Everybody poops. Everybody, and that includes Fido. Thedifference between Fido and you is that Fido may, and probably does, think it’sperfectly okay to defecate in the garden. Given that pets have a naturaldisregard for the sanctity of your tomatoes,how do you go about sanitizing garden soil?
If there are pet feces in the garden, is disinfectingcontaminated soil even necessary? After all, many gardeners add manure to thesoil, so what is different about dog poop in soil?
Yes, many gardeners amend their soil with nutrient richmanure, but the difference between putting petfeces in the garden and spreading some steermanure is huge. Manures used in gardens are either treated so they arepathogen free (sterile) or have been composted and heated to kill off anypathogens.
Also, most people don’t (or shouldn’t) use fresh animal feces in the garden, dogs or otherwise. Fresh steer or pet feces in the garden contains any number of pathogens. In the case of fresh cat or dog poop in soil, parasitic pathogens and roundworms that can transfer to humans are very much in evidence.
So, while all this points to the need for sanitizing gardensoil, if it has been used as a potty by your pets, is it really necessary tosterilize soil for planting and should you plant anything at all?
Whether or not to sterilize soil for planting is rather amatter of how long ago the pets were using the garden as a bathroom. If, forinstance, you have moved into a home where the previous owner was known to havedogs, it would be a good idea to remove any remaining pet feces from the gardenand then allow it to layfallow for a growing season just to be sure any nasty bugs have been killedoff.
If you know that it has been years since pets were allowedto use the garden as a restroom, there should be no need to sterilize soil forplanting. In that time frame, any pathogens should have broken down.
The National Institute for Health and Center for Disease Control state that animal manure should not be applied sooner than 90 days to harvest for above ground crops and 120 days for root crops because disease pathogens do not live longer in soils during these time frames. Of course, they are probably talking about steer or chicken manure, but the advice still holds true for gardens that are contaminated by pet poop.
The first thing to do when sanitizing garden soil due to petexcrement is to remove the poop. Thisseems elemental, but I cannot tell you how many people don’t scoop their pets’poop.
Next, plantcover crops, such as bluegrass or redclover, and allow to grow for a season. If you choose not to grow a covercrop, then at least allow the soil to remain fallow for a year. You may alsowish to cover the garden area with black plastic, which will become super-heatedduring the heat of the summer and kill off any nasty bacterium.
If you are still worried about the safety of the soil, plantcrops with big root systems (tomatoes,beans,squash,cucumbers)and avoid planting leafy greens, like lettuceand mustard.
Lastly, before eating it, always washyour produce.
Wondering how to store potting soil? I’ve tried a lot of different techniques for potting soil storage – everything from proper airtight storage to just leaving it in the garage and hoping for the best. Here’s what has worked well for me.
Potting soil is best stored sealed in its original bag, inside a protective container like a storage tote. Large rubbermaid bins work well, as do re-purposed dishwasher detergent containers. If the original potting soil bag is not re-sealable, use tape to re-seal the bag or place the bag inside a re-usable sealing bag.
Read on to find out exactly how I store my potting soil during the growing season and over winter.
Many Potting Soil Bags Are Re-Sealable for Airtight Potting Soil Storage. This one comes in a thick protective pouch with a ziplock top for storage. If you buy potting mix that’s packaged well and don’t have to much of it, the original packaging may be all you’ll need.
Q: I'm writing about a serious problem that surely plagues gardeners everywhere. It's what to do about neighborhood cats that use vegetable and flower gardens for litter boxes. Fences keep dogs out but cats, left to run free, are able to contaminate undeterred.
No one would be allowed to dump toxic waste into our food supply, but cats can do it every day. Do you have any suggestions for dealing with this disgusting health issue? Thoughtless cat owners "just don't get it."
—Marc, J. Jankovich, Allentown
A: This subject pits gardeners against cat lovers. As a long-time member of both camps, I do have a few comments and suggestions.
How dangerous are cat feces?
There have been numerous articles on the dangers of cat feces in the garden. Are they true?
To a point: The feces of cats can contain a multitude of parasites including the one that causes toxoplasmosis, a disease that can be dangerous to pregnant women or those with a weak immune system. The parasites are present in many other mammals. The difference is that these particular parasites can only complete their life cycle in the intestines of a cat.
Cat feces also contain parasites for roundworm, hookworm and tapeworm. However, if gardeners wear gloves, wash their hands and rinse and wash any harvested crops, they will greatly decrease any chance of infection.
So, is it incredibly dangerous?
