It’s late August, bountiful harvest time at the Healthy Yankton Community Garden. We see potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, sweet and hot peppers, tomatillos, beans, beets, okra, summer squash, broccoli, onions, cucumber and dill ready for harvest. Watermelon, cabbage, sweet potatoes, corn, carrots, and sunflower seed will soon be ready. Butterflies play among zinnias and marigolds.

Checkered among tidy plots, about a third of the gardens are tall weeds in fruit, and mats of snarled, blooming bindweed and creeping Charlie — abandoned plots. Flood stage of Marne Creek on June 21 left most of the garden ground temporarily under water. Water soaked and subsided in a few days, leaving food safety concerns about chemical runoff from upstream and blooms of pathogenic bacteria from possible animal waste runoff.

In the Press & Dakotan article “A Flooded Garden May Present Some Problems” by Cora Van Olson just after the flood, the Healthy Yankton organizers that oversee the gardens with Yankton Parks & Recreation Department, discussed food safety. They asked area officials and used general post-flood guidelines as recommendations from Rhoda Burrows PhD, South Dakota Extension Horticulture Specialist. Her guidelines are found at this SDSU Extension site: http://igrow.org/gardens/gardening/flooded-gardens/

The local article food safety guidelines recommended cooking all produce in contact with floodwater, removing vining crops, discarding lettuce and leafy greens, replacing grass clippings or other mulch and using caution in food consumption the rest of the season. Those with garden plots had to decide what was best for them.

Gardening among others in community requires tolerance of others’ methods, not like one’s own. Space is a premium and a failed crop leaves a gap. Gardens open and close for the season guided by weather issues and administrative concerns. These community gardeners commonly experience sharing produce, chats leaning on a hoe, seasons-back garden friends, and pulling weeds in a shared path. But special challenges, such as flooding, tax everyone concerned.

Gardeners Share Comments

Two months after the flood, on a temperate Saturday morning in August, these community gardeners stopped work at their plots to share about this growing season.

Dianne and Gerald Bahn have tended plots at the community garden each year since the garden opened in 2009. Mornings are when this retired couple prefer to garden. They have two trimmed and weeded plots. While some gardeners end their season as school opens, Bahns are trying a fall crop of edible pod sugar peas since their June peas didn’t grow well. Others have also echoed disappointment about early peas and the erratic spring temperatures.

“Before these plots, we gardened minimally because the yard is small,” Dianne said.

This season standout is zucchini by Gerald, and potatoes and cantaloupe and everything but peas, by Dianne.

“We tried cantaloupe years ago and they rotted on the vine,” she said. Their cantaloupe vines are green and lush, but are not found in other plots around them.  Big vine plants are a space commitment in a small plot. Others nearby were flooded out.

“Our plots had water about 4 inches up on the plant,” she said.

“We’ve been fairly consistent in what we’ve grown over the years; tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and green beans,” she said. “Third year for potatoes.”

“Last year we put potatoes in a single five-gallon bucket; this year, 2 ½ buckets,” Gerald said.

“We didn’t get into the gardens until May 5,” she said, “because of rains and the plots weren’t ready. I couldn’t find other potatoes then for planting, so we went with Kennebec potatoes from Earl May in Norfolk.”

“Several years I grew lots of green beans. I canned and canned them and gave them away. This year I limited myself to a very small row,” she said. They also grew kohlrabi and radishes.

Bahns keep the benefit of a tended garden — few weeds — by signing up for the same plots each year.

Carrot tops look promising; Dianne and Gerald agree. Tomatoes have blight, a common sight in the garden this year, but they still may have fruit. Everything said, a favorable showing of produce for two plots.

Daniel Kortan who works as a state auditor for South Dakota has two garden plots.  He has gardened at the community garden, most of the nine years they have been open to the public.

“I was here a couple of days ago and it took me four hours to pick beans!” Kortan said. Now he’s at it again. “Green beans were flooded so I had to replant them. I also had cucumbers, but didn’t replant.” He replanted beans on July 7th. He always does have a second planting.

“Flooded beans have continued to produce, but they are being eaten by the insects,” he said. Peppers survived the flood and plants are tall and green, but without peppers yet.

Potatoes were flooded but they survived. ‘Yukon Gold’ performed the best and yielded a couple of potatoes per plant.

“Some were big. One was big enough for two people,” he said.

Tomatoes are ripening now, but some plants are showing signs of blight, as in some other plots.”

“I made two batches of salsa and canned them. Last year, I canned ten batches,” he said. There might be two or more. I’ll blame that towards the flood.”

“I tried watermelons new this year. They’re supposed to be seedless but I chopped one open and they have seeds. They’re ‘Black Cherry,’ he said. From two plants that were flooded, he now has eight or so watermelons growing, and the plants cover a wide area. He has a sprinkler on a fence post stand to water plants, other than tomatoes as they grow taller.

“I set the sprinkler up, thinking they’d need the extra water. I haven’t watered once! Flood saved me from watering,” he said. “Next year I’ll put watermelons at one end of the plot.”

Kortan planted corn last year, and about this time, while he waited for ripe corn, overnight, raccoons tore stalks down, testing it. Animals monitor the plots. He didn’t plant corn again. His regrets are associated with how people reacted to the flood.

