Food Safety & Gardening

Adair P. Hoover,
Home & Garden Information Center

South Carolina has a great climate and the ideal conditions for growing gardens.  Backyard and shared community gardens are common across the state. Growing vegetables is a fantastic way to have the freshest food and knowing that these vegetables have been safely handled from seed to harvest can be very reassuring.

In the world of food safety, safe food handling practices are constantly evolving. One of the things that food safety researches have confirmed in recent years is that garden vegetables have a real risk of passing on food-based illness. It’s no real surprise when you consider that foods grown outdoors are exposed to all sorts of elements. Fruits and vegetables can be carriers of foodborne pathogens including E.coli 0157:H7 and salmonella. That’s not to say that gardening today is any more dangerous than it was in the past we just have more researched information and a better idea of how to grow and harvest food safely.

When planning your garden there are plenty of things to consider; site selection, planting and harvesting times, garden layout, when to fertilize, the list goes on and on. If you are a fruit or vegetable gardener, planning for food safety should be added to your list.

Food Safety to consider when planning a garden:

  • Garden location – Your garden should be located in an area that is away from garbage cans, septic systems, farm animals and family pets.
  • Water sources –Use only potable water. Public water systems are safe but water obtained from lakes, ponds, rivers and streams can be polluted. If you are using ground water from a well system, conduct a water test once a year.
  • Wildlife control – Keep family pets out of the garden during the growing season. Don’t feed wild animals and birds near your garden. If you find that you have a problem with wildlife, fencing or noise deterrents may help discourage them. Harvest often and keep rotting vegetables out of the garden.
  • Compost - Know your compost. Compost used for growing produce must have reached temperatures greater than 130 °F and been turned often during the composting process. And don’t use compost that has had meat, bones, fatty foods and pet or human added to it during the composting process.
  • Chemical and pesticide management – Never use synthetic herbicides, fungicides or insecticides (except mosquito repellent) in or within 25 feet of the garden.
  • Harvesting and beyond – Use clean containers to gather your produce. Wash your hands before and after handling. Wash all produce in clean water and use a vegetable brush to remove visible soil. Lettuces and leafy greens are especially prone to holding foodborne pathogens so for a thorough wash, fill a clean sink or bowl with lukewarm water, swish for 30 seconds, drain the water from the sink and rinse the sink free of any grit. Refill with clean cold water and repeat procedure two more times until no grit remains in the bottom of sink, when water is drained. For iceberg lettuce, remove the core, either by cutting around the core using a sharp knife or by pounding the core quite hard on a cutting board, and twist loose for easy removal. Hold upside down under running water and invert to drain. Dry lettuces by letting them drain in a colander and then wipe with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to reduce any bacteria that may be present. Store fresh produce away from other food items.

For more detailed information see:

HGIC 3518, Safe Handling of Lettuce and Leafy Green Salads
HGIC 1256, Planning a Garden
HGIC 2771, Insecticidal Soaps for Garden Pest Control
HGIC 1600, Composting
HGIC 1652, Soil Testing

Gardening can be very rewarding and knowing that you have taken the proper steps to assure safety will really enhance the experience.  So grow on and be safe!

Page maintained by: Home & Garden Information Center

This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement of brand names or registered trademarks by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied, nor is any discrimination intended by the exclusion of products or manufacturers not named. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.