Q+A: Can we have fireflies in our yard, but no ticks?🍂

The ins and outs of “leaving the leaves,” plus a peek at our new rock pit.

Back when I launched Imagining a Garden, my project-within-a-project all about creative, experimental approaches to cultivation, I asked you to send me your gardening-related quandaries so I could help suss out answers. I already responded to my friend Reed’s question about starting (or, in his case, not starting) seeds, and am excited to receive more research-worthy questions, so send ‘em my way!

Today’s quandary comes from my friend Zoe, who also lives in upstate NY. She writes:

Maybe you can help settle a debate in my household. I convinced Star [Zoe’s partner] to “leave the leaves” in our front yard for the winter but once the snow melted and the ticks started to pop out, she changed her mind. We want the good bugs but not the bad ones! Is there a way to have fireflies and no ticks?

To be honest, I’ve wondered about this as well. If we encourage our yard to grow mostly wild, full of leaves and flowers and tall grasses, what will that mean for the ticks?


My friend Arden jokes that I’m “obsessed with ticks,” which is true only in so much as I think about them a lot, because I’m outside a lot, and our yard is [internet-famously] full of ticks. Therefore, I often find ticks crawling on various parts of my body, or in my kid’s ears, or attached to my husband’s neck. In the spring we pick so many ticks off our dog that she develops an annual compulsive behavior where every time we come in from a walk, she’ll spend hours staring at her front legs waiting for the little ticks to crawl out of her fur, dreading the moment when I swoop in to pick them off. Woof.

But anyway, I digress. Back to Zoe’s question. 

I’m just gonna say it: No, you probably can’t have fireflies but no ticks. However! That’s because you’re gonna have some ticks pretty much no matter what—so perhaps a more realistic set of questions to ask is how to have fewer ticks overall, how to keep those ticks away from the most-used parts of your yard, and how to feel safe as you enjoy time outside. Let’s explore.


First: Why “leave the leaves” to begin with? 

The basic idea is that fallen leaves serve a few highly valuable purposes: They protect and enrich the soil they cover, they make ideal germination conditions for native seeds, and they create habitat for beneficial and beloved insects, such as fireflies. Many kinds of pollinators, beetles, spiders, salamanders, and other desirable species can’t survive the winter without their own little pile of dead leaves to call home. At a time when 40% of all insect species are declining globally, and that a third of them are endangered, leaving the leaves for them feels like the least we can do, no?

TL;DR: if you want to support a diverse ecosystem around your home, you gotta leave a good portion of the leaves that fall from your trees each year. However, those very same leaves also provide habitat for ticks. So now we’re back to Zoe’s pickle: What’s a tick-hating, firefly-loving woman to do?

Let’s zoom out for a minute. Ticks aren’t just a problem in some people’s yards. On the contrary, they’re getting worse everywhere. Milder winters have helped them; so has forest fragmentation; so has the proliferation of deer populations. And, sadly, so has pesticide use—the very thing many people turn to for tick mitigation. Even using tick-deterring lawn sprays (including “all natural” ones) can harm and/or deter other bugs, not just ticks. This is a huge loss for a yard’s resilience as a micro-ecosystem, since fewer bugs means fewer birds, fewer flowers, less biodiversity, etc. It’s also a loss on a wider scale, since obviously the micro-ecosystems of our individual yards, gardens, parks, decks, etc add up to our shared ecosystems, and the Earth’s wellbeing as a whole.

Ferns and hellebores pushing right up through the leaves, which now serves as a natural mulch.

This is where gardening comes into the equation. ✨

In a well-balanced ecosystem, ticks would have enough natural predators—birds, spiders, opossums, etc—to keep their populations relatively under control. They also wouldn’t have such an over-abundance of host mammals—mice and deer—to reach infestation levels. However, ecological monocultures (turf lawns and suburban sprawl, for example) create unbalanced ecosystems, which has led us to where we are now. This is why it’s so important to think of gardening not just as a hobby, or as a way to beautify your surroundings, but as a way to bolster the parts of our natural world that are struggling, mostly due to habitual human activities (like mowing, raking, spraying, bulldozing, and, um, causing climate change).

