I feel like what I’m about to say may get me expelled from the garden blogging community, but I’m going to say it anyway: I use pesticides in my home garden.

There. I’ve said it.

And now I’ll tell you some of the reasons why:

  • Pesticide use can provide a quick and effective removal of the pest, whether that be earwigs in my flowers or weeds in my lawn
  • Pesticides can provide highly selective weed removal – either through the chemistry of the product (2,4-D is very effective against dandelions, but will not harm your grass) or by timing of the application (spraying Round-Up on the weeds in my vegetable garden before I plant the new years’ crop means my veggies can get established without having to compete with the weeds)
  • Spraying your fruit trees with a horticultural oil can help prevent or reduce pest problems later in the season so you can enjoy the fruit rather than the insects

Before anyone gets up in arms about this, let’s talk about what a pesticide is. The EPA definition of pesticide is: any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating any pest.

Just because something is marketed as organic doesn’t mean that it is pesticide free. What it does mean is that if pesticides were used (and I’m betting they were) they were ones approved by the National Organic Program, or included on the list of exemptions for the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). These sorts of pesticides include things like mint oil, clove oil, cinnamon oil, malic acid, sodium lauryl sulfate (a common component of shampoo and other cosmetics) as their active ingredients. Under this definition, even that salt + vinegar recipe your neighbor raved about as a “chemical-free” weed control option would, in fact, be considered a pesticide.

(Side-note: for an interesting read on how the salt + vinegar combo stands up to a conventional herbicide check out this article by the weed science professors at Wyoming State University.)

But here’s the thing about conventional pesticides: they are extensively tested and reviewed for product performance, hazard to humans and domestic animals, hazards to non-target organisms, exposure risk during and post application, spray drift evaluation, and the degradation/fate of the product in the environment.  If it’s on the market you can be sure that it has been evaluated and found to be effective and safe IF USED ACCORDING TO THE LABEL. They also have to undergo a re-evaluation process every few years, a process in which the public can comment, and it is not guaranteed that it will be re-approved for use/sale.

On the other hand, the chemicals that are on the list of approved exemptions (the active ingredients in the organic pesticides) have been deemed “Minimum Risk” and therefore have not had to undergo the rigorous testing. Right or wrong, I think it’s good to think about why something may be deemed minimum risk or not.

Regardless of whether the pesticide is “organic” or “conventional” the label that accompanies it is a legal document and should be followed to ensure the lowest exposure risk to yourself and highest efficacy against the pests you are targeting.

To be clear, I’m not saying that everyone should go out and “nuke” their garden plot. In most cases I don’t think there is a need for regular applications of pesticides in the home setting; when we’re talking about large-scale agricultural production, I absolutely think that herbicides – when used according to the label – are an important tool for a sustainable practice. But since my lot is small, pulling a few weeds when I go outside to water the plants, check their progress, or otherwise just “putter” around doesn’t require a lot of time and I find it can be quite cathartic. On the other hand, I also find that when starting a new garden bed (or entire yard, in my current situation) or even just preparing the garden for the new season that a correctly applied dose of herbicide can make the process less formidable.

And if using a pesticide on occasion means that you’ll be more likely to enjoy being out in the garden rather than dreading it because you know you have a jungle of weeds to clear, then I think that is a win for everyone. Gardens are for enjoying, not just weeding.

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