Using a pesticide is often our only recourse to deal with a pest problem. Choosing the right one is the key to success. There are also some other ways to deal with pests besides chemicals. This article is not intended to endorse a specific product or method of pest management, but to help you choose the best way to deal with pests. Lowe's is happy to provide this information as a service to you.
What Is a Pesticide?
As gardeners and homeowners, our reactions to insects vary. For some of us, the sight of one bug sends us screaming into the next room - often to return with the bug spray. Others scratch their heads and watch while their prize plants are devoured.
A common misconception about pesticides is that they're bug killers. While partly true, insect control is only one use for pesticides. Here's the definition of a pesticide from the Canadian Environmental Protection Act:
"A pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest."
All pesticides must be tested, registered and carry a label approved by the CEPA. Despite the agricultural community's regular use of pesticides, homeowners are the number one users. Pests take many forms besides insects. The family of pesticides includes:
- Insecticides - insect attractants and repellents, flea collars for pets
- Herbicides - plant defoliants and desiccants
- Rodenticides - rat and mouse killers
- Germicides - bathroom disinfectants
- Algicides - including some pool chemicals
- Mildewcides - contained in some cleaning products
- Fungicides, miticides, larvicides, ovicides, and more.
There are others that are not common to everyday consumers such as commercial chemicals that sterilize and regulate plant or animal growth.
Finding the Right Pesticide
Before you purchase or use any pesticide:
- Recognize the type of damage. Is it caused by insect, animal, disease or fungus? Example: The leaves are curled on your plant. Is it a virus or a sucking insect? If you don't actually see the pest, look for the type of damage that's being done. Holes in leaves usually indicate insect damage. Spots on leaves often mean disease.
- Identify the pest properly. Use your local Co-op or other resource. A guidebook with illustrations of pests, weeds and plant diseases is a good investment and a valuable tool for a home gardener.
- Determine how extensive the damage is. Did you see one bug or spot or is the plant covered?
SAFETY NOTE: All pesticides are dangerous if not used properly. Read the label carefully before purchasing and before using. Follow all manufacturer's instructions.
Types of Pesticides
Selective or Non-Selective
- Selective pesticides are formulated to deal with a specific problem.
- Non-selective pesticides indiscriminately kill anything that they contact.
Systemic or Topical
- Systemic pesticides are meant to be ingested by the target pest, working from the inside out.
- Topical or contact pesticides are applied to the outer surface of the pest, working from the outside in.
Pre-Emergent or Post-Emergent (pertaining to herbicides)
- Pre-emergents deal with weeds in the dormant or seed stage before germination.
- Post-emergents kill weeds after they've sprouted and are actively growing. Contact herbicides are post-emergents.
Liquid, Powder or Granules
- Liquids are easy to apply and stick to the surface when dry.
- Powders or dusts are applied in their dry state. Wettable powders are mixed with water before application.
- Granules are applied like powders, usually to the soil, but cause less dust.
Concentrates or Premixed
- Concentrates are mixed with a delivery medium (usually water) and sprayed.
- Premixed pesticides, usually in squirt bottles or aerosol cans, are ready-to-use.
Synthetic or Organic
- Synthetic pesticides are chemical compounds formulated to attack certain pests.
- Organic pesticides serve the same purpose as synthetics, but are formulated from organic or other natural sources.
The application varies depending on the composition of the pesticide. The most common means of application are:
- Aerosol or non-aerosol pump trigger sprayer
- Compression sprayers
- Backpack sprayers
- Hose end sprayer
- Bait traps
Non-Aerosol Pump Sprayer
Hose End Sprayer
Reading the Label
The label isn't just for safety's sake, it tells all about the product: how efficiently the product works, where, when and how it should be applied, plus how to store and dispose of it properly. In the event first aid is necessary, the key information for treatment is there. Read the label before you buy and read it again before each use. Follow all manufacturer's instructions. The information on the label is mandated by law and approved by the CEPA. On the label you'll find:
- Common Name/Brand Name — Common names are simplified versions of the usually much longer name of the chemical compound. Brand names vary by manufacturer. When comparing brands, the shared information is the chemical name found on the label.
- Active Ingredient — The ingredient that "deals" with the pest is called the active ingredient. It appears as either a common or chemical name on the label along with the percentage by weight in the container.
