By Shirley Camp, MS, LD, RDN, retired University of Illinois Extension master canner and educator
Gardens too wet or too dry? It seems as though across the country this year we have a variety of conditions in our home gardens. When we are growing produce to feed our families, both fresh consumption and preserving for later, how do we know which produce is safe and which we should compost?
When gardens have been flooded whether or not the produce is safe to consume depends on a number of conditions. Most importantly, the cleanliness of the floodwater is to be considered; has the floodwater been contaminated by sewage, river or creek water, run-off from farms, or industrial pollutants? If the answer to any of these is yes, for safety the produce should be discarded if it has been touched by floodwater.
If the flooding occurs early in the growing season, some of the plants will survive and new produce from those plants should be safe to consume. The produce that is most at risk for contaminants is the produce that is eaten raw which includes leafy veggies like lettuce or spinach. All soft fruits like strawberries and raspberries should be discarded unless they can be cooked.
If on the other hand you live in a drought area, make sure any produce you use is from healthy plants. Tomatoes, for example, are less acidic when the vines are dying or diseased and should not be used for canning. All tomatoes used for canning should be firm without blemishes, cracks, or signs of spoilage such as mold. And remember ALL tomatoes must be acidified with citric acid or lemon juice when canned. For quart jars use ½ teaspoon of Mrs. Wages® Citric Acid or 2 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice per jar of product.
Root crops such as beets, carrots, radishes, onions and potatoes that are in early stages of growth should be safe to eat when mature. Those that are more mature should be disinfected by thoroughly washing them in clean, potable water using a scrub brush. These vegetables should then be immersed in a weak chlorine solution for 15 to 20 minutes (for a 4% chlorine bleach use 1 teaspoon of bleach per quart of water). Rinse these crops thoroughly with cool water and peel before cooking.
Flood damaged produce that is not suitable for eating should not be canned or preserved for later use. Also, produce from a flood-damaged garden should not be sold until you are sure all of the contamination is removed from the garden. This usually takes at least a month after the flooding has occurred.
Your local Extension Office should be able to answer any questions you have about the safety of garden produce during floods and drought.