By: Heather Williams
It’s that time of year. You’ve picked out your seeds or 4” plants, mapped out a place to put the garden, and maybe gathered a few tools. You are ready to start your backyard (or container) garden! Before you dream of beautiful heirloom tomatoes and more cucumbers than you know what to do with, take a few minutes to think about some safe gardening practices to minimize risk of foodborne infection. Consider hygiene, safe composting methods, clean water sources, and responsible pesticides.
Wash, Wash, Wash Your Hands
As with any good food safety practice, we cannot start without discussing the most important thing you can do to protect yourself from bacteria and viruses in the environment. Wash your hands! “US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that over 50% of foodborne illnesses are linked to poor hand washing”.
When you are gardening, your hands will inevitably get dirty. The best way to approach hand washing to is first use a nail brush with soap to scrub your fingertips and nails to remove dirt from underneath the nail. Then wet hands with clean, running water and apply soap. Lather soap in hands and be sure to scrub the back of the hands and between fingers. When hands are clean (after a minimum of 30 seconds) rinse under running water. If necessary, wash again with soap once the obvious dirt has been removed. Dry your hands with a clean, single use towel to avoid recontamination.
A great way to start your garden and freshen the soil with needed nutrients is to compost. It is a useful recycling tool with the added benefit of transforming organic waste into nutrient rich fertilizer. You can start with organic materials already in your yard such as leaves and grass trimming as well as organic household waste like fruit and vegetable scraps. Coffee and tea grounds as well as coffee filters and tea bags also contribute well to a compost. Manure is another component some may add to compost. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers animal manure to be a safe compost addition, the risk of E. coli contamination should be considered.
Your garden should have a dedicated long stem thermometer to monitor temperature of the compost. The temperature must reach 130ºF for a minimum of 5 days to kill microorganisms such as E. coli and Salmonella. Turn the compost not more than once per week to ensure proper temperature to decompose materials and only add water if the compost is dry. A good way to identify if it is too dry is to squeeze it in your hands. If you do not see moisture, lightly water the compost. Be sure that compost does not run off into your garden. Keep your compost away and downhill from the garden to ensure compost doesn’t come in contact with your garden before it is ready.
Safe Water Source
The best rule of thumb is do not water your garden with water you wouldn’t drink. If you are using the water to clean your hands, the water should be contaminant free. If you are using it to water your edible plants, the water should be free of harmful microorganisms. The water you use for your garden will be ingested later in some form, so be sure it is safe and clean.
Thinking about using rainwater? Rain water is a great way to conserve resources. However, there are several factors to consider when approaching the rainwater option. If using run-off from a roof, be sure the roof is coated with a safe material and use non-metal drain spouts and gutters. When collecting in rain barrels, the standing water may collect and breed microorganisms harmful to you and your family, so water should be tested and treated before use.
Whatever your water source, unless from a clean and safe, the water should be tested and treated prior to using for hand washing or watering the garden. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), several bacteria and viruses can be transmitted through water. E. coli, Salmonella, Cryptosporidia, Toxoplasma, and Norovirus can all be spread through contaminated water. These harmful microorganisms can end up in your food and risk the health of you and your family.
Responsible Pesticide Use
If you are considering pesticides, do careful research to determine your pesticide needs and balance with the risk of the chemicals used. Natural pesticides are the safer option to chemical based pesticides. A quick search will take you to many different simple homemade pesticide options. Explore the ones that are right for the plants that you are growing and the bugs in your area.
Some examples of natural pesticides include:
- Salt Spray – This is used primarily to combat spider mites. Add 2 tablespoons of Himalayan Sea Salt to a gallon of warm water and spray on plants infected with spider mites.
- Onion and Garlic Spray – This general purpose pesticide is made by mincing one clove of organic garlic and one medium sized organic onion. Add the minced mixture to a quart of water. Allow to steep 1 hour and then add a teaspoon of cayenne pepper and a teaspoon of liquid soap. You can store Onion and Garlic Spray for up to a week in the refrigerator before you have to make another batch.
- Eucalyptus Oil – To ward off flies, bees, and wasps sprinkle a few drops of eucalyptus oil around where you have seen the pests and where you want them to avoid.
- Soap and Orange Oil Spray – This spray is effective against slugs, ants, and roaches. Mix three tablespoons liquid Castile soap and one ounce orange oil in a gallon of water. Shake well and spray.
- Cayenne Pepper and Citrus Oil Spray – This spray is affective on ants. Mix 10 drops of citrus oil and one teaspoon with 1 cup of warm water. Shake well and spray.
- Mineral Oil – This spray is effective in dehydrating insects and insect eggs. Mix 10 to 30ml of high-grade mineral oil in one liter of water. Mix and spray.
If using commercial chemical pesticides, follow all safety and hazard information listed on the packaging. Warnings may include use in a ventilated area, specific dilution requirements, wearing gloves or protective eyewear, and keep out of reach of small children. When harvesting, extra care should be used to wash these chemicals off of the food prior to eating.
Go Forth and Garden!
Armed with safe gardening tips, you are ready to take the next step in controlling some of the food you eat. Enjoy your garden and watching your food grow.