O brave new world, that has such pretty insecticides in it


The world of garden products may be somewhat safer these days, but it’s also a helluva lot more confusing. I lack even a smidgeon of the scientific knowledge necessary to do chemical breakdowns on the various products made by Bonide, Ortho, and the new organic upstarts of the garden pesticide, fungicide, and herbicide industry, but one thing I can analyze without special training is the packaging and price tags of this stuff.

Clearly, there are new do’s and don’t’s in terms of the new regime of gardening products. Here are some of the ones I’ve noticed:

-Black is out. Green is in.

-Curvy, sixties-esque graphics make the grade for “organic” products. Stark, rectilinear imagery—not so much.

-Don’t show pictures of the bugs you’re killing—or repelling. We don’t want to see that.

-Rather than hiding the elixir behind an opaque plastic façade, show it off in a clear bottle. To be honest, I’m not sure whether I should spray that pink stuff on my roses or use it as a spritzer for my martini.

-And, as always, the higher the pricetag, the better the product. Any bottle of garden goodness priced over $20 should be taken very seriously.

I’m glad there are alternatives out there. But are they so much safer or do they just look that way? If the peppermint oil in the pink spray doesn’t get rid of any insects, will it at least not burn foliage or do other harm? Who the hell knows?

We’re all still victims and guinea pigs of market forces here, whether the products are green, blue, black, or red. Add to that the fact that so-called gurus are still telling us to spray cola or beer on our plants and the confusion multiplies. As a magazine editor, I see “green” employed as an engulfing marketing tidal wave. I hope that some of its rivulets actually do good.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. I recommend neem oil as an earth friendly option that’s effective in controlling aphids and preventing blackspot on tea roses.

    The information on the labels I’ve seen is pretty clear.

    It’s the only earth-friendly option I’ve seen for control of lily leaf beetles (Lilioceris lilii), but I haven’t found it to be effective this year. The outbreak in my garden seems to be more than it can handle.

  2. It sure is confusing but at least there are choices now! Check out a product called Neem. I will tell you that I do sell this product so take it from the source but I also have used it effectively on the lily leaf beetle and as a fungicide for powdery mildew on phlox and bee balm. It is from the Neem tree, Azadirachta indica, native to India where it has been used medicinally. I guess that answers the question of its’ hazardous nature. I think it is important to realize that organic does not always mean safe. Some organics are quite toxic so back to square one…well almost. Where there is money to be made, there will be commercialism but that is not all bad.

  3. The confusion goes beyond the different types of pesticides and what they are made of, whether organic or synthetic. Some folks are not sure pesticides should even be used. In the comment section of a Garden Rant titled “Spray Now” Amy Stewart says “I see no justification for using pesticides of any kind in the garden. If the presence of bugs in the outdoors is that distressing, go inside.” I am not sure if she means “any” pesticides or just synthetic pesticides. If I am an organic grower of flowers for the cut flower trade an earwig or other insect attack could easily destroy my flowers and therefore my business. Would it not be o.k. to use some type of organic pesticide?
    The word pesticide conjures up different meanings to different people. The word pesticide includes fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides. Insecticidal soap is an insecticide while neem oil is a combination insecticide and fungicide. Both soap and neem are used in organic gardening on a frequent basis and are considered quite safe. When people hear the word pesticide they imagine what they want. Evil products made by giant corporations, or earth friendly organics.
    Elizabeth’s confusion is common place. There is a world of pesticides out there and it is hard to get information. Your best bet for information is a local nursery that specializes in organics. Much of our summer business is answering questions about pests and their eradication. We can recommend an organic product for just about every malady. Organics need to be respected as some are as toxic as synthetics but I believe as long as we garden “pesticides” will always be used.

  4. yeah, I really did mean chemical pesticides–in other words, I’m not sure that deploying carcinogens in the home garden is really worthwhile. And we are talking about home gardeners–it’s amazing to me that we gardeners are free to do what we want with the arsenal of chemicals available to us, while commercial growers at least have to go through training, get permits and licenses, and don safety gear to use some of those same chemicals.

    I actually don’t use any kind of pesticide, organic or not, in my garden, but that’s just out of laziness and a fascination with bugs. I use a few organic fungicides on the fruit trees and berry vines if it looks like we need them, but that’s about it.

    Right now I’m growing a few starts inside and I’m amazed at how quickly aphids & whitefly showed up on them. I bought one of the peppermint oil-type formulas and it seems to work, but I’m not sure the plants like it. I might try neem next–we have a guy at the farmers market who makes his own.

  5. As a horticulture student at UC Davis, I was required to take an Integrated Pest Management class. By the end of the quarter, I had transformed from a gardener who viewed pests as something that needed to be eradicated into a much mellower gardener who knows that when a pest shows up in the garden, it’s very likely its natural enemy will soon follow.

