Think before you spray

by Jennifer Gay

If you must use chemicals in your garden, follow these basic rules for safety and efficiency

NEVER thought I'd be writing an article about chemical use in the garden. Long-time readers of this column will know I'm not a big fan of pesticides. It's sometimes harder work to control pests and diseases using cultural and biological controls, but natural instinct takes me that way. Problems can be avoided by good gardening practice - crop rotation, hand picking of pests and diseased leaves - and the promotion of healthy growth through appropriate watering and feeding. Healthy plants tolerate pests and diseases much better than those struggling in adverse conditions. I suppose the fact that

Japanese beetle chomping through Dahlia - before
you throw chemicals at it, bear in mind you may be
killing its predator as well

governments have changed their minds over the years on what is considered safe doesn't inspire much confidence either. It wasn't so long ago that DDT was being widely used and Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring was regarded as fringe reading.

In fact, I was sparked into writing this piece through witnessing a (clearly) untrained employee of a garden company (to remain nameless) spraying chemicals without regard for one single item on the list of safety precautions that you'll find at the end of this article, making what he was doing potentially unsafe for himself but also those around. The entire garden, including vegetables, was sprayed, immaterial of the presence of pests and diseases, with Malathion, a chemical requiring at least the use of rubber gloves and a mask. The minimum period for harvesting after spraying Malathion is four days; the owner of the garden may never have known had I not alerted her to what I'd seen.

This is not a one-off incident; it happens daily in Greece. Like safety on building sites,there is a macho gung-ho attitude to garden chemicals.

Watch out for pests in spring when they become
active. Remember that it's much easier to get rid
of problems culturally/biologically before you
lose control -small populations of scale
on evergreens such as strawberry tree can
be pruned out

If you spray chemicals as part of your job (in public or private places), health and safety laws in many EU countries require a proficiency spraying certificate proving safe use of pesticides. Even is such laws exist here, they are clearly not being implemented.

Even if you don't use garden chemicals yourself perhaps someone working in your garden does; they may be uninformed about what they are using. It is now illegal in some EU countries for gardeners to use chemicals other than in accordance with the instructions provided; this makes it illegal to use the wrong dilution rate and also to use the product for purposes other than those stated on the instructions. Such jurisdiction would be welcome in Greece where wrongful use of chemicals is widespread. Prosecutions have resulted in the UK: careless spraying of flowering plants resulting in a beekeeper losing his bees can see you in court.

With few exceptions garden chemicals are not selective. Most insecticides have a board spectrum of activity and will kill beneficial predator insects along with the pests, possibly resulting in the pest returning in greater numbers than before. Repeated use of pesticides can also result in development of resistance; there is a growing list of pests and diseases which are no longer controlled by chemicals once effective against them. Some chemicals are residual - they are slow to break down and therefore potentially more damaging to the environment, while others are non-residual. The label should tell you what type of chemical you are dealing with.

The root-eating chafer grub can
be controlled by picking it out
of the soil as you dig in w

Chemicals may also be organic or synthetic. Whilst all are poisons, some people may prefer to use natural products, for example Pyrethrum extracted from the flower of Pyrethrum cinerariifolium.

Safe chemical use

1. Think before you spray. Identify the cause of the problem. There is no point in trying various insecticides and fungicides if the plant is actually suffering from malnourishment or growth defects caused by cold weather.

2. Sort out which problems are serious. Those causing little harm could be tolerated; does the presence of a couple of dandelions merit you spraying the whole lawn? Is spraying really necessary or could you use organic remedies or biological controls instead?

3. If you think you must use a chemical, choose it carefully; make sure it is the right one for the job. A chemical's relevance may be limited to certain types of plants or situations.

4. Apply the chemical at the right time. Pests often have one or more stages in their life when they are more vulnerable to chemical control. Spraying at the wrong time may give no control.

5. Apply the preparation at the rate and frequency stated on the label.

6. Never use any type of chemical on aquatic plants.

7. Inspect plants regularly so that problems are tackled before heavy infestations develop.

8. Don't use chemicals under windy conditions or if rain is imminent. Avoid treating plants exposed to bright sunlight or extremes of temperature as risk of scorch is increased.

9. Always spray in the evenings when there are few bees and hoverflies around.

10. Avoid contact with skin and eyes by wearing rubber gloves, long sleeved clothing, and goggles. Read the label and take further safety precautions as necessary.

11. Make sure the chemical does not drift into other people's gardens.

12. Keep pets and children away until safe to re-enter area.

13. Never eat, drink or smoke when applying chemicals.

14. Dispose of any excess carefully and wash out any apparatus thoroughly. Don't use apparatus for anything other than chemicals.

15. Store chemicals safely and out of reach of children and animals. Store in their original containers with their original labels and keep explanatory leaflets with them.

The EU is continually reviewing chemicals and their use; sometimes a chemical is taken off the market for various reasons. New research may render it unsuitable for domestic use or a product may be superseded by an updated 'safer' one. You can check on to see if a chemical is approved for garden/home use. If it's not approved in the UK, you shouldn't be using it here as Greece should be following the same guidelines.

Flowering now

Coral tree
THE DECIDUOUS Coral tree (Erythrina crista-galli) is a beauty but can only be grown as a tree (or large shrub) in areas with mild winters, though in colder areas you can grow it as a herbaceous plant. The spiny branches are laden with long, clustered spikes of deep scarlet flowers, rather like waxen sweet peas, in summer and autumn.

Gardeners' queries

I have a plot of land in Limnos of approx 4,500 sq metres on which I am building a house. I plan to live there from next April. It is fairly exposed, on the side of a steep hill. I am not a fanatic gardener but do enjoy it and would like to do something with the plot. I would be grateful for any advice you could offer.

Without seeing the site and with limited column space, I can only give general advice. The four big pointers I would offer are:

1. Improve your soil. You will never regret investing in the soil before you plant, not only to enrich the soil but also to improve the structure. Dig in ample quantities of organic matter - eg compost, or well-rotted manure - about a 10cm layer to a depth of 30-40cm (you will require a rotivator for larger areas) to planting areas. With a very rocky site, concentrate on improving each planting hole.

2. Look at ways to save water and make the most of it. Catch and store rain/runoff, mulch soil to help your plants make the most of moisture, and plant appropriate species for the site.

3. Create protection by planting a windbreak using species such as cypress, juniper, carob, Acacia spp, poplar and pine, with an under storey planting of Buckthorn (Rhamnus), Viburnum, tree germander (Teucrium), tree medick (Medicago), strawberry tree (Arbutus), and Mastic (Pistacia).

4. Look to nature for inspiration - see what grows well around you or in similar locations and adapt ideas to your own site.

If you have a gardening question for Jennifer Gay, send it to and she will answer one question each week in this space.

(Posting Date 8 September 2006)

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