Guide to Using Pesticides in Your Lawn

Pesticide application sign in lawn

When your lawn suffers from weeds, fungi, insects, rodents, or arachnids, pesticides can offer an effective control solution. But lawn pesticides also can be useless (and dangerous) if misapplied. From finding the right pesticide to keeping your family and pets safe from hazardous chemicals, our guide to using pesticides in your lawn covers all corners of the yard.  

In some cases, pesticides might not be suitable for the job. For example, a few pests in the grass might not warrant a pesticide treatment, but there are pesticide-free ways you can protect your lawn from future invasions. 

What is a pesticide?

A pesticide is any substance or mixture that prevents, destroys, or repels pests. There are many different types of pesticides, including insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, and acaricides.   

How do you decide whether you should use a pesticide?

Pesticides aren’t always the best solution for a pest problem. But sometimes, they’re the only control method that will wipe out your pest problem for good. 

So how do you know whether to use pesticides on your lawn? Here are a few factors to consider before making your decision: 

  • Risk factors: Improper use of pesticides can negatively affect human health, endanger pets and other non-target animals, and harm the environment. If you want to minimize these hazards, but pesticides seem like your only option, consider an organic pesticide. 
  • The severity of the infestation: If you’re battling a severe pest invasion that’s beyond your control, pesticides can prove helpful. For example, it might be too tiring to manually remove an army of dandelions
  • The danger of the pest: Some outdoor pests are a danger to human health, such as mosquitoes and ticks. If their infestation is so severe that pesticide alternatives don’t work, you might want to consider using a pesticide. 
  • When pesticide alternatives aren’t enough: Pesticide-free methods, such as integrated pest management, aren’t always enough to get rid of pests. If that’s the case, a pesticide might nip the problem in the bud. 
  • Your tolerance: If you’re persistent with your pesticide alternatives and a few remaining weeds or caterpillars don’t frazzle you, you might not need pesticides. But if you’re determined to achieve a pristine lawn with no sign of pests, pesticides can help you get there. 

How do you choose the right pesticide?

Determine pesticide type

When choosing a pesticide for your lawn, determine what kind of pest you need to exterminate. For example, is it an insect or a rodent? Different types of pests require different pesticides. The following are the most common types of pesticides: 

  • Insecticide (kills insects)
  • Fungicide (kills fungi)
  • Herbicide (kills weeds)
  • Rodenticide (kills rodents)
  • Acaricide (kills arachnids

Identify pest

Once you’ve determined the type of pest you’re dealing with (such as an insect, fungus, or weed), you need to correctly identify the pest. Various pesticides are intended for specific types of pest control, such as mosquito control, scorpion control, or dandelion control. 

For example, a herbicide labeled for nutsedge control won’t offer effective dandelion control. If you misidentify the pest, you risk using a pesticide that won’t be effective. Always check the product label to determine what pest the pesticide targets. 

Organic vs. inorganic pesticides

Pesticides fall into one of two categories: Organic and inorganic. Inorganic pesticides contain synthetic chemicals made in a laboratory. Organic pesticides contain chemicals that exist naturally in nature. You must handle both organic and inorganic pesticides with care

So what’s the difference between the two, and which is best for your lawn?

Inorganic pest controlOrganic pest control
Typically cost less than organic pesticidesMore expensive than synthetic options
Often have a straightforward application process Often require careful timing and special handling
Offer longer periods of protection than organic pest controlBreak down in the environment faster, which means they offer shorter periods of protection 
Usually treat a pest problem faster than organic pesticidesTake longer to control a pest problem (reapplications may be necessary)
Have a long shelf-life Time-sensitive and usually don’t last as long
Don’t break down in the environment, which means they can contaminate runoff, ecosystems, and the local water supplyBreak down in the environment, making them more eco-friendly than most inorganic pesticides
Often less selective, meaning they might kill the target pest along with beneficial insects Allow the user to be more selective with which pest they target

Ready-to-use and measure-and-dilute pesticides

Read the application instructions before you add a pesticide to your shopping cart. Here’s why: 

Some pesticides come as ready-to-use products, which means there’s nothing you need to do to prepare the pesticides. On the other hand, some pesticides require accurate measuring and dilution in water. So, if you have a strong preference for ready-to-use pesticides, keep your eyes open for it. 

