Choose and Use Pesticides Wisely

— Written By and last updated by Diane Lynch

Q: What do I need to do to assure that I am using a pesticide safely?

A: If you decide to use a pesticide for a problem in your home lawn or landscape, it can quickly become confusing as to which pesticide to use, when to use it, and how much to apply. All pesticides, whether organic or synthetic, are all chemicals that should be properly and safely handled.

The first step starts with identifying the pest or problem that you wish to control. Identifying the problem will help direct you to what type of control actions you need to take. Proper identification will allow you to determine what type of pesticide you would need: insecticide (for insects), fungicide (for diseases), or herbicide (for weeds). You will also be able to go a step further, by determining which chemical would be effective in controlling your problem. For example, just because you have an insect problem does not mean that any type of insecticide is okay to use. Different insecticides control different insects in different situations. One type of insecticide may only control aphids in a vegetable garden, while you will have to select a different insecticide for aphids on a shrub.

Identifying the pest problem first, may even help you discover that there are better ways to control the pest besides using a pesticide. Pesticides should be your last defense against a pest. A pesticide is often a temporary fix to a problem in a lawn and garden because other factors are encouraging the pest problem. Often a problem can be traced back to poor plant selection, wrong location, or improper care. Pest often go for plants that are unhealthy instead of a healthy plant. So before grabbing a pesticide, evaluate the situation and decide if there is something you can change in how you care for the plant. You may find in many cases that a pesticide is only effective at certain times of the year or that any pesticide would not be effective at all. Taking the first step to identify the pest or problem and educating yourself on the problem will allow you to make the correct decision on how to properly control the problem which will allow you to avoid putting out an unnecessary chemical into the environment along with saving time and money.

The second step to pesticide safety is to read the label and follow its directions exactly. Every pesticide will be different in what information is on the label, so it is important to read the label each time you use a different product. A pesticide is only supposed to be used as how it is stated on the label. You are to only use a pesticide on sites or plants listed on that label. For example, a pesticide label may tell you it can be used on vegetables in your vegetable garden. There are pesticides where the label indicates that it can be used on lawn, trees, or shrubs but should not be used on food plants.

When using a pesticide labeled for a vegetable garden, it is important to look for the harvest interval date on the label. The harvest interval date indicates how many days you are to wait after spraying to harvest a food crop. Harvest interval dates for a home vegetable garden can range from 0 to 21 days. You would not want to use a pesticide with a high harvest interval date close to harvest time.

A pesticide label will also include precautions to take, such as avoid spraying when temperatures get too high or to be a certain distance from water sources. Pesticide labels will list what type of protective equipment (gloves, eye protection, etc.) should be worn when using the product, how to store it properly, how to correctly dispose of it, and what to do if spilled. Labels on a pesticide will include information how to correctly mix and apply the pesticide.

Many often see a signal word somewhere on the front label of a pesticide usually in capital letters. There are three signal words: Caution, Warning, or Danger. These signal words indicate how toxic a pesticide is to a human and not how toxic it is to plants or the environment. The least toxic products will have the signal word “caution.” Products that are more toxic will have “warning” and those that are the most toxic to humans will have “danger” on their labels. It is important to note, that just because a pesticide is labeled as “caution” does not mean that the directions on the label can be ignored. One should never use more that the amount stated on the pesticide label because it can expose you to more pesticide, injure plants, or harm nontarget organisms such as beneficial insects.

Even though identifying the pest and reading a pesticide label are all too often the steps skipped when a pesticide is being used, they are steps that are important not only for caring for your plants but to also protect yourself and the environment.

For additional lawn and garden information contact the Wayne County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Plant Clinic on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The plant clinic is a free resource to Wayne County residents. One can reach the Wayne County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Plant Clinic by phone at 919-731-1433, e-mail at, or stopping by Room 100 of the Wayne County Extension Office (208 West Chestnut Street, Goldsboro).

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Jessica Strickland
Extension Agent
North Carolina Cooperative Extension
Wayne County Center
P. O. Box 68
Goldsboro, NC 27533
Phone: 919-731-1520
Fax: 919-731-1511