Garden Hygiene?

English: A picture of compost soil

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We want kids to optimize their health by eating fresh produce from the garden, but should we be concerned about microscopic germs creeping in the soil?

During my most recent visit with the Friends of Burlington Gardens, the director met with Phil*, a representative from a well-known and respected nonprofit. Phil is in the process of planning a fundraising event where as many as three-thousand people would be asked to each plant an individual flower or vegetable seed in their provided container. For this big event, Phil plans to collect donations of seeds and soil and provide a unique growing container. With the supplies mostly lined up, he visited Friends of Burlington Gardens to ask for help with the logistics of actually getting three-thousand people to sow their seeds in their containers. Similar to a previous seed-starting event I posted about earlier, Phil is looking for help to direct children and adults on how to plant their seeds at soil stations set up at the event.

One of Phil’s logistical concerns was sanitation. How would three-thousand people wash their hands after getting muddied up from the soil? Besides a little dirt under the fingernails, Phil commented that his co-workers – less comfortable with gardening and getting down in the dirt – had been concerned about how hygienic or sanitary this might be and wondered how they might be able to set up hand-washing stations in the park where the event was to be held.

Dirty soil. I had not thought much about this before. It is true that soil is loaded with microbes – some more friendly than others – so how concerned should this event be with providing water and soap to the participants after they plant the seed starters?

Phil added that he was less concerned about the sanitation issue himself, so really he was bringing this up more on the behalf of his co-workers, but the Friends of Burlington Gardens director supported his idea. Hand washing stations make sense for such a large crowd. Plus, they could be used to rinse out the planting containers as well.

I agree with Phil and the director that hand washing stations would be appreciated simply because this will be such a large event. But it got me thinking about the response Phil’s co-workers had to gardening and the less obvious matter they may have been expressing… In the grand scheme of things, how concerned should we be about children’s health and sanitation when playing in the dirt?

If you ask me, a little dirt won’t hurt. Some exposure to germs is important for building up that natural immunity. But should I be sympathetic to those who are more germophobic? Certainly, there are cases where the soil might be poorer quality and truly unsafe for growing food. (TLC Home shares some tips on remedying polluted soil in these scenarios.) Not all soil is the same…

So for those who might be less comfortable with a little dirt under the fingernails, are there ways we should try to make the gardening experience more hygienic and ‘clean’? Or do you think getting dirty and grubby is a necessary rite of passage for the gardener? I would love your thoughts on this, as well as suggestions for a more hygienic dirtiness!

*name changed

FN 3/12

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4 comments on “Garden Hygiene?

  1. Erin says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog. I’m not phobic about dirt, but there are some people that are more at risk (or may have more serious consequences) than others. Pregnant women, especially, are strongly advised to wear gloves whenever gardening. Also if you have an open cut and get dirt in it, you should make sure you have a tetanus shot. What about getting a box of surgical gloves so people can take 1 or 2 if they want to?

  2. Erin – thank you and great idea with the gloves for those who want to play in the garden with a bit more hygienic safety.

    How about for those are not as susceptible to infections? Can we downplay the concerns about hygiene among those who are strong and healthy? I wonder what effect gloves would have on a child’s (or anyone’s) experience of gardening?

    Could the importance of fully immersing someone into the garden experience (by that I mean forcing them to get a little dirty) outweigh the risk of toxic exposure for, say, the typical fourth-grader?

  3. […] so the conversation on hygiene continues! How much of germophobes are […]

  4. […] While this one little transaction probably won’t change the girl’s eating habits, could repeated exposure to similar situations result in her associating soil with unsafe or contaminated food, and associating the more processed, “clean” foods with safety? (see my previous post commenting on sociologist Lupton’s theories about food hygiene) […]

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