Organic garden products such as pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.) and fertilizers are usually marketed as a more natural and safer approach to garden maintenance. People interpret this to mean that products derived from natural sources won’t harm the user or the environment. It is important to realize that both organic and synthetic products are chemical compounds. Any chemical compound, both organic and synthetic, has the potential to cause harmful physical side effects. Any chemical compound, both organic and synthetic, also has the potential to cause harmful environmental side effects.
When garden products are sprayed or dusted on plants, or incorporated into the soil, those products leach into the soil or runoff into lakes and rivers when it rains causing chemical contamination and algae overgrowth. People pass by plants and gather the chemicals on skin and clothes, or inhale particles and dust. Children are more likely to have hand to mouth exposure and their small bodies put them at higher risk to smaller and less frequent exposure. Pets frolic in the lawn and gardens, inhaling the dust and ingesting lawn chemicals during their grooming, and are also at higher risk of exposure because of their small size.
Use of pesticides and fertilizers is often considered essential for successful ornamental and edible gardening, but there are healthier and safer alternatives. Supporting soil health and using a greater variety of plants will give you a more beautiful garden and encourage beneficial insects and birds to control pests while also decreasing your cost, work, and exposure to harmful substances.
Sustainable gardens first start with creating healthy soils that support an abundance of microorganisms which symbiotically support plant health. Some of these organisms break down nutrients, some attach themselves to plant roots to help plants use the nutrients, and some help create better soil texture so oxygen and water can move through the soil. Using chemical products disrupts the lifecycle of soil organisms, which will then disrupt the natural nutrient cycling of microorganisms and plants.
Sustainable gardens also include a diversity of plants which attract a variety of insects. You actually want to host a large number of insects in your garden for two reasons. First, to help keep pests under control. Beneficial insects are natural predators of garden pests. Insecticides will kill a broad spectrum of insects, both beneficial and pests (even if the product is labeled for only one type of insect). Because beneficial insects are also killed, this often leads to more insect pests in the garden, rather than less. Second, insects attract and support birds and other wildlife. If you kill the insects, you remove a lot of important food sources for local and migratory birds, and small amphibians and mammals.
Organic garden products will carry the same warning labels as synthetic products and are regulated the same way. Labeling includes both mandatory and precautionary statements and will include warnings of “Danger”, “Warning”, or “Caution”, based on whether the product meets the criteria for Toxicity Category I-IV (Category I and Danger being most toxic), and even inert ingredients are not necessarily non-toxic. For more detailed information, please refer to EPA information for Active and Inert Ingredients, Types of Pesticide Ingredients, and Label Requirements.