As a child, I squirreled away unpopped kernels from the bottom of a bag of microwave popcorn. I hid them in the pockets of my summer dress until I could plant them under the swing set. I hoped they would grow into a fairytale secret garden. They did not.
As an adult, I had another well-intentioned but failed garden experience. I was gifted my first vegetable plant. A reluctant and novice gardener then, I took the bit of unwanted greenery and placed it inside on a table near a window. Then I wondered why it did not grow even a solitary cherry tomato.
Looking back, I now see this tomato-turned-houseplant was not merely an herbaceous waif. It was a gateway plant that spawned my gardening habit. As an avid green thumb, I have continued my tradition of small gardening mistakes. Mini-mess-ups are good to make. Hands-on experiences in seed starting and pollination make me a better grower. However, I put a lot of focus on avoiding big gardening mistakes, like E. Coli.
Home-grown produce is not automatically safe simply because you know its pedigree. How it is grown, harvested, handled and stored is essential in avoiding foodborne illness. To keep gardening mistakes contained to the small variety, follow this food safety mantra: clean soil, clean water, clean hands, clean surfaces, clean harvest.
- Clean Soil– Prevent pathogens from spreading from your compost pile to other parts of the garden or surviving the compost process. Place compost bins downhill and far from the garden, and practice hot composting.
- Clean Water– Use a regulated and treated water source when growing, cleaning and preparing your fruits, veggies and herbs. If in doubt, have your water tested.
- Clean Hands– Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and clean, running water before and after working in the garden or with produce. Wash frequently while you work, especially before and after eating, drinking or using the restroom. Dry hands with a fresh clean towel.
- Clean Surfaces– Use items that are easy to clean and in good condition. Frequently wash garden tools, food harvest and storage containers, and kitchen implements and surfaces. Use soap, clean water and a sanitizer, such as one gallon of water treated with a tablespoon of bleach.
- Clean Harvest– Sharing is caring, unless we are talking germs! So, harvest only when you are healthy, and wear one-use only gloves. Do not wear garden gloves that have been worn to pull weeds or work in soil or compost. When harvesting, dust off produce, and place it in clean, sanitized, food-grade containers by crop. Once it’s time to eat, rinse your produce under clean running water. Remember, the use of produce washes is not recommended by the FDA.
To learn about safely storing what your garden grows, check out Cooperative Extension’s Grow Your Own, Nevada! program. The series features a class on pressure canning; one on freezing, drying and storing; and another on selecting fruit trees and storing their bounty. For information, visit growyourownnevada.com. Until then, enjoy your garden and any little garden mistakes that come your way.
Ashley Andrews is the horticulture assistant with University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Horticulture questions? Ask a master gardener, 775-336-0265 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit growyourownnevada.com, manageNVpests.info or livingwithdrought.com.