Use your food safety brain when planning your vegetable garden

By By Diane Wright Hirsch - Extension Educator/Food Safety
Featured Article - posted Wed., Mar. 28, 2012
- Contributed Photo

While looking at seed catalogues and visiting the garden center, it is good to stretch our garden brains a bit and think about applying some food safety principles as we plan and prepare the vegetable garden for planting. First, consider the location of your garden. We usually make decisions about garden location based on sun exposure, soil type and moisture and convenience. Our food safety brain should tell us to locate vegetable gardens away from manure piles, well caps, garbage cans and septic systems.

Next, your food safety brain should learn the right way to compost - especially if it is to be used on food crops. Compost is the natural breakdown product of leaves, stems, manures and other organic materials. The microorganisms that cause food-borne illness can be found in decaying organic matter. A well-managed compost pile can generate enough heat (no less than 130°F) to destroy pathogens. Your compost pile must be at least 27 cubic feet to make this much heat. If your compost pile is small, or, if you do not manage it properly, pathogens can survive.

The best way to know if your compost is getting hot enough to kill pathogens is to check the temperature with a compost thermometer. You can buy one at a garden supply store. If you are unable to turn and manage it regularly, then treat your compost like uncomposted manure and spread it in the garden late in the fall.

Protect your garden from wild animals and household pets. Most bacteria and parasites that make people sick come from animal (and human) waste. During the growing and harvesting season, keep cats, dogs and other pets out of the garden. This means keeping a watchful eye to make sure that they don’t decide to use the vegetable garden as a litter box. Wild animals can be a bigger problem.

Do not allow piles of decaying plant matter to collect in the garden (unless it is in the compost bin). Eliminate nesting and hiding places for rats and mice by minimizing vegetation at the edges. Do not feed wild animals, even birds, near your garden. If necessary, invest in some effective fencing.

Finally, think about your water source. Whether you use a garden hose, a watering can or a drip irrigation system, your water source could contaminate your garden produce with pathogens. To prevent this from happening, be familiar with the quality and safety of the water source(s) you use in your garden. Public water supplies are potable (safe to drink) and considered the safest source for the garden. Ground water (which is the source for well water) is less likely to have microbial contaminants than surface water. However, if a well is your water source, be sure that it is providing you with safe, clean water. If you have a well, it makes sense to test your well water annually. For more information on water testing contact your Cooperative Extension water quality program or the town, district or state health department.

Pathogens are more likely to be found in surface water (lakes, ponds, rivers and streams). These water sources are non-potable. Surface water can be polluted by human sewage or animal waste, fertilizers and pesticides from lawns and farm fields, or chemicals from industry. If you use surface water to water your garden, it would be best to use drip irrigation and to try not to use it a week or two before harvest.

Many folks have been using rain barrels in recent years as a way to conserve precious water resources. A food safety brain will tell you to be careful and treat this non-potable water like surface water. It is not treated; it does not get cleaned as it percolates through soil and rock; it can be contaminated with pathogens from roof-dwelling birds or other creatures - or possibly chemicals that may exist in roofing.

No matter what the source of your water is, learn about backflow prevention - in order to keep potable water potable. Backflow occurs when contaminated water gets drawn into or flows back into a clean water supply. This can happen when you fill pesticide sprayers or other chemical containers using a hose attached to an outside faucet. A hose sitting in water mixed with chemicals can lead to contamination of a clean water source. (If there is a change in water pressure, this contaminated water can be “sucked” back into the potable water supply.) Backflow devices prevent these chemicals from being drawn into the household water supply if there is a drop in water pressure. You can purchase a “hose bib” backflow prevention device at your local hardware or plumbing supply store. It is best to use backflow prevention devices on all outside faucets with hose connections. You might want to consider contacting a plumber to install a backflow prevention device in your outside faucets. Some towns may have building codes that require these.

For more information on food-safe gardening, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at, call 877-486-6271, or visit your local Cooperative Extension Center for more information. Much of this information is from “Garden to Table: Five Steps to Food Safe Fruit” and “Vegetable Home Gardening,” prepared by the Universities of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

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