- Inert ingredients — Additional elements are added to enhance the application, handling, storage or other characteristics of the pesticide. Also called "other" ingredients on the label, these components are not specifically named on the label. Being labeled as inert does not necessarily mean that these additional elements are nontoxic. They are merely not active in the compound. Other additives, called adjuvants, are included in the mix to help the pesticide stick or spread, keep it from drifting in the wind or to increase penetration.
- CEPA Registration Number — The number tells you that the pesticide has been reviewed and approved by the CEPA. The number is not an endorsement of the product.
- Signal Words — These important notices tell the level of toxicity. Toxicity is rated on a scale that separates pesticides into three levels:
- Caution identifies the pesticides that are the least harmful.
- Warning tells you it's more poisonous than a pesticide with a Caution label.
- Danger on the label indicates that the pesticide is very poisonous or irritating. Use these with extreme care.
- Precautionary Statements — The directions here refer to special safety measures you'll need to take. The need of protective clothing and safety equipment, as well as notes about use around pets and children, are in this section of the label.
- First Aid — Instructions are here for dealing with swallowing, inhaling or contact with skin or eyes. If the pesticide is toxic, the label will give you emergency first aid instructions. Remember that first aid is exactly that - a quick remedy until medical assistance or advice can be obtained from a doctor or poison control. If you must call for medical assistance, have the container or label at hand.
- Directions for Use — The pesticide is effective only if you follow the application instructions carefully. In addition to directions on the amount to use, you'll see information on when, where and how to apply. You can also confirm that the pesticide is the correct one for your pest and determine what other plants or animals it can be safely used on or around. In addition, the label states how soon you can pick and eat fruits and vegetables after application.
- Storage and Disposal — These are the instructions for safe storage and disposal of leftover pesticide and empty containers. Because provincial and local ordinances vary, check with your local Waste Management Office for more information.
- Toxicity and Exposure determine the degree of possible injury. Exposure can occur in one of three ways:
- Dermal exposure occurs when the pesticide comes into contact with the skin. Some pesticides are highly corrosive to eyes and skin.
- Inhalation exposure occurs from breathing fumes or vapor when applying.
- Ingestion is less common, but still a concern if the user eats, drinks or smokes after applying a pesticide without first washing thoroughly.
Always keep pesticides away from the reach of children.
The debate continues on the pros and cons of pesticide use. Those who seek to find another way often turn to Integrated Pest Management.
Integrated Pest Management or IPM is a pest control method that places the emphasis on prevention. Most plant injury is caused by poor growing conditions. Weak plants are more susceptible to pests than healthy plants. Observation and early identification of problems is the key. Application of pesticides is not excluded from an IPM program, but most often reserved as a "last resort." The basic components can be practiced easily in the home and garden.
First, acknowledge the fact that some pest presence and damage is natural. IPM requires the time to maintain an educated eye toward the garden, the ability to correctly identify the nature of pest problems and the self-discipline to decide what threshold of natural pest damage to allow before initiating chemical controls.
The use of cultural, mechanical and biological controls can reduce dependence on pesticides. Below are some examples:
- Rotate crops.
- Remove pests from plants with a jet of water or by hand.
- Plant pest-resistant varieties.
- Keep weeds and debris out of the garden and flowerbeds.
- Provide regular irrigation and feeding but avoid overwatering and overfertilizing.
- Eliminate standing water.
- Keep the area clean and free of debris.
- Prepare soil well. Healthy plants are more pest resistant.
- Mow lawns properly.
- Plant flowering, nectar-bearing plants to attract beneficial insects.
- Use traps to attract and gather pests.
- Set up barriers such as row covers and netting.
- Use electronic repellers.
- Install fences to keep out deer and rabbits. Extend the fence below ground to deter rodents.
- Attract beneficial insects and birds.
- Attract insect eating critters such as bats, toads and lizards.
IPM can also be practiced inside of the home. Keep the house clean, especially kitchens and baths. Keep an eye out for early detection of pests.
Botanical and Organic Alternatives to Synthetic Chemicals
Organic pesticide options are available for those who wish to reduce the use of chemical- based pest solutions. Always check to see if any organic compound will harm other plants or animals. Unlike chemicals, where the bugs fall away after spraying, some organics are slow acting, so don't always expect instant gratification.
