Chemicals: Warning! Danger! Caution!

This late blast of summer's heat has put me in a cautionary mood.

Plants have their own ways of keeping cool. Unlike the human response of sweating, plants close their "pores," called stoma, when it gets too hot. This self-protective response also gives plants a droopy look, as if they need water. Don't be fooled by appearances. Plants will shade themselves by curling up, and a wilted look is normal during the hottest weather. So check the soil before you get the hose out.

This closing up also is why you don't ever want to use herbicides or fertilizers in the heat. They will not work, and you've wasted time, money and contributed more chemical pollution for no good end. Regular readers know I'm not a fan of manufactured chemicals in any circumstance. We've gotten really cavalier about them, as if anything we can buy won't hurt us.

On the containers of your garden products are warnings — please read them carefully. I don't want to lose any readers "¦ or their pets. Earlier this summer I saw someone spraying an herbicide on weeds in a large gravel bed. The man's dog was following him around. Not only would the animal be exposed by inhalation or by licking the stuff, but also later, when cleaning off his paws with his tongue. I had to stop and speak to the man, who was grateful and gracious.

Organic gardeners — please don't think you're exempt. Naturally derived chemicals may not be descended from poison-gas weaponry, as are some manufactured pesticides, but they can be just as dangerous.

The three codes on chemical products are: Warning! Danger! Caution! Do you know which one signals you are in the most jeopardy? I can never remember myself, so I went back to my Master Gardener training manual (thank you Oregon State University Extension Service). Caution is the least dangerous, escalating to Warning and then Danger. Every chemical has one of these statements, and should include effects of acute poisoning and the emergency response. This almost always includes calling Poison Control: 1-800-222-1222.

The label also includes safety information — such as the need to wear gloves and eye protection. The eyes apparently are gluttons for poisons and will absorb them from the air. I don't see many people with sprayers using eye protection. In fact, I often see people spraying chemicals on weeds while wearing shorts and sandals. Warning! Toxicity can be a chronic problem, not just an emergency event.

Also on the label is the proper use of the chemical. That is, what it can do and on what plants. This is important because some chemicals are only good for ornamentals, not for food plants. Caution, you may need to wait a certain time period before it is safe to harvest. I can remember blithely "dusting" my bean plants, which were suffering from rust, in my very first garden. I felt quite powerful and in control. Of course I was, but not in the way I wanted to be.

The bees and all the pollinators are hoping you are reading carefully. Some chemicals shouldn't be used on flowering plants because they kill bees. The latest research in the troubling colony collapse disorder emptying our country's bee hives has revealed high toxicity in the combs. It's the bee version of living in a sick building.

Danger! Windy days are bad, too. You don't want to become acquainted with your neighbors because you killed their tree. It happens more often than you think.

One last Warning! Never store your chemicals in unmarked containers. It's asking for trouble. I can't remember what's in my freezer, let alone the contents of a bottle in the garage. Store containers high. Locked down, even. The Poison Center Web site says they're called every 14 seconds.

Let's face it. I don't want you to use chemicals. Keeping your plants well nourished with a healthy living soil is less expensive in the long run. And you may not have a nice son, who weeds for you when he comes for a visit. (Thanks Matt!) But I am certainly hopeful, along with hopeful bees, pets, plants and children, that when you do use chemicals, it's not unnecessarily, improperly or excessively.

Master gardener Althea Godfrey is gardening editor for HomeLife magazine. Reach her at

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