Managing a Garden after a Flood
Gardens can be exposed to excessive rainfall and flooding in West Virginia. Floods are transient events, and most crops exposed to flood water can be immersed for several days. Contaminants in the flood water and plant immersion can result in significant crop loss and yield reduction. If flooding occurs early in the season or when plants are young, there is a chance to salvage the crop and harvest the produce.
Problems caused by flood waters
Most vegetables and fruits do not tolerate waterlogged soils. Waterlogged soils can reduce root growth since the water has replaced the oxygen within the pores of the soil. Often a plant in waterlogged soil will wilt since its roots are not able to grow. In addition, waterlogged soils can trigger many root diseases. Other symptoms of excessive water damage to plants are stunted growth and foliage discoloration.
Growing crops on elevated or raised beds can significantly improve soil drainage, and soils with high amounts of clay can be amended with sand or organic matter to improve drainage. If a hardpan restricts water infiltration, a broadfork or subsoiler can be used to loosen the soil. Construct drainage ditches in low areas of the garden that tend to accumulate water and do not drain well.
Flood water can be contaminated with a variety of things including sewage, farm run-off, industrial run-off and other pollutants. Do not harvest produce that is at or near harvest, and has been exposed to flood waters. Fresh produce that was submerged by flood waters should be discarded.
Can I eat produce from the garden after a flood?
Simply put, the safest answer is no. Discarding all produce that was touched by flood water eliminates any and all risks, and is the only way to ensure you and your family do not become ill from consuming these items.
However, when a flood occurs early in the growing season, many gardeners wonder if they can salvage at least part of their garden. Consider the following:
- All produce that is consumed uncooked or raw should be discarded. This includes leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach — no matter the maturity. Soft fruits that are ready to harvest, like berries, should also be discarded.
- Early-season crops that are set to be harvested within a few weeks after a flood that have not been touched by flood waters should be safe to eat if cooked or peeled. However, it must be completely intact — if it is soft, cracked, bruised or has open fissures, dispose of it. If there is any question as to whether flood water has contacted the produce or not, throw it out. To prepare these items:
- Prepare a chlorine solution of approximately 1 tablespoon of bleach diluted in 1 gallon of clean water to reach a concentration of 200 parts per million. This measurement is based on a 5.25% sodium hypochlorite concentration in the bleach.
- Rinse the produce well with clear tap water.
- Submerge and soak items in chlorine solution for 2 minutes. (Note: Chlorine loses effectiveness quickly in dirty water. Monitor solution and change as necessary.)
- Rinse produce completely in clear, cool tap water.
- Peel and cook thoroughly before eating.
- Underground vegetables that are still early in growth (roughly four months from harvest) should be safe if allowed to grow to maturity. These include beets, sweet potatoes, carrots and potatoes. These should be washed, sanitized and rinsed as directed before cooking thoroughly.
- Melons and other fruits that will be eaten raw should be discarded.
- Late-season vegetables that come from flowers produced on growth that develops after flood waters recede should be safe. This includes tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, cucumbers, sweet corn and similar vegetables. Cook these vegetables thoroughly, or wash them well and peel them before eating.
Moving forward after the flood
The second gardening season begins in July for many fall vegetable crops in West Virginia. There is an opportunity to plant crops, such as beans, beets, cucumbers, summer squash, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, kale, spinach and carrots. In addition, small fruit crops, such as strawberries and blueberries, can be established in late summer.
Cover crops can be established on flooded gardens to remediate the soil during a summer/winter fallow period. Summer cover crops, such as buckwheat, soybeans, ryegrass and sun hemp, can be established in July through August. In the fall, winter cover crops, such as rye, ryegrass, triticale, crimson clover, red clover and hairy vetch, can improve soil health while reducing soil erosion.
By Lewis Jett, WVU Extension Service Horticulture Specialist – Agriculture and
Adapted from University of Wisconsin fact sheet “Safely Using Produce from Flooded Gardens” by Barbara Ingham and Steve Ingham. Publish date 2007.
Reviewed for food safety by Litha Sivanandan, former WVU Extension Service Specialist — Families and Health.
Last Reviewed: July 2016
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