The recent outbreak of E. coli from contaminated romaine lettuce is another reason why vegetable gardeners plant and grow their own lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens. But just like farmers, home gardeners need to work on food safety. The key is to reduce the risk of harmful contamination while growing and harvesting home-grown produce.
Here are some top considerations when it comes to growing a food-safe vegetable garden. Rate your garden’s health with this quiz by answering yes or no:
My garden is in a protected growing site.
It’s important that vegetable gardens are inaccessible to pets and wildlife. Animals shouldn’t be allowed into the garden where they can contaminate soil or vegetable plants. The site should also be protected from contaminated water runoff from rain gutters, streams, compost piles, animal pens and chicken coops, and other areas of possible pollutants.
I’ve built my garden with food-safe building materials.
Make sure no railroad ties, pressure treated lumber or corrosive metals are used to create raised beds for vegetable gardens. Use heavy plastic liners to reduce possible risk from these materials.
I’ve had the garden soil analyzed and use the results.
A soil sample is an important first step to know whether the soil is fertile and free of contaminants like lead. If you’re unsure of your garden soil and its health, take a soil sample and send it to an accredited lab for a comprehensive report.
All the water I use in the vegetable garden is from a safe water source.
Most treated water is safe to use on vegetable gardens; however gardeners should take precautions with other water sources, such as water collected in rain barrels. Best practices for using rainwater in vegetable gardens is to make sure the barrel is cleaned with bleach on a regular basis, that water doesn’t touch the plant’s leaves or fruit and to avoid harvesting right after watering.
I use only food-safe fertilizers in my vegetable garden.
To prevent contamination from fertilizers, use only well-aged manure (6 months or more) or composted manure. Never use fresh manure in the vegetable bed.
I always use safe food handling practices when harvesting and storing my home-grown produce.
It’s important to keep food safety front of mind to prevent contamination and cross-contamination while harvesting and storing fruits and vegetables. Food safety is especially important for any produce that is eaten raw. Be sure to use clean equipment to clip produce from plants. Buckets and other containers should be kept clean and sanitized, as well as any food contact surfaces. Wash hands frequently with soap and water before putting on gloves and after working in the garden. Wash produce well before preparing.
If you answered “no” to any of the food safe quiz questions, those are the areas for improvement in your garden this season. For more food safety advice, contact your county’s Extension office.