How do you apply pesticides? 

You must always handle pesticides with caution. Applying pesticides in a manner that doesn’t follow the label’s directions and precautions is illegal. The pesticide also might be ineffective or dangerous. 

So how can you apply pesticides in the safest way possible? Here’s what you need to know: 

Always read the instructions

The golden rule of pesticide application is always to read and follow the instructions listed on the product label. Not every pesticide is applied the same way, so you can never assume the application details. 

Pesticide instructions will often explain the best time of year to apply the pesticide, how much to use at once, and how to prepare the pesticide. For example, some pesticides must be diluted with water while others are ready-to-use. 

Improper use of pesticides can put yourself and others at risk. For example, if you don’t apply rodenticide in a safe location like the directions instruct, children might find the bait and think it’s candy. These chemicals poison over 10,000 children across the U.S. every year. 

Wear safety gear

Pesticides are harsh chemicals, and you don’t want to breathe them in or get them on your skin or in your eyes. Always wear the appropriate safety gear when applying pesticides, which includes: 

  • Chemical-resistant long-sleeved shirts 
  • Chemical-resistant plants
  • Nonabsorbent gloves
  • Rubber footwear (closed-toe shoes)
  • Goggles
  • Chemical-resistant hood or wide-brimmed hat
  • Dust/mist respirator 

Take note: Some product labels may require additional safety gear. 

Measure accurately 

Many pesticide products require preparation and mixing of chemicals, especially if you’re using a compressed air sprayer

If you mis-measure your pesticides and don’t follow directions, your pesticide solution might prove ineffective or harmful to the environment. Mix your pesticides outdoors and never handle pesticides in the kitchen or a high-traffic area. 

Remember: Never use your pesticide mixing equipment (such as spoons or measuring cups) to prepare food, even if you wash them. Label your mixing materials for pesticide use and keep them away from the kitchen. You don’t want someone to accidentally stir their cereal with the same spoon you used to measure pesticides. 

Bring children, pets, and toys indoors

Pesticide exposure is harmful to children and pets. Before you apply pesticides, send the kids and pets indoors and put their toys away, squeaky toys and all. 

Close all windows and doors

You don’t want pesticide mist and dust getting into your home. Close all windows and doors before you start spraying pesticides on the lawn. 

No food or drinks allowed

As tempting as it might be to grab a snack while you work, don’t do it. Eating food or drinking liquids as you handle pesticides may lead to harmful exposure or poisoning. 

Understand signal words

Some pesticides are more dangerous than others. Check for the following signal words so you’re aware of how poisonous the pesticide is to humans: 

  • DANGER appears on very poisonous, irritating, or corrosive pesticides
  • WARNING appears on moderately poisonous pesticides
  • CAUTION appears on the least hazardous pesticides

Clean up spills

It’s best to avoid a pesticide spill as much as you can, but accidents happen. Have a dry, absorbent material nearby before you begin handling the pesticide, such as kitty litter (preferable), sawdust, paper towels, or newspaper. 

The Clemson Cooperative Extension recommends the following for cleaning up pesticide spills

  • Keep children and pets away from the spill.
  • Cover the pesticide with absorbent material to prevent the spill from spreading. Do not wash the spill with water. 
  • Carefully collect or sweep up the absorbent material and put it in a heavy-duty plastic bag. Remember to wear rubber gloves to protect yourself. 
  • Clean the area with heavy-duty detergent or bleach (remember, bleach can be hazardous). Use only the amount you need to cover the spill. Do not wash down with water. 
  • Cover the area with the absorbent material again and then collect it into a heavy-duty plastic bag. 
  • Seal the cleanup materials (including the broom) in a heavy-duty plastic bag and dispose of them as directed on the product label. 

Wash clothes and hands

After applying the pesticides and storing them away safely, it’s time to wash your hands, shower, and clean your protective gear. Wash your protective clothing in a separate load of laundry. 

How should you store pesticides?

