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Synthetic and Organic Chemicals

Learn the differences between synthetic and organic chemicals.

Wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, gloves and perhaps even a mask when using synthetic or organic chemicals.

There’s a popular and potentially dangerous misconception within the world of gardening, and it has to do with chemicals, says Gardening by the Yard host Paul James.

Millions of gardeners distinguish between synthetic and natural products by calling the former chemicals and the latter organics. The truth is they're all chemicals.

The difference is that synthetic chemicals are man-made, whereas organic chemicals are derived from natural sources. As a result, most people think that all synthetic chemicals are toxic, and all organic chemicals are safe. "But I'm here to tell you, that’s not necessarily so," he says. "And to suggest otherwise is downright ridiculous and irresponsible."

In fact, there are organic chemicals that are every bit as dangerous as synthetic chemicals, yet people who use them assume – often incorrectly – that because something is labeled organic it must therefore be safe.

Here are Paul's tips for using chemicals of all kinds safely:

  • Regardless of which type of chemical you choose to use, make sure you read the product label carefully and follow the instructions. Don't assume that if two tablespoons per gallon is called for, then four tablespoons must be twice as good. It doesn’t work that way, and the results of using such a mixture can be dangerous to you and your plants.
  • Don't combine chemicals. In other words, don't mix an insecticide with an herbicide in an attempt to destroy both insects and weeds in one fell swoop. Certain chemical combinations can be dangerous.
  • Understand what the chemicals do. A number of organic chemicals are just as non-selective or indiscriminate as their synthetic counterparts. For example, Bacillus thuringiensis, or BT, the popular bacterial pesticide that controls caterpillars, doesn't distinguish between the larval form of the destructive cabbage looper and the monarch butterfly. It kills them both. The same is true of garlic oil, a popular organic insecticide that is equally effective against both pests and beneficial insects.
  • Whether you use synthetic or organic chemicals in your landscape, take physical precautions. Wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, gloves, and perhaps even a mask. And when you've finished spraying or dusting, wash your hands thoroughly.

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