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.
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.
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. Manufacturers are only required to list active ingredients, and inactive ingredients can also cause problems.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.