Applying Pandemic Lessons: Sanitation can help in your garden too

clean garden tools use fro planning after use
Clean garden tools used for planting after use.

As Americans deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, and everyone works to social distance and heighten their sanitation practices (washing hands and disinfecting surfaces) this spring, it reminds us of the importance of sanitation in the home, as well as in the garden. A successful and healthy vegetable and fruit garden is a source of joy and sustenance, and now is the perfect time to prepare your space.

Like COVID-19, various plant pathogens (which cause plant diseases), can remain on surfaces for certain periods of time. This is an opportunity to think about where pathogens might be hiding in your garden, and on your equipment. Garden tools are an example where pathogens can remain, so disinfecting shovels, tools and any other equipment you use can prevent the introduction of pathogens into the plant growing system You can do this by using a disinfectant wipe than contains alcohol or a bleach solution. Microorganisms and plant pathogens can also stay in soil for years, so proper sanitation and cleaning of surfaces (cart tires, boots, etc.) that carry soil can eliminate possible soil borne pathogens.

The right sanitation techniques can reduce pathogen inoculum, or seeds, of the pathogen from spreading. Frequently remove debris and weeds in the garden, greenhouse and the field. Weeds can serve as alternate hosts for diseases and insects; becoming the bridge between two growing seasons. Disinfecting tools, cleaning boots and any other equipment can prevent the introduction of pathogens into the system.

Sanitation must also be considered when bringing in any outside plants into your garden or greenhouse. Plant material can carry diseases and insect pests, introducing them to clean greenhouse facilities, gardens or fields. Always inspect plant material.

A plant with symptoms of a virus. Yellowing leaves.
A plant that is exhibiting symptoms of a plant virus. Be on the look for any abnormalities when choosing plants or making cutting for your garden this spring.

Home gardeners: pay close attention to your transplants regardless if you grow or purchase them. Plant only disease-free plants. Remember to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds after handling any plants that you brought in from outside your home.

Commercial growers: inspect material prior to its entry to the greenhouse and prior to planting in the field. 

After transplanting, scout often and thoroughly to identify problems as early as possible. Watch carefully the amount and frequency of watering events in the greenhouse and when tending to seedlings at home. Provide enough water and nutrients to the plants while minimizing unnecessary humidity. Always remember that plant pathogens thrive in humid environments.

The good news is that plant pathogens can only infect plants and cannot harm humans. For more information on this topic, see the article Can Sick Plants Make People Sick?

If you have a plant problem, the Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic at Iowa State University can help. At this time, the clinic is working differently due to the coronavirus, and the situation is very fluid, so please look for the latest information at or by subscribing to the Horticulture and Home Pest Newsletter here.

Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Yard and Garden, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on March 27, 2020. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.