Improper use of herbicides around yards and gardens can have legal consequences

Gardening columnist Don Kinzler says the products that aid in controlling weeds can also cause unintended harm — sometimes putting the user in legal jeopardy.

Herbicides, if used improperly, can cause serious damage to lawns, vegetable gardens, trees and landscape plants.
David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — My email inbox is usually upbeat. Sure, there are questions about yellow, chlorotic maples and tomatoes with blossom end rot, but nothing is as disheartening as hearing of herbicide misuse that’s ruined vegetable gardens, trees, or other non-target plants.

Every summer I receive photos of vegetable plants, trees and shrubs with gnarled, twisted, cupped and distorted stems and leaves, which are classic symptoms of plants damaged from improper use of weed-killing chemicals. It’s sad, because exposure to herbicides usually renders vegetables inedible, and trees, shrubs and perennial flowers can be permanently damaged.

Because problems caused by improper use of herbicides are unfortunately common, I'm collaborating with North Dakota State University Extension Pesticide Program Specialist Andrew Thostenson to create awareness and provide education. Thostenson has provided me with resources and recommendations in this column to help address this herbicide situation.

In our lawns and gardens, many weeds can be controlled by pulling, digging, hoeing or cultivating. But some types, especially hard-to-kill weeds and invasive species, can defy our best efforts, and chemical control can be an option in preventing aggressive weeds from overtaking our beneficial plants. Herbicides can include both organic-type products such as vinegar, or synthetic compounds like 2,4-D or glyphosate.

Unfortunately, the products that aid in controlling weeds can also cause unintended harm, sometimes with the user in legal jeopardy through carelessness or misuse of these compounds. September is a recommended month for controlling perennial weeds, and it's a great opportunity to remind ourselves of safe and appropriate herbicide use.


The following are definitions, recommendations and common problematic situations.

  • It’s important to understand that an herbicide is defined as a substance that is toxic to plants, normally used to destroy unwanted vegetation. These substances can be naturally occurring or human-made.
  • The label on herbicide products is a legal document and failing to follow directions or using the product in a way not consistent with the label can have legal consequences. The person applying herbicides that cause damage to the trees, gardens or landscapes of others can be held liable for damages.
  • A common way vegetable gardens or flower beds are damaged is by herbicides drifting from lawns or farm fields. Wind or breeze can carry the chemicals, or warm temperatures can cause the products to volatilize and move outside the intended area.
  • Trees can be damaged when herbicides drift onto the foliage, but also by the ability of some products to move downward through the soil and enter tree root systems.
  • Collateral damage frequently occurs when farm-type herbicides are inappropriately applied to lawns. The labels of common agricultural herbicides like Stinger, Milestone and Curtail specifically state they are not to be applied to lawns. Applying these products to lawns, either rural or in-town, is not only illegal, but can have dangerous consequences.
    By safely following all label directions, herbicides can be an effective option for controlling hard-to-kill weeds.
    David Samson / The Forum
  • When using herbicides, measure and mix both the product and water amounts precisely. Never add more product than directed.
  • Never store herbicides in jars, bottles or containers other than the original, and be sure the label stays intact. Don’t share herbicides with others by pouring the material into non-original containers.
  • Follow label directions for spraying on calm days and during appropriate temperatures.
  • Herbicides can cause damage in unsuspecting ways. Clippings from lawns treated with persistent chemicals can harm gardens when used as mulch, and some herbicides can persist in compost made from clippings of treated lawns.
  • Some herbicides applied to pastures can pass through cattle and horses, tainting manure that might be added to gardens or flower beds.
  • Vegetables from gardens damaged by herbicides are considered unsafe to eat.
  • Trees that suffer herbicide injury are more prone to winterkill, and insect and disease infestations.
Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at
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