Alternatives to fertilizers, pesticides & herbicides

Hazardous pesticide label

Learn less-toxic ways to maintain your lawn and garden, and control pests.

Here in the beautiful Rogue Valley, everyone wants clean rivers and streams. Unfortunately, everyday chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides can be toxic to wildlife and humans. If the chemicals are applied incorrectly, or are allowed to run off into streams or storm drains, they actually fertilize the water and result in algae blooms. Algae blooms remove oxygen from water which can cause tragic fish kills and severe environmental damage. Garden pesticides can harm humans and pets too, with kids and pregnant women being at the highest risk for exposure.

We can still have great looking lawns and gardens without using harmful chemicals that affect our family’s health, water and wildlife. In this section you will learn how to landscape in ways that help, rather than harm streams.

Pesticides can be fatal to important pollinators – Oregon.gov
Pesticides can be fatal to important pollinators - Oregon.gov

Stream Smart ways to fertilize and fight weeds and pests safely

Keep these three themes in mind for Stream Smart use of lawn and garden chemicals, including fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

BUY – THINK BEFORE YOU BUY

USE – USE ONLY WHAT YOU NEED

DISPOSE – NEVER DOWN THE DRAIN

BUY

Toxic chemicals can expose children and pets to health risks – RVCOG
Toxic chemicals can expose children and pets to health risks - RVCOG

Walking into the garden center can be bit overwhelming with potting mixes, fertilizers, soil conditioners, pesticides, and amendments stacked from floor to ceiling. The trick to a Stream Smart garden is to find out what your garden needs prior to buying any chemicals.

Think Before You Buy =

  1. Identify the Problem and Know Your Options to Fixing it
  2. Get a Soils Test and Find Out What Your Plants Need
  3. Understand what products you are Buying
  4. Use Natural Products and Fertilizers
  5. Plan Your Landscape to Require less Nitrogen and Water

  1. Identify the Garden Problem and Know Your Options to Fixing it
    • Free resources are available to help identify your pest and to learn the most effective methods to control it. OSU Extension Master Gardeners provide free plant clinics to help identify pest problems. Your local Conservation District may also have resources available, and do not forget to check your local library for reference books, such as insect field guides or gardening books.
    • Once you understand the problem, knowing your options is the key to solving the issue without simply nuking the site. Methods available to you include pest prevention, non-chemical pest controls, and chemical pesticides. A great resource to start with is the Grow Smart Grow Safe page made possible in part by Oregon Metro. Additional resources are listed at the bottom of the page.
    • Sometimes a non-chemical method of control is as effective and convenient as a chemical alternative. Whether it’s a pest in your garden, a weed, or a sickly plant, knowing the root of the problem is key to finding a solution.
    • Learn to identify and encourage beneficial insects in your garden. Often an insect problem can be addressed without chemicals, simply by adding a beneficial insect back into the ecosystem.

  2. Get a Soils Test
    • Before purchasing chemical products, test your soil to determine what your lawn and garden actually needs.
    • A simple test kit from the garden store can give you an idea of what (if anything) is lacking. Nitrogen is the most likely nutrient to be missing from your soil. In many cases, other essential nutrients will already be present in your soil.
    • For a more complete soils test contact an analytical lab. The local Extension Service or the Conservation District can provide resources on how to collect samples and have them professionally analyzed. Visit the bottom of the page for links related to Soil Testing.

  3. Understand What you are Buying
    • Buy the right product, and only the amount you need.
    • All fertilizer labels have three bold numbers. These three numbers represent the primary nutrients nitrogen (N) phosphate (P) and potash/ potassium (K). This label, known as the fertilizer grade, is a national standard. A bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer contains 10 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphate and 10 percent potash. You can determine the best mix based on your soil’s test report.
    • Apply the correct amount. Look close at how much to apply and when to apply it. Follow the directions precisely.
    • Avoid weed and feed-types of fertilizers. These contain harmful chemicals that wash off your lawn or garden when it rains, polluting aquifers and streams, while causing harm to people, wildlife, and fish. Most consumers don’t realize that there are herbicides hidden in many common fertilizers, like the “weed” part of weed and feed products.
    • Look closer at the ingredients. Some mixes have nitrates or ammonium fertilizers with the nitrate form of nitrogen. These are fast acting but can be easily leached off in the water become storm water pollution. Phosphorus can show up on labels as phosphate or phosphoric acid it is important that this is added near the plants and mixed into the soil so it does not simply wash away. Phosphorus is a major storm water pollutant as it can encourage algal blooms that deplete oxygen out of the water killing fish.