Organics can be slightly more expensive and, because of the absence of chemicals, may require more frequent applications. Remember, too, that even though a pesticide is considered acceptable to organic gardeners, it isn't necessarily safe for humans. Some organic compounds may be toxic and dangerous to mammals, fish, birds, bees and other beneficial insects. Here's a brief list of the most common organic pesticides:
- Bacillus Thuringiensis — Also called Bt, it's a bacteria that kills insects in their larval stage (such as caterpillars). There are several strains to choose from, depending on the pest you wish to control. It must be ingested by the pest to work. Bt is harmless to virtually all other creatures.
- Bordeaux Mix — A mixture or copper sulfate and hydrated lime, Bordeaux mix can be applied as a wettable powder or dust to control disease.
- Botanical Extracts — Oils are extracted from spices and fruits, then combined to deal with pests. They pose no danger to people or pets.
- Diatomaceous Earth — The crushed exoskeletons of microscopic marine and freshwater organisms are harmless to almost all living creatures. The exceptions are soft-bodied pests. The particles of earth are like microscopic bits of broken glass that scratch, tear and destroy the bodies of the pests. Although this product is very safe, the dust can be hazardous so use a mask when applying.
- Horticultural Oil Sprays — These are light petroleum based oils used to control fungus and pests. The target plant must be soaked for effective treatment. Toxicity is low, but may irritate skin or eyes.
- Insecticidal Soap — A virtually nontoxic mixture of soap, oil and water used to deal with soft-bodied insects. Plants must be thoroughly soaked in order for soaps to be effective. Do not use household soaps on plants.
- Milky Spore — A bacteria that attacks Japanese beetles in their larval stage, milky spore is nontoxic to other organisms. Once established in the soil, it lasts for years.
- Neem — An oil extracted from the tropical neem tree. It has low toxicity. Mixed with water, neem is used as an insecticide, fungicide and miticide.
- Pyrethins — Extracted from a variety of chrysanthemums, this compound can be used on a large variety of insects. Don't confuse these with pyrethoids, which are powerful synthetic versions - leave the pyrethoids for the commercial user.
- Sulfur and Lime-Sulfur — Inorganic, non-chemical elements that are used to control mites and some foliar diseases.
Whether synthetic or organic in origin, treat ALL pesticides with the respect and caution they deserve. Always read the label carefully and follow all of the recommended precautions. Here are some key points:
- FIRST AID is what it says it is. Seek medical attention after exposure. Have the container or label with you.
- Cover exposed skin as directed by the instructions. Wear long sleeves, long pants, rubber shoes, respirator and safety goggles. When gloves are recommended, wear unlined chemical / waterproof gloves, cloth or leather are absorbent and only accelerate and extend skin contact.
- Remember that the greatest risk to the user occurs when mixing concentrated chemicals. Use extra care - the main danger is from exposure to skin. Use protective gear as recommended on the label.
- Before using, remove children and their toys, and any pets from the area.
- Do not transfer chemicals to another storage container, especially not a food or beverage container.
- If you're using a sprayer or spreader for application, make sure it's calibrated correctly. Wash it thoroughly after each use. It's a good idea to have separate sprayers for different chemicals such as insecticides and herbicides.
- Be wary of using pesticides where surface water runoff would occur, especially near a body of water.
- Don't spray on windy days. Chemicals can drift to plants you don't want to harm. Do not let spray drift into a neighbour's yard.
- Spray indoors only if the area is well ventilated and the pesticide is made for indoor use.
- Wash hands thoroughly after use, especially before eating or drinking.
- Use extra caution if you or a family member has allergies or asthma.
- Use repellents with caution, especially those applied on children.
- When purchasing, keep pesticides separated in the shopping cart. Bag them separately.
- Clothing can absorb mists. When cleaning up after using pesticides (including repellents) wash all clothing separately.
- Peel or wash thoroughly any fruits and vegetables before eating.
Disposal and Storage of Pesticides
- Follow the instructions on the label for disposal of unused pesticides.
- Use your community household hazardous waste collection program.
- Do not put leftover pesticides into the garbage or pour them down the drain.
- Do not reuse empty pesticide containers.
- Plan ahead and buy and mix only what you need. Some pesticides lose potency over time, especially in freeze/thaw areas.
- When not in use, keep pesticides sealed in childproof containers and locked in a cool, dry, well ventilated place. Keep them away from children's reach.
- Store away from pilot lights or flames.
- Metal storage containers should be clean and dry to prevent corrosion.
- Keep pesticides away from food, water and other garden supplies such as fertilizer.