Pesticides are designed to be toxic to the pests they target—whether they are insects, cause plant disease, or are weeds or other unwanted home and garden invaders. When used properly, pesticides can protect your plants or home from damage. However, when the label instructions are not followed correctly, plant injury may occur, pests may not be controlled, health may be impaired, and pesticides may contribute to soil, air, or water pollution. |
Before you purchase and use a pesticide, learn all you can about the material, how to use it, and how to properly dispose of the empty containers. Also, carefully consider whether or not a pesticide is necessary and if a nonchemical solution might be just as effective. DEFINITION OF A PESTICIDE
A pesticide is any material (natural, organic, or synthetic) used to control, prevent, kill, suppress, or repel pests. "Pesticide" is a broad term that includes insecticides (insect killers), herbicides (weed or plant killers), fungicides (fungus killers), rodenticides (rodent killers), growth regulators, and other materials like miticides, which are used for mite control, or products that kill snails and slugs (molluscicides). DECIDING TO USE A PESTICIDE
Before using any pesticide, be sure you need it. Verify that the organism you seek to control is really causing lasting damage, and research alternative management methods. Keep in mind that most pests cannot be entirely eliminated—even with pesticides. Some questions to ask before choosing to use a pesticide include:
Is a pest really the cause of your problem? More often than most people imagine, pesticide products are applied unnecessarily because the cause of damage has been misidentified. Damage can also be the result of other factors such as incorrect irrigation, poor drainage, herbicide toxicity, or physical damage.
How many pests are there and will a pesticide spray be justified? A few caterpillars on a plant might not be a problem that requires any pesticide action on your part, especially if natural enemies of the caterpillars are present. However, a very high population causing severe leaf loss or damage to edible fruits or nuts may mean you would want to control the pest. Be sure to base decisions on presence of pests—not damage levels—and on your knowledge of the pest's life cycle. For instance, often by the time a tree is defoliated (stripped of leaves), pests are gone and sprays will be of no use. In the case of foliar diseases, many fungicides must be applied preventatively before symptoms are noticeable.
Can you change the conditions which have caused the pest to become a problem? Prevention is always the best way to manage a pest problem. Will the conditions change due to the weather or other environmental factors? Is the problem due to gardening practices that can be changed? Each specific pest organism has optimum environmental conditions for causing damage. For instance, powdery mildew in many plants is favored by shade and conditions that favor off-season growth. Sometimes providing plants with a sunny location, opening up canopies to provide air circulation, and avoiding excessive fertilizing will keep the disease from becoming serious. Overhead sprinkling may also reduce powdery mildew problems on some plants.
Other than a pesticide, what else might work? There are many ways to manage pests other than pesticides including:
Cultural control (using the right pruning, fertilizing or watering regime, or selecting pest-resistant varieties or species) Physical control (for example, using mulches to keep weeds from growing, or solarization for soilborne pathogens or weed seeds) Mechanical control (hoeing weeds, spraying leaves forcefully with water to remove insects, or using traps or creating barriers to exclude pests) Biological control (using beneficial organisms such as insects that eat or parasitize other insects) Replant (in extreme cases, where a plant requires regular pesticide treatment, consider replanting with a more pest-resistant species or variety)
If you decide to use a pesticide, use it in an integrated pest management (IPM) program that includes use of nonchemical methods. In almost all cases, a combination of measures will provide the most satisfactory and long-term pest control. CHOOSING THE RIGHT PESTICIDE
The first step in choosing a pesticide is to accurately identify the organism (e.g., the specific insect, weed, or plant disease) that is causing the problem. If the pest is misidentified, you will not be able to choose an effective pesticide or other management strategy. If you aren't confident that you can do this using your own experience, get help from your University of California Cooperative Extension office or other reliable source. Use the plant problem-solving tables in the back of University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources publications, Pests of the Garden and Small Farm and Pests of Landscape Trees and Shrubs to identify major pests on most common garden plants.
If a pesticide is needed, select one that is effective against your pest and also poses the least risks to human health and the environment. A good source of information for identifying effective, least-toxic methods and pesticides for use against specific pests is the University of California (UC) Pest Notes series available at UC Cooperative Extension offices or on the UC Statewide IPM Program Web site. When shopping for a pesticide, it is important to consult the label to be sure the target pest and site is listed. However, don't use a label as your primary source for selecting the best control product. In addition to pests that are effectively controlled, pesticide labels often picture or list pests against which the product is only marginally effective. Getting information from University publications, UC Cooperative Extension offices, or other knowledgeable experts is a better strategy.
Before purchasing a pesticide, also check the label to be sure it is appropriate to use on your plants or treatment site. For instance:
Be sure the particular type of plant or site you plan to treat is listed on the label. Do not use pesticides labeled for use on ornamental plants on plants that will be eaten. Never use pesticides labeled for "outdoor use only" indoors. Pesticides can seriously damage some plants; read the label to be sure treated plants won't be injured.
Finally, when choosing pesticides, remember that most pesticides (even the more toxic ones) only control certain stages of the pest. Many insecticides kill only the larval (e.g., caterpillars) stage, not the eggs or pupae. Other insecticides target only adults. Many fungicides are preventive treatments and will not eliminate infections that have already started, although they may slow their spread. Likewise, some herbicides (preemergence herbicides) kill germinating weeds but not established ones, while others (postemergence herbicides) are effective against actively growing weeds.
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