If you have a yard, or access to a garden plot or a deck or a rooftop, you have the opportunity to cultivate a thriving, diverse ecosystem that not only serves your needs, but also helps out the wildlife who live near you, who desperately need our support.

I’ve been tempted to rake up these leaves, but I’m leavin’ ’em for the bugs!

There are so many benefits to cultivating biodiversity in your yard.

If you’ve seen The Biggest Little Farm, you know that the hands-down best way to control pests is to cultivate a well-balanced, diverse ecosystem around your home. The farmers in the film obviously spent tons of money and time to implement their commercial-scale permaculture project, but the ideas transcend scope, in my opinion. The more biodiversity you welcome into your yard, and the more you avoid monocultural plantings and poisons, the more resilient and balanced its micro-ecosystem will become. (Here’s some further reading on this topic.)

Having an over-abundance of pests is rarely a one-species problem. If you’re dealing with lots of ticks, then you’re probably also dealing with a fair number of mice and deer around your yard—two species that have managed to thrive in monocultural, human-centric ecosystems. Ticks depend on mice, deer, and other mammals for their yearly “blood meal.” So, a good way to start reducing the number of ticks around your house is to do what you can to keep deer out, and mouse populations low (more on this below).

A nice start could be to plant lots of flowering, low-maintenance natives to attract bees, butterflies, moths, and other beneficial bugs—which will in turn attract birds. Add a large birdbath to attract even more birds, as well as owls and other birds of prey, which can help keep mice populations under control. Mowing your lawn less frequently, and including native grasses in your yard, gives predatory birds a better environment for hunting. Snakes are also great at mitigating mouse populations, and enjoy tall native grasses and a ground-level bird bath (or small wildlife pond, which are easier to install than you may think!) as a water source.

It might seem like by suggesting ways to attract more wildlife, I’m just suggesting more ways to attract mice and deer, which is true—but the key thing is attracting a wide and diverse range of wildlife, not just mice and deer, which are honestly attracted to pretty much any environment. The trick is to bring in the less-prevalent, highly beneficial species who can do a ton to balance out your yard’s micro-ecosystem.

By recognizing the benefits of biodiversity, we can see that leaving the leaves is actually a long-term solution to mitigating ticks.

Need a short-term solution? You can have the best of both worlds by creating “safe zones” vs. “wild zones.”

Sometimes you just need a safe, tick-free patch of short grass to roll around in. Luckily, there’s no reason you can’t have the best of both worlds: A closely mowed lawn to hang out in, and a wildflower meadow or lush, dead-leaf-ridden garden for wildlife.

To implement this approach, decide which parts of your property will be safe for you, and which will be safe for wildlife. Then, don’t leave the leaves everywhere—instead, concentrate them in the lesser-used parts of your property, where you’re less likely to walk through them, but where insects can still make use of them.

In your designated safe zones and pathways, keep the grass mowed short, and rake away the leaves in early spring, once daytime temps are consistently over 50 degrees (this ensures overwintering insects will be okay once you rake up their home). If you want the leaves gone earlier, rake them up in the fall and move them over to your “wild zones” early, before the overwintering insects move in. Avoid the temptation to bag them up as garbage—put them to use as mulch and compost! Pretty soon I’ll be removing many of the leaves from my flower beds so that I can work the soil easier, but I’ll return a portion of them to serve as natural mulch, placing the leftovers in the taller grass on the outskirts of our yard.

In and around your safe zones, try planting native perennials and edibles that deter pests while adding fragrant blooms that beneficial insects will love. Anything pungent (think: onion-y, essential oil-y, herbaceous) will deter pests—including deer, mice, and ticks—from your safe zones; anything that flowers will be loved by bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds (and by you!). My top choices for plants to put in and around your tick-free zones would be catmint, lavender, salvia, daffodils, yarrow, bee balm, sage, columbine, coreopsis, milkweed, allium, and edible garlic.

If you really want to be safe, fencing in the part of your yard where you spend most time is an expensive but effective way to keep it tick-free (because remember, ticks can ride in on deer), and the bonus of this approach is you will also be creating a huge gardening space for yourself, free from hungry mammals (looking at you, woodchucks). Just make sure that you leave some room between the edge of the fence and your designated wild zones, as ticks will travel through the fence if the tall grass is pressing right up against it.

