1. We tested three pesticides used for field manipulations of herbivory for direct phytoactive effects on the germination and growth of 14 herbaceous plant species selected to provide a range of life-history strategies and functional groups. 2. We report three companion experiments: (A) Two insecticides, chlorpyrifos (granular soil insecticide) and dimethoate (foliar spray), were applied in fully-factorial combination to pot-germinated individuals of 12 species. (B) The same fully-factorial design was used to test for direct effects on the germination of four herbaceous legumes. (C) The molluscicide, metaldehyde, was tested for direct effects on the germination and growth of six plant species. 3. The insecticides had few significant effects on growth and germination. Dimethoate acted only on growth stimulating Anisantha sterilis, Sonchus asper and Stellaria graminea. In contrast, chlorpyrifos acted on germination increasing the germination of Trifolium dubium and Trifolium pratense. There was also a significant interactive effect of chlorpyrifos and dimethoate on the germination of T. pratense. However, all effects were relatively small in magnitude and explanatory power. The molluscicide had no significant effect on plant germination or growth. 4. The small number and size of direct effects of the pesticides on plant performance is encouraging for the use of these pesticides in manipulative experiments on herbivory, especially for the molluscicide. However, a small number of direct (positive) effects of the insecticides on some plant species need to be taken into account when interpreting field manipulations of herbivory with these compounds, and emphasises the importance of conducting tests for direct phyto-active effects.