“City dropped the ball,” he said. “They recommended not to take produce due to the flooding. Lot of people (who garden here) just didn’t show up. They said heck on it. Weeds are so bad; it will be hard growing something next year. The city didn’t take care of the abandoned plots either.”

“I’ve been eating my produce. It’s a totally different taste when you have homegrown. I plant what I eat. I love green beans and tomatoes. Can’t get that taste from a store. I’m glad I stuck it out, and wish others would have stuck it out better.”

Kevin Buhl is a researcher for United States Geological Survey and has two plots at the community gardens. Like the others interviewed, his plants are tended and free of weeds.

“This is the third year in a row I’ve had people around me quit their plots, so I get lots of weed seeds on my plot. Some of the ragweed could be seven footers!” Buhl said. Flooding was probably a factor in their giving up on their gardens.

Marne Creek flood waters went through Buhl’s plots. His broccoli plants were tall enough to show in the flooded gardens. Tomatoes were flooded. He has removed the lower third of leaves to discourage blight. Beneath the tomatoes, soil is covered with grass clipping mulch.

“That was one thing that didn’t get flooded out—weeds!” he said.

Tomato and broccoli plants each have a short section of four-inch PVC pipe collars with an access slit down each pipe for easy removal.

“I use them year after year,” he said. “It deters tomato cutworms. I can store them easily.” He also uses collars on broccoli.

Green beans are a favorite and the season’s standout. He names ‘Purple Pod’ and ‘Tenderette’ bush beans as quality producers even though he had to replant them due to flooding.  He keeps a map and log of what he grows so he doesn’t “waste time planting them next year.”

“I did plant ‘Blue Lake’ beans; they’re a standard, but I get gaps in the rows. They don’t all sprout,” he said. Productive space is a high priority in these plots.

“I was concerned with the late replanting in early July that I’d not beat the frost. These don’t have chewed up leaves. Some other gardeners had to replant because bugs devastated their plants. It’s something I’ll keep in the back of my mind,” he said.

“I steam the beans and keep them in the refrigerator. I eat them cold as a snack. You have them for a while and get burned out; then you don’t have them—all or nothing!” he said.

His beets were flooded but he left the few remaining as ground cover.

“Our friendly rodents chew on the tops of the beets,” he said. Maybe they’ll leave my tomatoes alone?”

His ‘Celebrity’ tomatoes are bearing and he’s waiting on ‘Better Boy’ tomatoes.

Peas were a disappointment. He had low germination rate and then his garden flooded.

“I had to rent a tiller so I had that extra cost in with the seeds and plants. I decided to go through the doors still open and see what would happen,” he said. “I hope we get three or four more weeks before frost.”

“I did discuss with other gardeners to approach Yankton Parks and Recreation about the possibility of switching land with the dog park. Since I’ve gardened here, the dog park hasn’t flooded. I heard that 80% of the garden space was flooded. It’s people’s time, effort and resources that went into it. This is a flood plain designed to flood when Marne Creek floods. That’s why the land is here. (The dog park) is high ground; maybe we’d get some new soil. We’ve got a bank of weed seeds here. Bind weed is a scourge. We’ve got shade to the west and are maxed out in plots to the east,” he said. But if all is the same next year, he’d ask for the same two plots.

“I plan to be back,” Buhl said. “I don’t have a garden in my yard. I’m happy the city provides this land and water is included, and the tap is right over there. I work late and it’s easy to stop on the way home to water. I am grateful the city and Healthy Yankton provides this for us. I try to be a loyal patron as much as I can.”

Food Safety Postscript

Are the general food safety guidelines overly cautious? Rhoda Burrows PhD, South Dakota Extension Horticulture Specialist, has served South Dakota for decades, resided in Nebraska and did her graduate work at the University of Minnesota.

“Lots of us have probably eaten contaminated produce and either didn’t get sick, blamed it on something else (it can take a week or two to become ill), or was mild enough we didn’t think about it much. I suspect a lot of food illness gets blamed on “flu”, rather than recognize it may actually have been foodborne. When only a few people get sick, unless they get hospitalized, the cause rarely gets identified. Modern medicine has also brought us many more immunity-compromised individuals — not only infants and elderly, but transplant recipients, those being treated for auto-immune diseases and chemotherapy recipients,” Burrows said.

She cited South Dakota’s higher incidence of human infections from toxin-producing strains of E. coli (STEC) compared with surrounding states and Midwestern states, and being above the national average, in the 2015 Center for Disease Control “National Shiga Toxin-Producing Escherichia coli Surveillance (STEC).” https://www.cdc.gov/nationalsurveillance/ecoli-surveillance.html) These rates are often attributed to the increased contacts with animal wastes, in our more rural state.

For concerns about residual herbicides in a flooded site, rather than soil testing, she recommends a “biotest.”

“Plant beans and see if any exhibit herbicide symptoms. Those could also serve as a cover crop, which not only helps the soil in general and reduces weed problems, but can help feed microbes that can compete with pathogens and even help break down chemicals,” Burrows said. Such a biotest is low cost, practical and “gets at the activity of a range of possible contaminants.” Then if plants indicate a problem, the site soil can be tested. An early cover crop, checked and then plowed under before the gardens open, might be workable.

Another practical response to concerns about chemical contaminants she suggested, is fall plowing. The purpose would be to expose contaminants to soil microbes. Thanks to Dr. Burrows for her suggestions for food safety assurance.

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