Herbicide Labels (and why you should read them)

As an instructor of a college lab course in weed biology and management I am repeatedly astounded (and annoyed) by the lack of instruction-following exhibited by the students. Most of the experiments and activities we do in the lab are fairly simple and only demonstrative in nature, but the order of operations for each activity is generally a necessary part of seeing the correct results. The ability to read and follow instructions is therefore an important skill. Yet every year, in each class, there is at least one group who doesn’t take the time to read through the protocol before beginning and ends up having a lot of questions, or questionable results, in the end.

Now, in my classroom, these questionable results are usually easy to explain and the concept is still understood, and very rarely is the experiment completely ruined.

Unfortunately, in “real life” failing to fully read and understand instructions can have much more, shall we say, noticeable consequences.

I shared this story about the dead grass on USU’s campus on Facebook a week ago, but I wanted to revisit it here in the context of the importance of reading labels – and as a lesson on how you can avoid the same situation in your own lawn.

herbicide, Old Main, USU, dead grass

You can see exactly where the applicator made turns and didn’t spray, and where he/she tried to avoid the trees. I’m hoping that the trees were dormant (or heading into dormancy) at the time of application and will be unaffected. Only time will tell.

Essentially what happened was that instead of applying 2,4-d (an herbicide commonly used to remove dandelions and other broadleaf weeds from grass), glyphosate (which is an indiscriminate, or broad-spectrum, herbicide) was applied instead. With these two herbicides being among the most common in the average household arsenal, it’s no surprise that this is the most common mix-up we see among homeowners who wonder why the patch of lawn where they sprayed the dandelions is also dead.

You’d hope to expect better results from your local agricultural institution of higher learning, however.

In the article, it quotes the director of facilities maintenance as saying the incident was a result of mislabeling, mis-mixing, or a mistaken identity. Though at first glance it would appear these are three distinct problems, it all boils down to this: not reading, or not following, the labeled instructions.

If there is one single thing I’d hope my students take away from the weeds lab I teach it is this: the label on your herbicide container is more than just an identification. It’s a legal document that describes how the product can and cannot be used, which species or situations it is allowed to be used on, how to use it safely (for yourself and for the environment), and how to dispose of it properly.

By reading the label on glyphosate you would learn that it is a very effective grass killer, and you’d know that wouldn’t be an appropriate choice for trying to selectively remove the dandelions from your lawn while keeping your grass happy at the same time.

By reading the label of 2,4-D (or practically any other herbicide under the sun) you’d know it’s against the law to use the product in a manner inconsistent with the label, which might include a directive on proper disposal of the herbicide container. And that directive might specify that you should not refill or reuse the container. Not even if it is the same product. And definitely not with a different product that might cause the results seen on Old Main Hill.

2,4-d, herbicide label, herbicide

Here, on this section of a 2,4-D label, you can see where it is plainly stated that it would be illegal to use the product in a manner inconsistent with the label – in other words “read the label and follow it closely”.

Play it safe.

Read (and follow) the instructions.

Ask questions if you don’t understand.

Your lawn (and teachers) will appreciate it.

USU, dead grass, planting grass

Shortly after taking this picture I saw numerous people walking past this and other signs across the newly planted grass. When will we learn?


  1. I’m going to read ( at least the first part) verbatim to my elementary kids. It’s a real life application to a situation they are in everyday. Following institutions-it’s a skill they need to practice at every age!

  2. This would make a great FHE lesson. Thanks for your writings.

  3. So, what happened to the trees? Did they survive?

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