Not really, although there are some risks. In truth, most of the content of cat poop is similar to that of other animals — cows, birds, etc. that we pay others to collect. I am not promoting cat feces as a fertilizer, but it isn't the end of the world either. The balances of nitrogen, potassium and potash aren't quite the same, digging up cat feces is not a pleasant gardening experience and there is the slim risk of infection.
It is irresponsible to allow your cats to poop in the neighbor's garden.
Yes, I know cats love roaming free, chasing everything that moves, sunbathing and exploring everywhere. However, we no longer live in a world where that is possible. There are too many dangers out there to allow cats to roam free.
I allow our cat outside — but only when she is leashed and under the direct supervision of Fran or me. She has about 16 feet of freedom, and I have the peace of mind that she is nearby and safe. Cat on a leash? Some may find it impossible but it is no more unnatural than a leashed dog. Neither come to it naturally but both can be trained to them. Laws, respect for others, and concern for the safety of our pets dictate that we restrict their freedom.
People do dreadful things to cats. They dump unwanted kittens, pregnant cats and others that have just become inconvenient. They allow unrestricted breeding by neglecting to neuter their pets and then make it worse by allowing them to roam free. They move and just leave the poor animals to fend for themselves. And much worse — abuse and torture are also possible.
Outdoors is a dangerous place. I have seen uncontrolled breeding — kittens everywhere, cats stressed and unhealthy from too frequent litters and regular dumping of unwanted pets. Cats need to be neutered.
Then there are the other dangers — traffic, dogs, other cats, predatory animals, traps, poisons, disease and mean people. Even in our rather rural setting, there are unseen dangers.
Our neighbor Jack mentioned several times that he had foxes on the edge of his lawn. Well, recently he told us that his cat was at the vet. Seems Sammy was on the losing end of a fight with a fox. I'm sure that he was investigating somewhere he shouldn't have — a den perhaps. Foxes generally give birth in March or April. Sammy will be OK but on restricted rest for the next several weeks.
Despite, or because of, my love for cats, I don't believe that they should be allowed to roam free in most situations.
Now for the gardeners
Do not use deterrents that hurt the cats or other animals. Mothballs, for example, are an old remedy. However, they can be toxic to small children, dogs and cats. They also contain some pesticides that should definitely not be used around food crops.
There are some good options and a few that work for some gardeners.
Some people place cut-up lengths of garden hose in the beds to imitate large garden snakes. My cats, over the years, have viewed most garden snakes as oversized cat toys. Perhaps others have had better results with this method.
Anything that covers or masks the loose soil is good. Chicken wire, coarse mulch, stone mulch, spiky mats all make the soil less tempting. Some people have used upturned plastic forks or small twigs inserted into the soil.
Scent is also a good deterrent — the right scents. Cats seem to have an inherent dislike for the herb rue. Grow it or scatter dried rue in the garden to discourage visits. Cats also seem to dislike citrus fruits scattering fresh orange, lemon or grapefruit peels deters them. Oil of lavender, lemon grass, citronella and eucalyptus are also unpopular with most cats. Other suggestions include scattering coffee grounds or spraying vinegar around the garden.
Netting is another option but generally not worth the time and effort, as it must be removed for planting, weeding and harvesting.
My favorite deterrent is water. I bought Fran a motion-detecting water sprayer that has been effective against deer. I've heard that it also works well for cats and dogs. The sudden spray unsettles them. Super Soakers and other water pistols also work but the cat connects with you as the threat, not the water so they just come back when you aren't around.
Pete on July 05, 2020:
Can steaming the soil work?
david on October 28, 2019:
There's a simpler way to sterilize soil. There's an old boy scout gag played on younger scouts that illustrates a principle of physics. Place a paper cup of water or coffee directly in the camp fire and ask the novitiate how long before the cup burns. The correct answer of course is that the cup will not burn until the liquid is all evaporated. The liquid keeps the cup from exceeding 212 degrees. This principle is applicable to sterilizing soil in the oven. First, you don't need oven safe containers. I sterilize soil right in the plastic flower pots I get from the nursery. Second, it can't be too hot in the oven because the moist soil can't get over 212. I can sterilize eight one gallon pots in 45 minutes at 400 degrees. Take them out at 180 to 185 degrees. It takes over thirty minutes for them to cool to 160. Just like your turkey at tgiving. No need for foil wrap either. The top soil can dry out and thus get too hot. So put a wet paper towel or a bit of a rag on top of each pot to keep the surface hydrated.