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It is Important to Read and Follow Pesticide Labels

If you are a backyard gardener who uses pesticides, this article is for you. It is especially for those of you who hate to read instructions until it’s an absolute necessity. It is important to read and follow pesticide labels to be legal and to avoid major goofs. Additionally, to some degree, your safety, your family’s safety, and environmental stewardship are in play.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “It has been said that ‘The label is the law.’ This means that using a pesticide in a manner that is inconsistent with the use directions on the label is a violation of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and can result in enforcement actions to correct the violations.” FIFRA is administered in Indiana by the Office of the Indiana State Chemist.

I’ve received calls and been on home visits to observe that people make mistakes with pesticides they wish they hadn’t. I’ve seen entire yards killed, landscape plants damaged, and trees killed from using the wrong pesticide, or by using them incorrectly. So, just because you have a product that kills, oh, something…that doesn’t mean you throw it in a sprayer and just start spraying. You may end up killing something you don’t want to kill. To avoid major goofs, read the label.

A lesson we always stress with Master Gardeners, private applicators, and the general public is to read and follow the pesticide label. It does not take much time to glean critical information before you make an application. It is worth your time to read the label.

First, see if the product you intend to use is labeled for where you intend to apply it. This is very important when considering an inside vs. outside application or a food vs. non-food plant. If it is a food plant, there may also be a pre-harvest interval or a period before you can safely harvest the plant for consumption. Read the label.

Second, know what pest you are trying to control or manage. Proper identification of the weed, insect, or disease (all three are “pests”) will help you select the right control product. The label will specify what pests are controlled with the product, and where it can be used. Read the label.

Third, you need to know how much to apply. If it is a concentrated product that must be mixed with water, you will find those mixing instructions on the label. If it is a ready-to-use (RTU) product, it’s already mixed to a safe dilution level and is ready to apply. If you have a bad weed problem, the attitude, “If a little is good, a lot is better,” can be dangerous, plus it is illegal. Read the label.

Fourth, determine if conditions are right to apply the product. Don’t spray on a windy day. And, be careful if you are near your neighbor’s yard, water, beehives, a garden, grapes, or other potentially sensitive areas. Instructions may be on the label regarding environmental hazards and other application instructions. Read the label.

The label will also contain other important information, such as the main signal word (caution, warning, or danger), personal protective equipment to wear (for your safety), potential dangers to off-target organisms like aquatic life or bees, the active ingredients, the EPA registration number (verifies it’s a registered product), storage instructions, disposal instructions (to avoid environmental problems), first aid instructions, etc. Read the label.

You should also consider whether the pest is causing enough damage to warrant an application. Can you get by with a little bit of damage? Are other plants in bloom? Is this the right time of year to control the pest? Is the pest in its damaging stage (e.g., larvae chewing leaves) to warrant management? Can you spot spray rather than spraying everything? Are honeybees active? Some products are deadly to beneficial insects and/or pollinators, and that should be considered. Read the label.

Some products use popular brand names with new active ingredients in them. One example (no endorsement implied) is Roundup. This product once only contained the active ingredient glyphosate, a non-selective weed killer (it kills plants with foliage that it touches). However, some formulations of Roundup now may contain active ingredients that selectively control broadleaf weeds in grass. So, let’s say you’ve heard about this new product but you grab the traditional form of Roundup (with glyphosate) by mistake. If you apply that to your yard, you’ll kill the entire yard. Read the label.

Last, but certainly not least, many choose not to use any pesticides in their home landscapes. That, also, can be a good decision. Homeowners can employ many cultural pest control strategies. Examples include hand weeding, picking larger insects off plants manually, mowing higher to promote dense turf that out-compete weeds, cultivation, and promoting plant health through good horticultural practices.

If you choose to apply a pesticide – whether it is a herbicide, an insecticide, or a fungicide – make sure you select the right product for the problem, it’s the right time to use it, and apply it correctly. To do that, you must read and follow the pesticide label.

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