Published: May 24, 2017
Sprouting a green thumb have many health benefits for adults, and even makes a great choice to teach children as a hobby they can pursue on their own. Yet you need to be aware of some of the risks and dangers found in your garden in order to make sure you aren’t inadvertently hurting yourself, your family, or the environment.
You need to make sure your green thumb is actually green.
Some of the chemicals often used in gardening can be toxic for humans – particularly with long-term, extended exposure – and some plants themselves can pose a danger. It’s vital to know how to choose safe fertilizers, weed killers, and pesticides, and even how to use plants themselves or other natural means to keep gardens safe and well-fed.
Even many common gardening processes can be harmful for the environment. Those same chemicals you are worried about exposing kids and pets to are not great for the environment as they can linger, often ending up in the soil and local water sources. Excessive watering can also cause problems. If you aren’t careful, you could be doing more harm than good as you try to grow your own plants.
Balancing the desire to keep the garden as green and safe as possible while still giving the plants the nutrients and defenses they need isn’t always easy. Your garden can face dangers to the plants themselves, which might make you want to take fast action with pesticides and other preventative (and often chemical) materials – and you might accidentally neglect the potential consequences.
That’s why we’ve created this guide: to usher you through green gardening steps that will help you dodge these risks. With the information here, you can create a garden that is beneficial to your family, provides a bountiful harvest, and doesn’t impact the overall environment and your family too negatively.
– Chemicals to Look Out For!
– Green Plant Care DIY
– Your Garden and Pollinators
– Composting FTW
Chemicals to Look Out For!
If you must buy chemicals for your garden to help it thrive, you need to be aware of some of the toxic, dangerous chemicals that are best avoided. Learning to choose trustworthy products is essential when gardening with “green” living in mind.
Natural Doesn’t Mean Safe – Know What to Avoid
Unfortunately, many gardening chemicals, do not have stringent labeling requirements, especially when they’re not specifically targeting growing food plants. Seeing “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean something is safe, and not all products will list their entire list of ingredients. Manufactures are only required to list active ingredients, and inactive ingredients can also cause problems.
While in some ways you may be “running blind” because of incomplete labeling, there are some products you should avoid that will be on the label. Many of the commonly produced pesticides and fertilizers have been shown to be toxic to humans and pets. If you want to protect your family, you need to know what chemicals are best avoided.
Many public health advocates caution about the fact that research focuses on short-term effects of pesticides, and not the chronic, low-level exposure that is more realistic (and still potentially harmful). Fertilizers, though seeming more benevolent at first sight, can cause huge problems as they run off into the water waterways, altering the balance of the algae, reducing oxygen content in water, and triggering an imbalance in the ecosystem.
Here are some of the most dangerous chemicals you could find in your gardening products:
- Organophosphates – At the core of many insecticides, even though the US EPA notes them as highly toxic to bees, wildlife, and humans, we’ve listed some of the most common ones below. They are known to be a very aggressive nerve agent. It has been shown that consistent, low-level exposure can be toxic.
Chlorpyrifos – Found in insecticides used on agricultural crops, lawns, and ornamental plants, as well as on some farm animal, dog kennels, and commercial establishment, products containing this chemical must be labeled with a “Caution”/”Warning” label due to its toxicity in humans.
- Diazinon – Used in both agricultural and residential applications, as well as in flea/tick prevention for pets, the biggest issue with diazinon is that it is highly toxic to birds and fish, and therefore can cause harm to the ecosystem.
- Dichlorvos – Known to be highly volatile and toxic, most of the harmful effects in humans stem from inhalation.
- Disulfoton is primarily an insecticide used to control against sucking insects, with widespread applications in agriculture including on cotton, tobacco, corn, potatoes, and wheat.
- 2, 4-D– One of the most commonly found and older herbicides, targeting weeds, this herbicide has not been shown to linger in soil but can persist in water, with some forms toxic to fish and other aquatic life.
- Glyphosate– Another widely used herbicide, glyphosate tends to persist in the soil, not the water. It can be dangerous for pets, as animal studies have shown it to be carcinogenic.
- Pyrethoids and pyrethins – Though developed to replace organophosphates because they are less environmentally persistent, they have been shown to be toxic to beneficial insects, aquatic life, and even cats.
- Metaldehyde (aka “slug pellets”) – Used to attract and kill off slugs, metaldehyde is known to be a danger to wildlife, pets, and children,
- Inorganic fertilizers (N-P-K fertilizers) – contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to help gardens and farms grow, but also contain and generate (as waste) heavy metals – like cadmium, zinc, and arsenic – which can be toxic. Additionally, as noted above, they can pollute runoff water. The most common ones are:
- Anhydrous ammonia
- Diammonium phosphate
If possible, avoid using products with these ingredients. If that isn’t possible, make sure you never use these products on plants you intend to eat.
