“When the world wearies… there is always the garden.” -Minnie Aumonier
As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re learning how to slow down and find joy in new hobbies and socially distanced activities.
For many of us, this involves restoring the old, weedy garden or starting one up for the first time. And whether you’ve been gardening for years or you’re a complete newbie, it’s always rewarding to watch your plants grow into fresh ingredients for a home cooked meal.
When you think “home-grown,” you probably think fresh, organic, and clean. But we often forget to treat our plants like what they are — food. This means that yes, food safety principles apply to your home garden. And if we have learned anything from the pandemic, we know to be more cautious when it comes to our health.
Why practice food safety?
Food safety is important in both your kitchen and garden to help prevent foodborne illness. Foodborne illnesses are caused by consuming contaminated foods that contain pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and parasites. And when poor hygiene and unsafe food practices come together on a large scale, an outbreak is inevitable.
Think back to our most recent outbreak in 2019; romaine lettuce grown in Salinas Valley, California, was contaminated by the bacteria E. coli from waste runoff. This resulted in 167 reported cases of infection across 27 states (CDC, 2020), demonstrating how one small incidence of contamination can quickly and easily spread. And even if your garden doesn’t size up to Salinas Valley, food safety principles apply to all foods, all the time.
So, if you are thinking about planting cool season vegetables such as arugula, lettuce, spinach, and kale this fall, you will want to make sure your harvests are safe to eat!
Here are tips for every stage of your gardening journey:
- Structure your garden to keep pests and pets out. You can do this by creating barriers around plants using wiring or mesh. Also, locate your garden away from contamination sources such as septic tanks, garbage bins, areas with pet waste, and water runoff.
- Use soil that has been commercially packaged and labeled for growing food and/or soil that contains fully composted materials. When building raised beds, be sure to use non-toxic materials such as lumber or stone approved for vegetable gardening. Additionally, be sure you have a clean water source designated for the garden and use fertilizer or compost that is safe for growing produce. Learn more about composting by reading the UF/IFAS EDIS publication, Compost Tips for the Home Gardener (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ep323), and the EPA page, Composting At Home (epa.gov/recycle/composting-home). For insects and diseases, apply pesticides and fungicides as a last resort and use the least-toxic products first, following all instructions on the label.
- When it is time to harvest, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling produce and use clean gloves. Avoid working in the garden if you are feeling sick, as your immune system might be working overtime, and always cover any open wounds or cuts before you get to work. Be sure to clean garden equipment and containers before and after you use them and use a dedicated container or clean bag for holding harvested produce. Lastly, check on your plants regularly and remove any rotten fruits or vegetables.
- Refrigerate your harvests unless they are normally stored at room temperature. Always keep fruits and vegetables above and separate from raw meats, fish, seafood, and cooked foods. Wash your harvests only prior to consumption and use clean surfaces, utensils, cutting boards, and cutlery to prepare them for the dinner table.
The take home message is that we should treat our garden harvests just like we’d treat produce from the grocery store. If you practice good hygiene and proper storage and preparation principles, you should have a great fall gardening season.
Nanee Khounphixay is a graduate student and dietetic intern studying Nutrition Science at Florida State University and a volunteer writer for UF/IFAS Extension Leon County, an Equal Opportunity Institution. For gardening questions, email the extension office at [email protected]
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Keep it green and clean: Practice food safety in the garden