Once you’ve staked out your safe zones, let “wild zones” be free to harbor all sorts of wildlife—and never touch the leaves!

Fun fact: Deer hate daffodils because they contain a bitter, poisonous substance called lycorine. Daffs aren’t native to this area, but I still love to plant ’em everywhere!

Finally, don’t be paranoid—just be smart.

Trying to eliminate ticks in a yard reminds me of that story about the king who’s sick of stepping on thorns, so he tries to cover his entire kingdom with leather. Eventually someone tells him he can just use a small piece of leather to cover his feet, and voila, he’s protected from the thorns—and the rest of his kingdom can remain as is.

Similarly, keeping ticks out of your yard might be a Sisyphean task, especially if you have neighbors who welcome deer into their yard, or if you live near a big ol’ field or forest, or if you simply don’t have the time, energy, or resources to spend in the pursuit of eco-friendly tick-mitigation. 

So, somewhat unfortunately, the simplest approach is just to learn to live with them, sigh. It sucks, but with some ingrained vigilance, you can drastically reduce your risk of being infected with a tick-borne illness. My go-to advice is, when you’re doing stuff outside, wear white socks that you can tuck your pants into (also makes for a killer ‘fit). Then just change clothes immediately after being in a ticky area, and put the worn clothes in the dryer for a few minutes to kill any tag-along arachnids.

After 5+ years of dealing with a huge number of ticks out here in our deer-infested woods, I’ve acclimated to their presence. And while they’re often on my mind, I don’t actively *worry* about them much, because checking for them has become second nature. It stinks, but so do a lot of things these days.

Cool tick-preventing fashion, with my dirty sweatpants tucked into my white socks.

Finally… Do what feels right to you.

I don’t want to make anyone feel bad for raking up leaves, or for whatever else you might be doing to deter ticks. Do what makes you feel safe, and what helps you enjoy spending time outside. No matter your approach, it’s all about balance, and doing what feels right to you.

But also, keep in mind: Ticks aren’t very fast crawlers, and even though they’re small, they *are* visible. The best protection against ticks is simply remembering to check yourself for them regularly (especially right before bed). Don’t let them ruin your time outside, because I don’t think they’ll be going away anytime soon. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, or something like that, I guess?

Letting ticks crawl on my hand last year so I could subsequently kill them, as seen in my “TickTok” :-\

Last things last: Imagining a rock pit 🙂

To close out this dispatch in a less-ticky way, here’s a little update from our yard. This week we broke ground on a big new garden bed, right smack in the middle of our back yard. I’d been trying to dig out the bed myself with help from Daniel and his “big bub” (a big crow-bar), but after nearly breaking my pick-axe and both of our backs trying to dig out just a few of the enormous rocks, we decided to hire our teenage-ish neighbor, Frank Jr., to drive his dad’s excavator up the road and get the job done fast.

After Frank Jr. spent a couple hours scraping up the turf and pulling out a laughable number of boulder-sized rocks, it now looks like a meteor crash-landed in our yard. :::insert meme about trying to garden in the Catskills, rockiest place ever:::

Hopefully soon the stars will align and it will be nice out on a day where we have childcare help and not too much work, and we’ll be able to spend a big chunk of time dragging the rocks around and preparing the beds with cardboard and compost.

Today I drew up this vague plan for the new bed, which will be a perennial pollinator garden in the front, and a more cultivated space in the back for herbs, asparagus, and crop flowers like dahlias and ranunculus (with a border of deer-deterring plants, naturally):

Hopefully next time I write one of these Imagining a Garden dispatches, I’ll have some fun updates to share about planting this new bed. My seedlings are getting big, and our last-frost date of May 12 is quickly approaching—I can’t wait!

How about you? What are you getting up to in your yard, garden, deck, or windowsill these days? I’d love to hear from you—even just to know someone is reading this dang thing. So feel free to smash that “reply” button and let me know what you’re up to, or what you think.

Sending sunny, tick-less vibes your way,

~ Willa

Dahlia and marigold seedlings getting big 🙂

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