While gardeners seem to shrivel up and shrink away from garden duties during the heat and humidity of summer, the garden thrives as the heat and moisture ramp up all the plant processes necessary for growth, flowering, and fruiting.
But the garden plants aren’t the only thing that thrive in the heat and humidity. Sweltering summers also set the right conditions for a number of insects, fungi, and bacteria that are plant pests, as well as pathogens to thrive, as well.
While I always suggest trying to avoid the problem in the first place using integrated pest management practices like choosing resistant varieties, rotating crops and using netting to keep insects at bay, there are just some times that a little fire power is needed to avoid total crop losses.
When gardeners opt to spray, either conventional or organic sprays, safety must always be the first consideration.
Do you need to spray?
Some gardeners adopt a complete no-spray philosophy for the garden, while others take the no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners approach. While I would say that neither is an effective pest management strategy, those choices are personal.
What we teach for integrated pest management is to use a pesticide as a last option, after all other steps have failed to control the problem effectively.
In deciding whether to spray, a gardener or farmer needs to determine how much damage he or she is willing to accept before beginning to spray.
A few insects or leaf spots do not warrant control, though some people are whipped into action with a barrage of chemical warfare at the slightest indication of pest activity. If there are only a handful of bugs or a few damaged leaves, simply removing them will suffice for control.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are folks who refuse any means of pest control, even organic. This is what we call “organic by neglect,” in which yields tend to be low and produce riddled with spots. If a problem arises, there are many ways to deal with it using organic treatments.
Many of the organic products available on the market are natural extracts of plants or bacteria that help reduce or control pest populations.
Using pesticides safely
If you choose to use pesticides, even organic ones, it is important to make sure that you do it in the safest way possible.
First and foremost, you absolutely must read the label and follow all the recommendations carefully. This includes how to safely handle and store the chemical, what personal protective equipment (safety gear) you need to wear, how to apply the chemical, what plants it can be applied to and what pests it controls.
It is actually against the law to use a pesticide in a manner that is not indicated on the label.
One of the first steps is to pick the least toxic pesticide needed to get the job done. While this may seem tricky, looking at the biggest, boldest word on the safety label, called a signal word, will provide your first clue.
The word CAUTION on the label is the lowest toxicity level and means that there could be slight toxicity if the chemical is eaten, absorbed through the skin, inhaled, or could cause slight skin or eye irritation.
WARNING is the next level of toxicity, meaning that the product is moderately toxic if you are exposed in the same manner as those with the CAUTION warning.
DANGER, on the other hand, is the highest level of toxicity. This product would be highly toxic by any one means of exposure, and could also be labeled CORROSIVE to the skin or eyes and cause irreversible damage.
If the danger comes from ingesting, absorbing, or inhaling, the label will also include the word POISON in bold.
Of course, you don’t have to be in the garden shed to find these labels. They might be lurking closer than you think. Pesticides are products that are intended to kill pests. These pests can also include what we would call “germs” in the household.
Have you ever looked closely at the label of a common antimicrobial spray like Lysol or at a bottle of bleach in your laundry room? You might be surprised to find that both of these products have a DANGER CORROSIVE label, which is a far higher rating than most things that homeowners can get to treat garden pests.
Once you pick out your product, it is also important to follow the directions for application. Most important is how you need to protect yourself from exposure.
Most commonly, this will include wearing long sleeves and pants and closed-toe shoes. The directions could also say to wear gloves, a respirator, or eye protection.
Heavy duty chemicals (which probably aren’t available to homeowners) could even require a complete body suit for protection. And don’t assume that an organic pesticide does not require the same vigilance as conventional pesticides.
I’ve seen some labels that require much more protection for using organics than for a conventional counterpart.
You should also check ahead of time what you need to do in case of exposure so that you can react appropriately if you do make contact with the pesticide. Even if there is no apparent injury, pesticide exposure can lead to effects in the future. While this is the case, safe and effective use of pesticides can be successfully implemented in the garden.