    I had an opportunity to test what my professor was professing when I noticed an aphid infestation in my strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo). My impulse was to spray something on those fat little sap suckers… insecticidal soap, water, or worse. Instead I did nothing. I wanted to prove to my somewhat skeptical self that my fancy pants professor was telling us the truth. Oh, sure, he had mathematical models and dry, dry lectures, but would his theories hold up in my garden?

    After about a week, I returned to the tree with a hand lens and was treated to the sight of many, many tan, puffy aphids with perfectly round holes chewed in their sides. They had been parasitized by tiny wasps, just like me teacher told me they would be. This is a process I would never have noticed without the class and without a hand lens. Had I sprayed, I might have harmed the numerous aphid predators out there doing a pesticide’s job every day, for free.

    Since then, I’ve invested in a few books on IPM that help me identify pests and their natural predators. Where there’s a “bad bug”, there’s usually a “good bug” on the way to help maintain a balanced population. If not, a gardener can start with the least toxic control measure and work up from there. Bringing out the big guns last is IPM in a nutshell. If you choose not to own any big guns, you are an organic gardener and we thank you for that.

    Also, the notion of “eradication” was replaced with the notion of “controlling” pest populations. It’s ok to tolerate low pest populations in your garden because they are the lure for good bugs. Think of them as bait.

    In a home garden, an organic or IPM approach just feels right to me. I am not a farmer. If my ornamentals fail, no biggie. I’ll plant more. If my edibles are a little blemished, no biggie. They’re usually beautiful, though, and I do very little to keep them that way.

    Like Amy, it’s much more important to me to keep my yard safe for pets, people, wildlife, and the people downstream from me than it is to kill everything that tries to eat my plants.


  6. Well, I have gritted my teeth and pledged not to use any kind of insecticides even though last night there were dozens of those little rat bastid June beetles hanging off the kitchen screen, and as far as I know, there aren’t any “good guys” on the way (unless a friendly family of bats happens to take up residence). I act as a predator; when I run across grubs or beetles in the ground, I squash them mercilessly. They can really damage the plants, but last year everything came through their assault, so I’m trying to chill out about it.

    I tried neem oil last year, but it didn’t seem to repel them at all (it’s a great mosquito repellent, though, as long as you don’t mind smelling somewhat like a garlic clove). Oils have the potential to make leaf sunburn where there would be none, so I don’t like using them in general.

    I have introduced predatory nematodes the last couple of years, just to mix things up. Although I don’t expect the treatment to act like a barbed wire fence, I do usually find evidence of the aftermath (a reddish, ovoid, swollen casing that is a grub being digested from within) at least once or twice a season near the ground surface.

    Last year I spent a fair amount of money on “organic” remedies that mostly didn’t help, or if they did help, had to be reapplied so often (like every time it rained or I watered) it got too expensive.

    The one thing I have (reluctantly) used is “Sluggo,” iron phosphate pellets, which do reduce slug damage. They are said to be nontoxic to everything else, and will dissolve into soil after a while. Because I have so many seedlings right now (and so little patience setting up individual copper mesh collars) I’m just sprinkling some of this around the new plants until they are established.

    The slugs can have the hostas, though. They’re fair game!

  7. The pink peppermint oil seemed to cause spots on foliage–some, that landed on a nearby canna, look like rust, but I think it’s the oil.

  8. I completely agree with Angela’s philosophy. I haven’t used a insecticide in over a decade. If the plants aren’t tough enough to ride it out, then they’re not in the garden. I cannot imagine using insecticide in a home garden setting.

  9. I second (or third, to barrie) Angela. (Besides, that’s a beautiful name since it’s also my daughter’s name.) I never use any of these things; too expensive, too much trouble and, as a pathologist, I always wondered what cancer to which I was exposing my little Angela, not to mention my dog. The rare plant that had a problem, I either threw out (a gardenia in my greenhouse was one example), or, like Angela, waited for the bug predators to show up. Sometimes the plants look bad for awhile before the predators can get a foothold; so be it.

    Maybe if I had some really expensive plant that had a short term problem, I’d be tempted, but be careful people – there are some studies out there correlating pesticide use with heightened risk of some childhood cancers. Who needs that guilt trip?

  10. I so agree with all those completely opposed to home garden pesticide use. I don’t use anything organic or not. For over 10 years now in two seperate locations. Fireflies are abundant, slugs are so few as to do no damage even on the hosta. Aphids appear and disappear. Plants are thriving.
    I have learned to wait and watch.
    Grow what grows well without intervention and enjoy watching the creatures visiting our garden as much as the plants growing there.It works, this is not theory it is experience.Even in this average size garden in a neighborhood full of green lawns and shaped foundation shrubs. But it takes getting through a couple of years of adjustment.

  11. I fourth or fifth Angela’s comment. I have used insecticidal soap on sawflies, but that is all. My garden is full of birds, butterflies, insects, worms and a few plants with holes in them. I lost a dog years ago to cancer, and I think it was the pesticides that we used at that time. Never again.

  12. Take it from a chemist, the brown bottles are because some of the pesticides and other chemicals are photo-sensitive. In other words they break down with exposure to light. Just an FYI.

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