First aid tips for gardeners

Fiann Ó Nualláin says the cure for stings or bites is under your nose and is a great way to use up pesky weeds.

Fiann Ó Nualláin

Most gardeners will not make it through a summer without a bite or a sting – it is an occupational hazard. But just like carpenters with splinters, one cannot fear the wood. Yes be vigilant of insects that bite and sting …. But if you were to check under every petal and leaf before watering or weeding – the garden would soon falter.

This latter end of summer is when stings and bites are more frequent – to many garden insects it’s the last mad dash before autumn and hibernation, displacement or death. Makes one tetchy. The salvation is the knowledge that when an incident happens there is a natural remedy in the garden and via the pantry or fridge to rescue the day.

Sometimes you just don’t know if that red itch on your leg or arm is the after fact of a bite or a sting and without a diagnosis how do you treat – well if uncertain I always apply a plantain spit poultice (simply chew a washed bit of this common weed and spit it on) – both your saliva and the juice of the weed cool and desensitise the inflammation, itch or tingle. 

Your spit actual contains antiseptic compounds and coagulants to seal the wound site and phytochemicals in the plantain speed those possesses. With insect irritations a rub of mint leaf works in the smae way as dock leaf to nettle sting. A mint spit poultice is therefore an excellent choice and when with minty fresh breath you can tell everyone about your ordeal with confidence.

Jokes aside, the other minty breath provider - toothpaste- is remedial to both sting and bite – being anti-inflammatory and also fast acting to dry out the hives. It’s amazing what’s lying around the house that has first aid benefits or is there from a medical starting point in the first place. 

Superglue was famously utilized by the American military to quick seal wounds in combat during their intervention in Vietnam.

Not sure if it’s any use for call of duty thumb blisters. But Listerine began its life as a surgical antiseptic – developed by chemist Joseph Lawrence back in 1879 with extracts of eucalyptus, Methyl salicylate from oil of wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), menthol from the mint family and thymol from ordinary garden thyme. It may be cool minty in the mouth, but it cools and disinfects nips and reactions.

If stung by a bee — after you remove the stinger— I recommend a baking powder paste before applying antiseptic in order to neutralize the acidic venom of the bee. 

Then if you want to stay natural, a chamomile infusion or tincture resolves any residual itching or you could opt for a mortar and pestle paste of plantain leaf and a pinch of salt (add a drop of water or some soothing essential oil for consistency), to resolve both swelling and itch.

If your garden is weed-free, then try basil or lemon balm with a pinch of lavender leaf to the salt and water. If stung by a wasp then the way to neutralize its alkaline sting is a kitchen acid – I favour a sprig of rosemary or lavender shook up in a bottle of vinegar. Not only will it yield a soothing spritz that neutralizes the venom but it‘s great on some fat oven chips to cheer yourself up.

When it comes to midges and gnats that actually inject an anticoagulant into the site when they bite — so that they can continue to drink without a time restriction of clotting blood— I reach for either yarrow or goldenrod, the two best coagulate herbs. A rub of the foliage/juice of either will clot those bites right up and introduce agents against secondary infection.

One great trick is to get them before they get you and a glass or bowl of vinegar with a drop of washing up liquid swirled in it has a fragrance that they are drawn to and drown in. Apparently, the washing up liquid does something to the surface tension of the liquid to keep them trapped. Gnats and midges don’t like the fragrance from lavender so plant some or wear a bit of essential oil.

Likewise they hate lemon balms aroma. In fact anything lemony. The problem with lemony essential oils is that they can photosensitise the skin. The trick is the collar not the neck, the sleeve not the arm. 

This aroma trick also works with ants, vinegar poured down their nest can make the queen pack up and leave as its aroma floods her pheromone sensors and she gets convinced that it is time to go start a new colony (hopefully a mile down the road and not two human strides away) and vinegar poured across their trail can stop those soldiers finding their way home.

Some people swear by vodka instead of vinegar to confuse the chemical markers that ants leave in their wake but I think that might warrant a firing squad or a dishonorable discharge at the very least. Vodka is for tinctures or for making orange juice interesting. Vinegar does it.

You can also make simple toxic bait by mixing equal parts sugar and baking soda. Saves you running around stamping on them. 

Remember ants bite and sting. The sting is acidic (actual formic acid) so back to a dusting of baking soda. I like ants, they do a lot for the garden. But if they are in your kitchen in your favourite jam or busy protecting aphids on your beans — then the gloves are off — its war.

If all that stamping or bee-dancing gives you a sandal blister then do not attempt to sped things along by bursting it; the unbroken skin over a blister seals the damage site and provides a natural barrier to contamination and infection, so as new skin grows underneath the blister, the body slowly reabsorbs the plasma and the bubble sac dries out and eventually falls off.

That said a dab of mouth wash (particularly Listerine – and no I don’t have shares) can make blisters dry out and shrink more quickly. ‘Clean’ and ‘protect’ are the watch words. 

If a blister bursts or becomes infected, use an antiseptic rinse or ointment and dress with some gauze and a breathable band aid. The root of Heuchera micrantha and also horseradish root make great foot pastes (mashed/blitzed with equal parts part lemon juice, warm water and salt to deliver inherent antiseptic and astringent properties.


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