  4. Consider alternatives
    • Compost and adding simple organic soil amendments may be all that is needed for getting the nutrients your plants need, and can often allow you to skip the chemicals all together.
    • Learn about products. See the Grow Smart Grow Safe guide for a list of 600 pest controls and fertilizers ranked from lowest to highest hazard for people, pets and the planet. This consumer guide is also packed with expert tips for the most effective, least toxic lawn and garden care.
    • Look for natural yard products in garden stores, like neem oil, insecticidal soap, or industrial vinegar, which even kills blackberries!
    • Learn tricks of the trade like hand-pulling weeds after it rains, sheet mulching, and planting exposed soil to prevent new weeds from taking root.
    • In gardens, practice companion planting with certain plants close together; it can help fight diseases, control pests, or improve the soil.
    • Reduce your Turf. Like it or not, lawns require a lot of nutrients. If you want to cut back, reducing you amount of turf is the first place to start.
    • See Lawn & Garden page for more information.

  5. Plan your landscape to need less nitrogen and water.
    • Growing native plants is a great way to lower your pesticide and fertilizer use as these plants are adapted to the region and will have fewer natural pests.
    • See Water Conservation page for more information.
    • Attend a natural gardening workshop. Nature Centers, the Jackson SWCD, and Oregon State University Extension Service offer free classes to help you grow healthier plants while reducing the use of chemicals in your garden.
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USE

Harmful pesticides and herbicides can find their way to creeks – Oregon Tilth
Harmful pesticides and herbicides can find their way to creeks - Oregon Tilth

Using lawn products incorrectly can damage the environment and cause dangerous chemicals to enter Oregon’s streams and rivers.

  1. Read the label carefully, and follow directions exactly. The pesticide label is your guide to using pesticides safely and effectively. By their nature, many pesticides may pose some risk to humans, animals. Click here for help with understanding pesticide labels.
  2. Apply only what your lawn and garden needs. Over application can kill beneficial soil microbes and insects.

    • Using only what your plants need, saves you money and prevents excess from running off into creeks.
    • Use the results from your soil’s test and advice from consultation with local experts to guide if and when you should apply chemicals.
    • Consult the folks at the garden store for safe options for applying fertilizer. For example, you might consider using a drop spreader or rotary spreader with a side guard to keep fertilizer on the grass.
  3. Time the Application.

    • The best time to feed your lawn is in spring and fall when the grass is actively growing.
    • Avoid applying chemicals just before a storm to prevent stormwater from carrying those chemicals into creeks.

DISPOSE

Toxic chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers are more common than you might think – Oregon.gov
Toxic chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers are more common than you might think - Oregon.gov

Lawn care products can help our lawn and gardens look great, but these products can also harm our water bodies if they are not disposed of properly. Never dump leftover products down the drain, they will be carried directly to creeks, and do not throw them in the trash.

  1. Store leftover chemicals in a safe place until you can dispose of them at a hazardous waste dropoff event.
  2. Or, if you have a small amount of excess chemical, apply to your yard and garden according to the label. Or give leftover products to a neighbor.
  3. Rogue Disposal holds an annual household hazardous waste drop off event. Visit Rogue Disposal’s site for details.
  4. To find out more about products you may have to visit DEQ’s Household Hazardous Waste site, or the Grow Smart Grow Safe Chart of the toxicity of garden products

Resources

Information on Chemical Products
EPA information on Pesticides
EPA’s Citizen’s Guide to Pest control and Pesticide Safety Brochure
EPA Region 10’s Pesticides Program
Grow Smart Grow Safe Chart of the toxicity of garden products
OSU National Pesticide Information Center
OSU Extension Plant Clinic
Soil Testing Guidance
Soil Testing for Home Gardeners

Alternatives to Chemical Use
Grow Smart Grow Safe Handbook– A consumer Guide to Lawn and Garden Products
Alternatives to Pesticides
Natural Gardening guidebook
Beyond Pesticides
Oregon Tilth research for sustainable agricultural practices
Xerces Society- Pollinator Conservation

Fertilizing Guidance
Fertilizing for Hay Production
Fertilizing Your Garden: Vegetables, Fruits, and Ornamentals

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