Home & Garden

Driven buggy? Use the least toxic pesticide

Amy Breschini is a UC Master Gardener.
Amy Breschini is a UC Master Gardener.

Q: As fast as our garden vegetables are growing, our pest population seems to be growing just as fast. If we find that our other pest controls aren’t working, how do we know which pesticide is safer than the next?

— Sue Lake, Arroyo Grande

A: While everyone wants to limit or exclude the use of pesticides in their gardens and home, there is a tipping point when other controls aren’t enough to prevent pest damage. The goal is to find a pesticide that is toxic to the pest, while having the least effect on beneficial insects, wildlife, pets, humans and the environment. Many pesticides available at the garden center have enticing labels and it’s often hard to distinguish which one is the least toxic.

Reading the label is essential to understanding potential toxicity and to being safe. Remember, every chemical has the potential of being toxic when concentrated. Compare eating one jalapeno pepper to a gallon of jalapeno peppers, and you will quickly understand that a concentration of anything can become dangerous.

By law, all of the necessary safety information is found on the pesticide label, which will say what type of safety equipment is required and what types of injury the pesticide may cause. The pesticide label also includes precautions that should be taken to protect the environment during storage and application.

The front of each pesticide label has a signal word: “CAUTION”, “WARNING” or “DANGER” relative to the material’s acute toxicity. The “CAUTION” label indicates a less toxic material, while “DANGER” is the most toxic. Even though the pesticide you are considering may have a “CAUTION” label, don’t let your guard down. You still need to read the label to take all the safety precautions required.

Some confusion exists when selecting pesticides that are sold as “organically acceptable.” It is wise to remember that although something is derived from nature, it is still at concentrated levels that may pose threats to humans, fish and wildlife. An organic product may be labeled “DANGER.” Other organic insecticides may carry the “CAUTION” label, such as soaps and oil sprays. These are considered very safe and can be very effective for pest control when used according to the label.

Again, the key is to read the label to protect wildlife, beneficial insects, the environment and humans.