When in doubt, throw out vegetables and herbs from flooded garden

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The severe thunderstorm that hit Bridgeville July 10 flooded the basement and garden of 60-year-old Robert Dalla Piazza.

As McLaughlin Run crested outside his home, he headed to the basement to cut off his power, but a wall of water broke through the basement windows, ripped a door off its hinges and pinned him beneath it.

"This was malevolent, angry water," he said. He was able to free himself and swim to safety.

The water destroyed everything in his basement and rose an inch into the first floor.

Mr. Dalla Piazza has been consumed with repairing the home and replacing his washer, dryer and other important items.

A few days ago, as the cleanup progressed, he thought about his garden. The plot is right outside the back door. It's filled with flowers, bush beans and tomatoes. The water covered the beans and made it halfway up the tomatoes. He wondered whether he could still eat them.

"I was getting pretty stern warnings from my family," he said, advising him not to even touch, much less eat, anything that had been covered by water.

He starts his Roma and Oxheart tomatoes from seed in early spring. Deep green, aromatic basil seedlings sit on the windowsill of the dining room.

"My family has always gardened back there; my grandfather brought fig trees back from Italy," he said this week, looking over the garden. "I'm just carrying on the tradition."

Luke LaBorde, an associate professor of food science at Penn State University's college of agricultural studies, says it's best to play it safe when it comes to a flooded garden, especially with vegetables that have come in contact with floodwater.

"When in doubt, throw it out," he said.

Mr. LaBorde said tomatoes that were not touched by the flood should be fine to harvest. All the beans will have to be discarded, but if the plants add new beans, they should be OK.

He cautions, however, that there is always a risk with unknown substances in floodwater.

"The big issue is what we don't know," Mr. LaBorde said. "It could be diesel fuel or pesticides. Everyone should do their own risk assessment and decide whether it's safe to eat."

For next year's garden, however, the soil should be fine, he said.

Planting new crops in the area this season also should be safe, he said, if the gardener puts down a layer of mulch atop the tainted soil. Anything edible, such as basil leaves, should not touch the soil.

Mr. Dalla Piazza is throwing away his tomatoes and beans and thinking of planting basil in pots for this season.

"I'm just going to do what I have to do and look forward to next year.

"In these situations, you need to roll with the punches. Flooding is not uncommon in this area, so I just learn as I go along."

region - garden

Doug Oster: doster@post-gazette.com or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog at www.post-gazette.com/gardeningwithdoug. Twitter: @dougoster1.


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