Using Pesticides, the Safe Way

— Written By Mitch Williams and last updated by
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Whether you are a farmer, tending thousands of acres, or a homeowner who wants to grow a successful garden or have a beautiful landscape, you’ll likely run into a pest that is standing between you and your goal. Our most common pests in these situations are insects, weeds, and diseases. Sometimes these pests can be avoided, through proper fertilization and growing practices which produce healthy plants. In some situations, you may be able to control pests with a little elbow grease, by pulling weeds or squashing bugs, but sometimes a pesticide is needed. So, when do you make the decision to use a pesticide and how do you use one safely?

Making the decision to use a pesticide can be tough. For a farmer, a lot of research has gone into determining economic thresholds for various crops. These thresholds determine the amount of damage that can be tolerated by a pest before it is economical to control that pest with a pesticide. When farmers scout for thresholds and follow them, they can eliminate applications and save hundreds or thousands of dollars across the farm each year. In a homeowner situation, thresholds may not be as clear. One person may be willing to deal with some weeds in their lawn, while another is after that perfect landscape. To the home gardener, thresholds vary tremendously depending on the individual’s goals. Once a person determines that a pesticide is needed, they must then determine which one should be used. Depending on the situation such as the crop, the pest, and the location, a person may have many options or just a few. The choices can be tough, but extension is here to be a resource in helping you determine and weigh your options.

Safety is the biggest concern with pesticide use. Our farmers have been trained in the proper use of pesticides, and therefore have access to more choices. This gives them more flexibility in choosing the best product for their situation. A homeowner may be more limited in their options, but that does not mean that products designed for home use are safer. If used incorrectly, all pesticides, including organic ones and those on the shelf at the garden center, can be dangerous. However, any pesticide can also be used safely when applied properly.

Luckily there is a guide available to use pesticides safely, and it is printed right on the side of the package. It’s the label. All pesticides sold include a label, whether they are designed for a home garden or a farm. This label states the requirements of the applicator to use the product correctly and safely. You should read and understand the label before applying any pesticide. Some things you will find there include personal protective equipment requirements, use rates, and use instructions. Follow all personal protective equipment requirements to ensure that you are protected from the product. These may include chemical resistant gloves, footwear, goggles, or respirators. Following these requirements is not only the law, it keeps you safe!

Use instructions are there to help protect you, others, and the environment. Here you will find information such as setbacks from water, or concerns with wildlife. If you are spraying a product which is known to be toxic to pollinators, you may find information about where and what time of day the product may be applied. Some of our most common insecticides in the garden center are highly toxic to honeybees! Use rates will also be found here. These rates ensure that the product will work as advertised and also that excessive amounts will not be introduced to the environment. Information such as post-harvest intervals will also be provided to ensure residues on food are allowed the time they need to break down before you consume them, again keeping you or your customer safe. Remember, use instructions are not guidelines, they are requirements. When you buy a product, you have legally agreed to follow these guidelines, and can be held liable by law for a violation.

The bottom line is that in order to safely apply pesticides, you must read the entire label. Read it twice if you need to. If you have questions, STOP! Do not use the pesticide. Contact the manufacturer or call me, your local extension agent, at 919-775-5624. I will be happy to help and explain the label and answer questions about parts that you do not understand. Removing any weed, pest, or disease is not as important as the proper use of a pesticide, which will ensure the safety of you, your pets, your neighbors, your customers, and the environment.

Mitch Williams is the Agriculture Agent (Field Crops and Livestock) and county pesticide coordinator for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.