For a deeper dive into the safety of pesticides and fertilizers, consult these resources:
- Penn State: Safe Use of Pesticides Around the Home
- Environment and Human Health, Inc.: Risks from Lawn Care Pesticides
- Dogtime: Garden Chemicals and Pets – How to Keep Your Dog Safe
- DoItYourself.com: Dangerous Fertilizer Chemicals to Be Aware Of
- EPA: Read the Label First – Protect Your Kids!
Who Regulates Gardening Chemicals?
One of the reasons that gardening chemicals can be so dangerous is the fact that they’re not consistently regulated in the same way around the world. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) controls the labeling and public information about pesticides and fertilizers, and has passed the following laws that apply to gardening chemicals:
- Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) – FIFRA requires all pesticides sold in the U.S. to be registered with the EPA.
- Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) – Sets tolerances for pesticides used on plants intended for human consumption.
- Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 – This law states that only those pesticides that pose “reasonable certainty of no harm” can be labeled for use on food plants.
Unfortunately, despite these acts, toxic chemicals can still find their way into our environment. Even if a chemical is currently deemed safe, research into the toxicity tends to deal with short term effects via clinical studies, for which there is limited funding. When the product is not being sold explicitly for food purposes, there is even less control.
How to Find Good Products
So what can you do if you want to use a chemical fertilizer or pesticide, but want to keep your garden safe? Consider these safer chemical options:
- Neem oil – This pesticide isn’t toxic to mammals, birds, bees, earthworms or pants, but will control for several insect pests.
- Pyrethrum – Derived from chrysanthemums to function as insecticides, this works well on cockroaches, lice, and mosquitoes.
- Sulfur – Treats mites, mildew, rust, leaf blight, and fruit rot, while also ridding the plant of some pests, all while not posing a risk to humans. Just be careful to use this when your flowers are not in bloom, as it might have some effects on bees.
- Sabadilla– The least toxic organic pesticide available, it has been approved for use on vegetables including beans, cucumbers, and melons.
- Microbial pesticides (e.g. Bt) – This bacterium that occurs naturally in some soils will kill immature stage insects, and strains of the bacterium can be added to soil to help with pest problems. One of its key advantages is how specifically it works, only targeting whatever eats it.
- Vinegar– Applying vinegar to broad leaf weeds on a sunny day can kill them without chemicals. Adjust the concentration of acetic acid to better target the weeds you are trying to kill.
- Lemon juice – Can also be used to kill weeds.
Where to Get More Help
Do you have more questions about gardening chemicals and their effect on your garden and family? You can find answers by getting in contact with the right organizations. Consider these:
- Your local farm bureau office
- Your local cooperative extension system office
- Local organic gardening clubs in your community
For more information about avoiding toxic chemicals in your garden, visit:
- University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources: Garden Chemicals – Safe Use & Disposal
- Organic Land Care: 10 Reasons to Ditch Your Lawn and Garden Chemicals
- Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service: Safe Use of Pesticides in the Home and Garden
- NRDC: 2, 4-D – The Most Dangerous Pesticide You’ve Never Heard Of
- Birds & Blooms: Grow a Chemical-Free Garden
Green Plant Care DIY Tips
Now that you understand the hazards in your garden, what can you do to keep yours as safe and as healthy as possible? Here are some DIY tips that you can use to take good care of your plants, while also providing the important protections you need and want for your family and pets.
- Test the soil – There are some tests that are easy for you to conduct at home! Also, your community has a local agriculture extension office. Take a sample of your soil to the office for testing, and you will know exactly what nutrients it has and what it needs.
- Condition the soil – One of the reasons many gardeners turn to chemicals is because their plants need food to thrive. You can avoid this need by conditioning the soil before you plant. Use the information from your soil test(s) to determine what needs to be added to your soil, and then add organic components (like your compost – keep reading!) to ensure that the soil is safe while also providing the feeding that your plants need.
- Start the seeds – Check with your local extension office to find the best time for planting outdoors, and then start seeds indoors to give seedlings the best chance at thriving once planted in the garden.
- Choose plants wisely – Choose plants that will grow well in your area and in your particular type of garden. The USDA Hardiness Zones can help you make good choices. Happy plants tend to be healthier plants, so don’t try to plant something not designed to thrive in your area.
- Check the garden daily – Check your garden every day to look for problems that need to be addressed: check the soil, the leaves, clear out any extra debris, look for any evidence of pests, etc. The sooner you address an issue, the better your chances of successfully resolving it.
