Thoughts on Pesticides and Herbicides

Read before you spray. Photo by Lise Jenkins.


By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

I make a supreme effort to keep pesticides and herbicides where they belong: on the shelves of the big box stores that sell them. I once had a neighbor who seemingly drowned his yard in glyphosate, causing me to vow to refrain from using garden chemicals if I could manage it.

There may come a time when we have to test our principles. One slug or a couple of aphids constitute little problem; however, seeing a prized evergreen covered in black soot from aphid excrement does create trouble in my book. After having lost two evergreens to aphid excrement, I now know that while several aphids are no threat, a multitude can constitute a major menace.

When I see a potential trouble spot emerging in the garden, I return to Gardening 101, if you will, seeking out Jeff Gillman’s “Decoding Gardening Advice.” Gillman, formerly an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Minnesota, is now the director of the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens, along with being a founding member of the popular website

What I like about his advice is that he stands squarely in the middle between throwing chemical controls at every little problem and eschewing chemicals for a totally organic approach. Sometimes a girl has to use a squirt of glyphosate.

The first line of defense is to identify your pest. It’s useless to use a chemical treatment until you know what is eating your plants: Spraying your lilies with insecticidal soap will not deter the culprit should that culprit be a rabbit. In the case of a villainous rabbit, a physical barrier is your best bet.

If you are willing to use chemicals, your first line of defense should be an insecticidal soap that is permitted for organic gardening. In my experience, mealybugs respond beautifully to insecticidal soap. You can also try spraying the infected plant with water in an effort to wash off the mealybugs or aphids.

Another alternative is to make your own spray by simply adding 1-2 tablespoons of dish soap to a gallon of water. This can be an effective treatment against mealybugs, aphids and some mites.

If you are applying herbicides and pesticides, apply them in the morning on a calm day. High temperatures can cause those pesticides containing sulfur to burn the plant, whereas wind will cause drift, which is particularly undesirable when applying herbicides. You could unwittingly kill the wrong plant or expose your skin to the herbicide.

Just because a pesticide is listed as “organic” doesn’t mean it’s safe. Certainly, organic controls are safer than synthetic alternatives, but — and this is a big but — natural pesticides can be quite dangerous, so do your research first.

Check the warning on the bottle. “Danger” is more toxic than “Warning,” which is stronger than “Caution.” Both insecticidal soap and glyphosate carry the listing of “Caution.” Bayer’s 3-in-1 Rose Care that many people use on their roses carries “Warning” on its label. Personally, the label of “Warning” is higher than I am willing to go.

Many of us are leery about using glyphosate, as over the years there have been many warnings in reference to its safety. Often, we hear that it remains in the ground long after its application, obviously a scary thought.

According to Gillman, these fears are for naught as it’s “so tightly bound” that it cannot do anything in the ground. However, treat this herbicide with respect as there is not universal agreement that it’s totally safe.

Refrain from using outdated pesticides and herbicides as they may be both less effective and more toxic. Do not throw them in the trash but use the hazardous waste disposal methods that are available in your area.

Last, dress for the occasion. Wear long pants, long sleeve shirts, gardening gloves and that paper face mask that we all have now. You really don’t want to absorb any of these chemicals, whether organic or synthetic.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email:

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