Safe pesticide storage is just as necessary as safe application. If you don’t store it properly, you put children and pets at risk of poisoning. Here’s what to do: 

  • Read and follow the product’s instructions for safe storage.
  • Store pesticides away from food, animal feed, and medical supplies. 
  • Keep pesticides out of reach of children. Lock pesticides in a cabinet or garden shed. 
  • Keep pesticides in their original containers. Do not transfer pesticides to a different container; otherwise, children might mistake the pesticide for something they can eat or drink.
  • Do not remove labels from the container. 
  • Do not store pesticides in areas where they might spill and leak into wells, groundwater, drains, or bodies of water. 
  • Do not store pesticides where flooding is possible.
  • Store flammable liquids away from an ignition source, such as a car, lawn mower, or furnace. 

How should you dispose of pesticides?

So, you have some leftover pesticides you need to get rid of? Well, you can’t toss it in your household trash or pour it down a drain (that would be unsafe). But here’s what you can do: 

  • Read and follow the product’s instructions for safe disposal, even if you’re familiar with the product. 
  • The best way to dispose of excess pesticides is to use them according to the label instructions. If you can’t put them to good use, ask your neighbors if they can use them. 
  • Do not pour pesticides down the sink or into the toilet. 
  • An empty pesticide container is still a hazard because of the residue inside. Never reuse an empty pesticide container. When the container is empty, seal it shut and place it in the trash.  
  • Check with your local solid waste agency or health department to learn more about your area’s household hazardous waste collection programs. 

What is a pesticide-free solution?

Here’s the thing about pesticides: You want to use them as a last resort, especially synthetic pesticides. Synthetic pesticides can put you, your family, and the environment at risk. And while organic pesticides are usually more eco-friendly, some can still be hazardous. 

In many cases, homeowners often use outdoor pesticides as a bandage for an underlying problem. Pests are usually attracted to poorly maintained yards or yards suffering from another ailment. Solving the root of the issue will often help prevent pests in the future, which can often be done without pesticides. 

The best way to protect your yard without pesticides is to practice integrated pest management

Integrated pest management

Integrated pest management (IPM) is a long-term approach that prevents pests through various techniques, such as biological control, modified cultural practices, and habitat manipulation. IPM prioritizes the health and safety of humans, non-target animals, and the environment and only resorts to pesticides when absolutely necessary. 

So how can you put IPM into practice? Here are some examples: 

  • Practice good lawn care. An unhealthy lawn is more vulnerable to pest invasions than a healthy lawn. Improving your lawn care also will help relieve the ailment that’s likely attracting pests in the first place.
  • Remove the pest’s food sources. This might look like sealing your compost bin, closing your outdoor garbage cans, or cleaning your outdoor dining area. 
  • Remove the pest’s water sources, such as bird baths, empty flower pots, or empty buckets. 
  • Remove the pest’s habitat. Habitats might include dense vegetation, woodpiles, rock piles, autumn leaves, or thick thatch
  • Remove stagnant water (mosquitoes lay their eggs in stagnant water). This means cleaning your gutters regularly and adding a fountain or waterfall to your stagnant pond garden. 
  • Exclude vulnerable areas. Building a fence around your yard or garden can help keep out larger pests.
  • Implement biological control. Introducing a pest’s natural enemy can help keep them at bay. For example, chickens can help control grubs, and beneficial nematodes can help control Japanese beetle grubs.

DIY pest control vs. hiring a professional

Whether practicing IPM or applying pesticides, DIY pest control is a viable solution for many homeowners. If your yard suffers from a particular pest, you can usually find the pest-specific pesticide available in stores. 

Hiring a professional pest control company might be ideal if: 

  • You’re uncomfortable applying or storing toxic chemicals. Ask a professional for help, as they are trained to use pesticides in the safest way possible. 
  • Despite your best efforts, the pest keeps returning to your yard. A pest control professional can keep out a pest for good so that you can lower your long-term use of pesticides. 
  • The pest infestation is severe. Save yourself time, money, and stress by hiring a pro to do the job for you. 

Remember to practice good lawn care

Don’t underestimate the power of a healthy lawn. Pests are often attracted to poorly maintained lawns with tall grass, thick thatch, and plant debris. Autumn leaves on the ground might introduce fungal diseases, and chiggers are attracted to overgrown grass. 

But why let pests rule your weekends? Instead of mowing and fertilizing, spend your free time doing what matters most. Hire a local lawn care professional to do the hard work for you so that you can keep pests out of sight, out of mind. 

Main Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell is a freelance writer and actor in New York City. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia and enjoys a warm cup of French press coffee.