- Use wide beds – Planting food plants in wide beds can help prevent fungal attacks and protect the plants from foot traffic. This also gives them more room to grow and thrive, especially as some plants produce wider root systems than others.
- Water smart – Install a drip or soak system if possible, or water plants in the morning to avoid excessive evaporation.
- Use a rain barrel – Conserve water while making sure your plants stay well hydrated.
- Pull weeds by hand – Don’t use herbicides to deal with weeds, as they will contaminate your food. Pull them out by hand instead! Recruit family members to help with this; it’s a great way to stay active, and can help you teach your kids to garden
- Use organic mulch – Add a layer of organic mulch on top of your soil to help keep weeds at bay.
- Find natural predators for pests – Do you have a problem with aphids? Add ladybugs to your garden. Do you have other pests? Plant sweet alyssum and dill to attract predatory insects.
- Research companion plants. There are all kinds of helpful plant combinations – such as tomato and basil – that you can leverage to encourage growth without adding in any chemicals.
- Make-your-own pesticide – Create a mixture of garlic, onion and hot pepper mixed with soap to apply directly to garden pests. Use this recipe: 1 garlic bulb, 1 small onion, 1 tsp. Cayenne pepper, 1 qt of water, 1 tbsp dish soap. Liquefy the herbal ingredients, mix with water, and seek for 1 hour. Strain and add dish soap, then spray plants thoroughly.
- Practice plant rotation – Rotate crops that are in the same family to avoid continuing problems with disease.
For more information about building and maintaining your own green garden, visit:
- Good Housekeeping: Organic Gardening Tips
- Organic Authority: 5 Ways to Eliminate Garden Pests Without Nasty Chemical Pesticides
- The Spruce: How to Start an Organic Vegetable Garden
- How Stuff Works: 15 Homemade Organic Gardening Sprays and Concoctions That Actually Work
- Michigan State University Extension: Vegetable Gardening
Your Garden and Pollinators
When most people think of insects in the garden, they think of pests that wreak havoc on their plants, but not all pests are harmful. In fact, without some insects, your garden will fail.
One of the most beneficial creatures in any garden, whether flower or food, is a pollinator. A pollinator is typically a bird, like a hummingbird, or insect, like a bee or butterfly, that transports pollen from one plant to the next, which allows the plants to reproduce, create fruit, and thrive. Without pollinators, fruit cannot develop, and flowering plants species will die off.
Unfortunately, many modern gardening techniques, including the use of pesticides, have put pollinators at risk. In fact, the problem has gotten so bad that beekeepers reported a loss of 44.1 percent of their colonies over the 2015-2016 year.
Because of modern gardening and farming processes, bees and pollinating insects are seeing steady decline for many reasons, and this puts gardening efforts at risk. In fact, National Geographic indicates that the state of pollinators in the United States is in crisis, and something needs to be done to protect these vital insects and the plants they support.
As a gardener at home, there are things you can do to encourage pollinators to thrive. Here are some strategies you can employ in your garden to help fight this problem.
- Choose native plants – There are over 20,000 species of bees around the world, and chances are your local species is drawn to plants that grow naturally in your area.
- Rather, choose plants that tend to attract pollinators.
- Plant an all-season garden – Try to have plants that bloom in all three growing seasons to provide food for pollinators year-round.
- Add milkweed – Milkweed may sound like a weed, but it’s critical to pollinators and is the only food for monarch butterfly caterpillars.
- Don’t apply too much mulch – Some species of bees dig nests in the ground, rather than in a hive, and mulch can prevent this.
- Give them a home – Whether you create an actual hive or invest in a bee block, give bees a place to live that will encourage them to pollinate your garden.
- Lay off the chemicals (or at least, choose wisely) – Pesticides don’t just kill pests. They kill other insects as well. Use them as minimally as possible.
- Choose nectar-rich plants – When planting a garden to attract pollinators, choose plants known for high nectar content.
- Plant pollinators’ flowers on the edge of your garden – This makes it easier for the pollinators to work their magic, and even stave off pests.
The pollinator crisis is something that everyone needs to take very seriously. For more information about what you can do, visit:
- US Fish and Wildlife Service: Pollinators – How You Can Help
- Inhabitat: HOW TO – Attracting Pollinators – Flowers That Encourage Bees, Butterflies, and Birds to Visit
- Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences: Gardening Information to Encourage Pollinators
- Gardeners: Attracting Butterflies, Hummingbirds and Other Pollinators
- Greenpeace: Save the Bees
The most natural way to feed and regulate your plants’ growth environment is through compost, which can generate top-quality soil conditions and facilitate the retention of nutrients, water, and air. You’ll also naturally regulate pH and local microbes to ensure effective fertilization.
