Under control

Garden center customers often lack knowledge on how to combat plant pest and disease issues. Here are some common misconceptions and ways IGCs can mitigate the pest problems as well as consumer confusion.


Pesticides, herbicides and other control products are an important aspect of managing a healthy garden, but many consumers lack the knowledge to be successful with these products, and often, control products are sequestered to the back of independent garden centers, with very few instructions and little signage. There are also misconceptions about control products that can be detrimental to gardens, discouraging homeowners who may be struggling with pest and disease issues.

“I’ve been a horticulture consultant here in our diagnostic lab for 16-plus years now, and pesticide use at the consumer level varies considerably,” says Alice Raimondo, horticulture consultant at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. “There are many folks who can tolerate spots on leaves or some caterpillar injury and a few weeds in the lawn, as they avoid usage of all pesticides in their yard. Some folks will ask for the best, least toxic material to manage a pest, or how to mitigate the problem without applying anything. Some folks want a pristine yard and have zero tolerance of unwanted species.”

It’s important that garden centers serve the various needs of these many types of customers, who may otherwise become frustrated when their gardens are under attack and they don’t know how to defend their plants.

“Treating too late (or just taking one stab at treatment) can make gardeners feel like failures, because their plant doesn’t spring back to life for them,” says Margery Daughtrey, a plant pathologist specializing in ornamentals at Cornell’s Long Island Horticultural Research & Extension Center. “Gardeners who feel ineffective can quit trying, and walk away from the wonderful world of gardening to take up bowling.”

We checked in with Raimondo and Daughtrey about common misconceptions that consumers have, and discussed suggestions for teaching consumers how to use these products and merchandising them at garden centers.

Easy-to-read labels found in plant areas can be used with control products, too.
Friendly signage draws customers to control products.

Garden Center: How can retailers define “control products” in a way that consumers can understand and that emphasizes their importance?

Margery Daughtrey: A retailer might wish to refer to their “control products” area as a “Plant Protection Station” and stock it with “Plant Protection Materials.” Within this area, I would think they would want to have subsections for “Biocontrols for Plant Protection” and “Chemicals for Plant Protection”. There might even be a reason to have “Organic” as another heading for a section, because some homeowners will want that. The subject is bewildering to many gardeners, so more signs [indicating] “For disease control,” “For insect control” and “Keep deer away” will help.

Alice Raimondo: If you are talking about pesticides, I would prefer to stick with that terminology. Pesticides are important to protect edible crops from injury to improve [customers’] harvest, and are important to protect their investments in the plants. By investments, I mean their time and monetary investments, while hopefully improving the health of their landscapes. When used correctly, this can happen with minimal injury to the applicator, the plant or non-target species. The “used correctly” statement is the most important statement, as I believe the pesticide label needs to be better understood and actually read by both the consumer and the garden center who may be selling or recommending the products.

GC: What are some of the most common misconceptions consumers have about control products, or perhaps even the most detrimental?

MD: Probably one of the most common misconceptions would be that a one-time treatment will fix something for all time. Along with that one, there is the misconception that when a symptom is obvious, it is a good time to treat to prevent it. People sometimes fail to realize that if they were slow to recognize a problem, there may be absolutely no point to treating this year — next year they can watch for early signs of a problem and treat preventively. Or even anticipate a problem and treat beginning a few weeks earlier then when they noticed trouble this year.

AR: I believe that consumers fail to recognize the toxicity of some of the products they apply and may apply them without reading the label, which can potentially cause many issues.

GC: Why can that be a problem for consumers (and retailers), and how can garden centers provide information to prevent that misconception/misuse?

MD: A staff person acting as a “plant doctor” is an ideal way for a garden center to provide good counsel to gardeners who bring in samples (or photos) of their ailing plants.

AR: If labels aren’t read or understood, then [customers] potentially injure the very thing they are trying to protect or cure. Non-target species might be killed, not to mention injury to themselves or lack of pest or disease management if the application is not correct, such as wrong product for the problem, wrong application time, etc. Again, it goes back to [reading] the label.

GC: Although directions are available, consumers often use products incorrectly in terms of how much they apply, where, how often, and when. Is there something retailers can provide for some of these products through signage or staff training, or both?

MD: A little signage wouldn’t hurt, but it should be funny and helpful sounding rather than admonitory, with cartoons rather than just words: “More isn’t better. Follow the label!” or  “Treat smart — Get a diagnosis of your plant problem at your cooperative extension office.” Or they could advertise weekend plant problem ID classes by their (trained) staff at their garden center.

Choosing the right product for your needs requires a lot of browsing and time, even for an experienced gardener. Retailers can help by providing good lighting, and how about a magnifying glass for reading the small print? And how about taking the top 10 garden problems, and making one sheet for each, listing the “solutions” your store carries under each of the problems? This could be in a notebook, and could really help the customer when there isn’t a staff person handy.

AR: A consumer looking for a product to manage a pest hopefully reads labels. If not, the garden center staff should help them by reading labels and perhaps have more conversations with consumers regarding the issue at hand to determine the best course of action. For instance, is a moss killer applied to a shady lawn really going to get rid of the moss in the long run? Maybe suggest the consumer contact their cooperative extension office for advice first to determine the actual problem if the garden center staff isn’t sure rather than being product oriented — test, don’t guess.

GC: “Organic” is top of mind for many consumers. How can garden centers cater to these customers with their product assortment and signage?

MD: They can put tools for organic gardening in one place. Bags of compost/mulch could be piled in this area, [as well as] books on how to garden organically, birdhouses, and pollinator-attracting plants.

AR: Organic is also a misunderstood term. Organic is related to or obtained from living things; [i.e.] carbon containing. I think people think of “organic” as “safe” and use these terms interchangeably, and organic pesticides [can] have greater toxicity to non-target species. Again, it comes down to the understanding of the label and the intended use. I also think that “organic,” to many consumers, means “pesticide-free,” which isn’t the case. There are organic pesticides that are allowed in organic farming or organic vegetable production. Maybe instead of stressing the word “organic,” a better term would be “less toxic?”

GC: Do you have suggestions when it comes to merchandising control products?

MD: They are often on shelves in the back, as if the business is ashamed to offer them. The back is okay, but a sign saying “Plant Protection Station” and some big photos showing tomato hornworms, leaf spots, potato beetles or such things would be a reminder of what the Plant Protection Station is all about. Having someone in that area to help the customers at least one day a week would be a good idea, too.

AR: Maybe they could be arranged according to category, [i.e.] weeds, disease, insects, deer, etc., similar to how a drugstore might have their over-the-counter medicines arranged by cold/flu, pain relievers, and antacids/gas.

I was also thinking maybe some products could be sold near the plants or seeds. This is pretty common with lawn seeds and fertilizers and lime being right next to lawn insecticides and fungicides, but why not have insecticidal soaps near the vegetable plants or annuals?

GC: Is there anything else I didn’t ask that is important to mention on this topic?

AR: Garden centers can help create better educated consumers by first reaching out to their local cooperative extension office to see if training for their staff is available. Better trained staff at the garden center will provide better advice to consumers, who ultimately make better decisions.

May 2018
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