Pesticide is a broad term to describe compounds that kill many categories of unwanted things.

A couple of decades ago when my son was barely of legal driving age, he announced his desire and intent to learn and earn a motorcycle endorsement and get a bike. A normal parental perspective considers the fact that it is generally the motorcycle operator that is most at risk of harm; I avoided the fear-based response and agreed that we would train and test together. He was, after all, a great student, hard worker (had a part-time job at age fourteen bagging groceries), kind and considerate all-around good kid. And I, admittedly, had a latent craving to ride the open road. We attended the day and a half motorcycle safety school consisting of classroom instruction, off-road training on bikes, and rigorous testing of demonstrable skills – safe signaling and braking, maneuvering obstacles, and more. It struck me as a rather expensive and robust process for the level of risk to others, but we both earned the right to enjoy the privilege. We co-purchased a Kawasaki Ninja 650r and many years of safe driving have ensued.

This week at our New Hanover County center of N.C. Cooperative Extension, located at the Arboretum, we worked with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in a different kind of training and testing, licensing for pesticide applicators. Our classroom instruction is relegated to virtual zoom presentations due to COVID-19 restrictions, and the multiple-choice written testing takes place with small groups socially distanced in multiple sessions. As an instructor for the Turf and Ornamental category, I emphasize the importance of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a combination of strategies to control something unwanted, aka “pest.” The very first step in IPM is to identify the pest; know what you’re dealing with and trying to control, determine an acceptable threshold of damage. The very last option would be to apply a pesticide.

Used in compound words, “-cide” is borrowed from Latin, meaning killer. Pesticide is a broad term to describe compounds that kill many categories of unwanted things. Herbicide kills herbaceous things (plants), miticide kills mites, insecticide kills insects, nematicide kills nematodes, and so forth. A licensed pesticide applicator has a responsibility to use these killing compounds as last resort and only according to the label.

IPM teaches alternative methods first. Cultural considerations would be things like avoiding excess Nitrogen fertilizer that encourages chinch bugs to attack St. Augustine grass. Dollar weed is an indicator of wet soils; either back off on the irrigation or learn to love the watercress relative as an alternative lawn plant. Mechanical controls can be as simple as bending over to pull a weed, or pruning out a blighted section of a shrub followed by sterilization of the cutting blade. Biological strategies can include a “wait and see” approach; aphids are eventually ladybug food. Crabgrass is a summer annual weed; it will die when the weather cools. Focusing on these integrated strategies can reduce the costs and environmental risks potentially associated with pesticides.

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I do wish the testing for applicator licensing was as robust as the aforementioned motorcycle endorsement regimen: examining for good math skills for calculating and measuring, demonstrating proper methods for mixing and applying, and sharing thought processes to show good judgment regarding weather conditions. But, for now, I am pleased that the training attendees were attentive, eager green industry professionals, serving in the commercial horticulture arena with jobs and companies ranging from landscape maintenance of commercial, residential and municipal properties to golf course care. Their expertise for safe and thoughtful pesticide application is critical for protection of our ecosystems. And after teaching in that three-hour Zoom session, I’m ready for the open road…

Lloyd Singleton is director of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Center for New Hanover County, located at the Arboretum, 6206 Oleander Drive. Reach him at [email protected] or 910-798-7660. The Arboretum is free and open every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.