Growth in gardening: Using caution with pesticides

The most important thing you can do before buying any pesticide is to read the pesticide label. Check out its toxicity level and determine what personal protection is recommended when applying the pesticide. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOE URBACH

Pesticides are something that many of us use in our gardens or on our lawns without giving too much thought to it at all. This is a real mistake because while using pesticides may seem to solve your problem in the short term, it may not be the best solution for the environment, for your pets, or for your loved ones. So, what are pesticides? Why should we pay close attention to pesticide labels? And what are the dangers of pesticides if we don’t?

This can actually get confusing. Many people call a spray that controls the bugs in their gardens a pesticide, and that is partially true. However, that spray actually carries the sub-classification as an insecticide that is under the overall heading of pesticides. Just as a product that controls or kills weeds in the garden is at times called a pesticide, it carries the sub-classification as an herbicide. That being said, what would a person call something that controls/kills plant mites? This would carry the sub-classification as a miticide under the overall classification as pesticides. The reason it is called a miticide rather than left under insecticide is due to the fact that these products are, by their formulation, more specific as to what they control. Most miticides will control ticks as well. A product used to control fungi on plants is classified as a fungicide, still under the overall classification of pesticides.

Almost every bit of that last paragraph was ridiculously confusing! If you are still reading I really want to thank you for your efforts. Let me see if I can simplify this.

What are Pesticides? Basically, any chemical that we use to control some form of pest is a pesticide. Okay, so pesticides are made up of chemicals, and the effects of pesticide use may be harmful, and not only to the environment but to us as well. For this reason, it’s important to learn about safe pesticide usage. The proper use of pesticides, should you decide to go this route, can alleviate many safety concerns. There are many different types of garden pesticide serving many different needs.

These include insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides. There are botanical forms of pesticide that are available as well. These are generally derived from plants and considered “organic” by some; however, these may still be toxic to beneficial insects and wildlife.

Typically, the first response to pests in the lawn or garden is to reach for and apply pesticide, regardless of the type or even its purpose. If it says pesticide, it’s assumed that using it in full force will rid the lawn and garden of any and all pests. Unfortunately, this can lead to unnecessary applications and overuse. Since pesticides are toxic, they should be used carefully, and if at all possible, sparingly.

There are other pest control methods that you can and should attempt before grabbing that pesticide spray. If you familiarize yourself with the plants in your garden and the pests that affect them, you’ll have a more roundabout idea as to what types of pests you may be dealing with in order to properly eradicate them. It also helps to check your garden frequently for any possible problems and then carefully determine whether any treatment is necessary. If so, try using methods that are more natural first. Garden pesticides should always be your last resort. Once all other control methods have failed or have been deemed impractical, go ahead and try safe pesticide usage, selecting one that is specifically designed for your particular situation and target pest.

To avoid adverse effects of pesticide use, always read and follow the directions for proper application and apply only the amount specified. You should also wear protective clothing, especially gloves, as garden pesticides can easily be absorbed through the skin and contaminated clothing, which should be washed separately as well. The proper use of pesticides includes avoiding pesticides in the garden during periods of rainfall or in windy conditions. This could lead to possible contamination of other areas, such as your neighbor’s lawn or garden. Likewise, applying pesticide to barren or eroded areas and near water sources, such as ponds or streams, should also be avoided.

The most important thing you can do before buying any pesticide is to read the pesticide label very well. Check out its toxicity level and determine what personal protection is recommended when applying the pesticide. You can usually tell the toxicity level of the type of pesticide by watching for certain ‘signal words’ or a graphic on the pesticide label. All pesticides must have the phrase “Keep Out of Reach of Children.” But four other words indicate increasing levels of toxicity: Caution, Warning, Danger and Danger/Poison, (with a skull and crossbones symbol).

I cannot stress enough how important it is to read the pesticide label on the product you want to use prior to buying it and again prior to actually using it. This will help you avoid the health dangers of pesticides. Toxic effects range from minor skin irritations to making you sick to fatal poisoning. In this case, “Danger” means exposure to even small amounts of the concentrate can make you sick or cause burning irritation to eyes and skin.

Do some labels send mixed signals? It may seem that they do. After looking at the label in the photo, you might ask how the words “Danger,” “People and Pet Safe” and “For Organic Gardening” can all be on the same label. It may seem contradictory, especially when the same product, in a ready-to-use spray bottle only has the word “Caution” on it. First, remember that even organic products can be toxic. Second, consider that this label is for a concentrated product, so exposure to the chemical in this form will cause a harsher reaction than the diluted form.

Another extremely important thing to remember is to water your plants well prior to the application of any products. A well hydrated plant is far less likely to have problems with the pesticide applied. The only exception is concerning the application of herbicides of course, we want the weed thirsty so it drinks up the herbicide for best performance.

So, let me stress again that you must read the label! Please, read it and consider it carefully before you choose to apply any product to your yard or garden. Think about your pets, children, and grandchildren – how might exposure to the product affect them?

Pests of some kind will always be a part of the gardening experience; in fact, it is inevitable and totally expected. However, the use of pesticides may not always be necessary, and if they are, they should be used only as a last resort, using them safely and responsibly. Always keep in mind that some so-called ‘pests’ may actually be beneficial to you garden and no pesticide is smart enough to kill only the bad bugs while leaving the good ones alone.


Joe Urbach is the publisher of and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County and is currently serving as the director of training. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

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