice on home made tea tree oil spray for human lunches.

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