Food safety in the garden

Plan a garden and handle produce with food safety in mind.

Temperatures are beginning to warm and many people’s thoughts are beginning to turn to gardening. Have you ever considered that where you plant, how you should plant and what you plant could be impacted by food safety issues? From planting to harvest time it is important to keep produce safe from harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites. Planning with food safety in mind throughout the process will make it safer for those consuming the end results.


When planting, whether it is a new site or your regular site, make sure the site is not located near a contaminated area or has been contaminated itself. Sources of contamination could include areas that are frequently flooded, spaces where animals (farm, domestic or wild) roam and areas where garbage or septic issues have been a problem. Also, be aware of potential pollutants, contaminated water, toxic dumping etc. This would be an area to avoid planting seeds or plants. It is also a good idea to have the soil tested before planting.  This is something that can be done through your local Michigan State University Extension office (kits are available locally and online).

The soil test will provide information on whether the soil is safe. It is recommended to try to keep all animals, domestic and wild, out of the garden area. Position your garden away from trees, overhead wires and as far from wooded areas as possible. When working in the garden, do your best to keep dogs and cats out, this will help eliminate problems with these animals possibly contaminating your produce and soil.


The best sources of water for a garden are from wells or sources that have been treated. These supplies should be tested to ensure they are safe for your produce. 

Personal hygiene

One wouldn’t think cleanliness would be a factor when working in the garden or harvesting produce, but it is very important. Gardeners should be careful to keep shoes, gloves and clothing as clean as possible when harvesting. Chewing gum, smoking or chewing tobacco products and eating and drinking in the garden can also contaminate produce. Gardeners should keep finger nails trim to reduce the chances of puncturing produce.  Avoid wearing excessive jewelry, rings and watches since they can harbor bacteria. If you have been ill with vomiting, diarrhea, fever or jaundice within the last 24 hours avoid handling produce or working in the garden.  The bacteria you may be carrying in your system could be transferred to the produce. Hands should be washed after using the restroom, eating, smoking, changing diapers, handling animals and before entering the garden.  They should also be washed upon leaving the garden.

Fertilizers, sprays and organic matter

It is important, regardless of the type of gardening you choose to do, to always follow directions from the manufacturer. Never harvest early or incorrectly mix products. 


When it is time to harvest, the container being used needs to be able to be cleaned and sanitized between uses.  Use food grade containers to harvest foods, avoid garbage bags, wicker baskets and other items that cannot be cleaned and sanitized. If at all possible, avoid putting picking containers on the ground during harvest. Tools (anything that will come in direct contact with the produce) should be cleaned and sanitized after each use. A dishwasher is an ideal way to accomplish this. 

Storage Tips

Avoid cross-contamination by decreasing the handling of produce; limit the number of times it is handled once it has been picked. Keep the picked produce as cool as possible but prevent it from coming in direct contact with ice. Keep in mind once tomatoes, melons and lettuce have been cut or sliced they must be stored in the refrigerator. Be sure to keep all fresh produce away from raw meat, chicken, fish and eggs.

Michigan State University Extension recommends you remember it is important that fruit and vegetables can become contaminated and cause illness, regardless of whether it is grown in your own garden, selected from a farmers market or purchased from a source many miles away. Following these easy tips can make produce not only nutritious, but food safe. To learn more about gardening please visit the Smart Gardening Resources.  

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