Compost is the name for the end-product of letting organic materials like kitchen scraps and yard trimmings decompose via bacteria, fungi, and insects. Compost can then be added to the soil housing plants. For outdoor plants, you can mulch with it on top of exposed soil, and let worms mix the two up. Indoors, you can use compost, ideally in a 7:3:2 ratio of soil, compost, and sand. Composting isn’t hard, and carries many benefits.
Benefits of Composting
Composting has many benefits for the gardener, such as:
- Eliminating the need for harsh/artificial chemical fertilizers
- Reducing negative and/or secondary impacts on the environment
- Creating something useful out of trash waste
- Conservation of water and protection of water cleanliness
- Improved health of plants
- Improved nutrient content of soil and thus of foods
- Saved cost of water and fertilizer
- Helping your community by creating less waste
- Avoiding contamination of substances like fluorine in the soil and water
How to Compost
If you’re ready to enjoy these benefits, you need to master the basics of composting.
- Know what to add – Compost is made up of browns, which includes dead leaves, twigs, and branches, greens (including fruit and vegetable scraps), grass clippings, and coffee grounds, and water.
- Know how to add them – Aim for equal amounts of browns and greens. Chop or shred large pieces to increase the surface area exposed to air – and facilitate the reactions that will build better compost results.
- Choose the right spot – Choose a dry, shady spot that’s close to your water source.
- Add items properly – After your composted pile is somewhat well established, make sure to mix in the waste you add, burying any food waste under at least 10 inches of compost.
- Consider limited cover – You can cover your compost pile to help regulate moisture levels, but make sure it is something breathable (an impenetrable tarp will not do). You don’t want to stop the aerobic metabolism occurring in this pile, or else your composting efforts will completely halt.
- Turn it weekly – Turn your compost pile from time to time to ensure proper aeration, which will increase composition and reduce foul odor. Without aeration, anaerobic processes take over, and will take the rate of composting from the scale of weeks to that of months.
- Use it – Check the compost at the bottom. When it is a dark, rich color, has a sweet earthy smell, and no longer shows the individual ingredients, it’s ready to use. This can take (on average) anywhere from three months all the way up to two years, but it’s worth the wait.
- Consider a bin – If you can’t make a pile outdoors, consider a compost bin kept indoors. Bins tend to mature faster than piles, and the compost should be ready in less than five weeks.
- Create a compost pail – If you don’t want to run to the compost pile every time you eat, create a pail in your home to toss appropriate food scraps into, and make a daily trip to your compost heap.
- Use it well – Add your finished compost to the soil whenever the compost is ready. You can use it as mulch, mix it in with the soil before planting, or use it to pot indoor plants by mixing it with potting soil.
- Add nitrogen as needed. If you have been aerating your compost and still feel it’s proceeding too slowly, you may need to optimize the carbon:nitrogen ration.
Know What Not to Compost
Not everything can be composted. Here are some items you should avoid throwing:
- Fats and greases
- Meat or fish
- Pet waste
- Yard trimmings with pesticides
- Dairy products
- Plants with insects or diseases
- Black walnut tree leaves or twigs
- Charcoal ash
Items like meat or dairy may attract pests and create odors. Some people have found luck with these, but used straw and metal mesh to keep the compost contained – and unwelcome visitors out – while still getting enough air to let decomposition occur, but consider yourself warned: you might be at risk for worms.
Other items on this list – such as coal or charcoal ash – should not be composted because they likely contain toxic industrial chemicals.
Know What You Can Compost
Some great items to add to your compost heap, beyond the obvious grass trimmings, yard waste, fruits, and vegetables, include:
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Tea bags
- Shredded newspaper
- Nut shells
These will break down over time and add nutrients to the pile. The more varied the components you add, the more benefits you will see.
For more information about composting, visit:
- This Organic Life: 10 Reasons Why You Should Compost
- Green Action Centre: Why Should I Compost?
- EPA: Composting at Home
- University of Florida: Composting
- University of Michigan Extension: Composting and Mulching – A Guide to Managing Organic Yard Wastes
- K-State Research and Extension: Composting and Yard Waste
- Composting Instructions: What You Can and Cannot Compost
Using Your Garden to Give Back
Composting and practicing green gardening techniques helps you do a little bit to protect the environment. Once you have a garden that’s blessing you with brilliant flowers or an abundant harvest, you can give back even more. Share some of your bounty with your friends, family, and local community, and you will truly enjoy the fruits of your labors.
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