14 May 2021

Using Pesticides Safely in Gardens

Karey Windbiel-Rojas

Associate Director
Urban & Community IPM
University of California Statewide IPM Program
Davis, CA

By Karey Windbiel-Rojas

The gardening season in the Northern Hemisphere is here thanks to summer temperatures. Like people, insect pests, plant diseases and weeds also like the warmer weather and can show up in home gardens and containers to interfere with horticulture and garden produce.

When controlling these garden nuisances, there are many chemical and non-chemical tools available to reduce infestations. A practice called integrated pest management (IPM) involves combining physical controls such as hosing plant pests; cultural controls like adjusting irrigation or growing conditions; allowing naturally occurring predators to provide biological control; and chemical control (pesticides). While many people successfully grow plants without the use of pesticides, sometimes these solutions are needed to reduce heavy pest infestations or deal with widespread or problematic pests.

A pesticide is any material (natural, organic or synthetic) used to control, prevent, kill, suppress or repel pests. “Pesticide” is a broad term that includes insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, miticides, molluscicides (for snails and slugs) and other materials like growth regulators or even antimicrobial wipes that kill bacteria.

When used properly, pesticides can protect plants from damage. However, all product label instructions for natural, organic and synthetic pesticides must be followed to ensure the product works as intended and to prevent unintended harm to plants, people or pets.

Read each pesticide label carefully and be sure that you have the proper equipment to apply it safely.

Choosing a Pesticide

Before selecting a pesticide, it’s important to first identify the pest that is causing the problem and learn how to best manage it. Seek help from a local cooperative extension office (U.S.) or knowledgeable expert if you are unsure how to correctly identify the pest.

If you decide a pesticide is needed, select one that is effective for your pest. Thoroughly reading all pesticide labels will help you determine the best product for your situation. These tips will help you choose and safely use the right one(s):

  • Intended Use: Find the product intended for the type of pest, plant or site you plan to treat, including whether the product is for indoor or outdoor use. Make sure it is labeled for use on edible plants if treating home-grown produce. Product labels list the pests they are formulated to control.
  • Directions for Use: Understand the directions, including preparations, amount to apply, when to apply and what to avoid.
  • Storage and Disposal: Know how to safely store unused products and dispose of empty product containers.

Precautions: Read this section closely to know and understand any safety precautions specific to the product. Before using a pesticide, read the label again. It provides directions to ensure the correct amount of product is used along with the method of application to achieve desired results. Depending on the product, you may also see directions about proper protective clothing, along with measuring and mixing solutions, and application of the product.

Following all directions for use will also ensure you do not overuse or under apply the product, which may impact the effectiveness of treatment. Pesticide products formulated for home garden use are designed to effectively manage target pests when applied correctly.

Pesticide Application Equipment

Read each pesticide label carefully and be sure that you have the proper equipment to apply it safely. Home gardening products are typically formulated and packaged to reduce exposure to the user, but it is always good practice to use protective clothing and gloves, even when applying the safest pesticides. Minimally, protective gear should include chemical-resistant gloves, eye protection, a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, socks and closed-toe shoes. Avoid using cotton gloves or lightweight dust masks that may absorb a spray and result in prolonged contact with your skin. Read the product label carefully for additional protective requirements.

For many home and garden pesticide applications, the best choice is to purchase a ready-to-use product with a trigger pump sprayer. Such products eliminate the need to dilute and mix pesticides or purchase special equipment. They are particularly excellent for spot treatments on small plants and shrubs.

If you buy a concentrate and need to measure and dilute the product, use measuring tools for use only with pesticides. It is a good idea to write “PESTICIDE ONLY” on them to distinguish them from kitchen utensils and keep them well away from food preparation areas. Store pesticides away from children and pets. A locked storage cabinet in a garden shed, garage or well-ventilated utility area is the best place to store pesticides and related equipment.

Pesticide labels provide guidance on proper handling of the product from preparation to storage.

Use, Storage and Disposal

Pesticide labels provide guidance on proper handling of the product from preparation to storage. Generally, pesticides should be correctly applied to the target site so they do not move or drift onto other plants or areas. Be careful not to spray during windy or rainy conditions. During application, ensure the pesticide does not run off into drains or water bodies to prevent contamination of water supplies. Avoid applying pesticides before irrigation unless labels call for it. Similarly, unless specified by instructions or a pest is on hard surfaces, avoid applying pesticides to sidewalks, driveways and foundations because they can easily be washed into storm drains.

When storing pesticides, tightly seal their containers after use and store in a locked cabinet away from children or pets. Pesticides should be kept in their original containers and never decanted into any container commonly used for food, beverages or other household products. Both adults and children can become sick from being exposed to pesticides by not following label instructions.

To eliminate the need to store or dispose of unused pesticides, purchase only as much as needed for a pest issue. Excess diluted pesticide should be disposed of at a household hazardous waste facility. Do not dispose of pesticide material by pouring it down the drain (whether indoor or outdoor), in the trash, onto soil or into nearby waterways, gutters, storm drains or sewers.

With IPM and if necessary, proper pesticide use, your garden is bound to flourish. Nothing signals summer like the beauty of colorful flowering plants and the taste of homegrown produce.

Karey Windbiel-Rojas is associate director for Urban & Community IPM with the University of California Statewide IPM Program in Davis.

References

National Pesticide Information Center. May 2020. Safe Use Practices for Pesticides. http://npic.orst.edu/health/safeuse.html.

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Citizen’s Guide to Pest Control and Pesticide Safety. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-08/documents/citizens_guide_to_pest_control_and_pesticide_safety.pdf

Wilen, C. A.; D. L. Haver; M. L. Flint; P. M. Geisel; and C. L. Unruh. 2006. UC IPM Pest Notes: Pesticides: Safe and Effective Use in the Home and Landscape. UC ANR Publication 74126. Oakland, CA. ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74126.html 

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