Gardening is a hobby commonly considered healthy. Generally, it’s also assumed to be safe. But, are there exceptions? Do you need to wear gloves when using a potting mix, for example?
You should wear gloves when using a potting mix. Compost, potting mix, and soil harbor bacteria that can cause serious disease and illness, and if you cut yourself, it can cause severe infection. Always wear gloves and practice safe handling when using a potting mix.
In this article, I’ll list the dangers of potting mix and what equipment to wear while handling it. I’ll also go over how to properly store and handle it, as well as what to do if you cut yourself while using it. Finally, I’ll brush over why you need gloves to handle compost. Read more.
Why You Need Gloves When Using Potting Mix
What are the dangers of using potting mix? Can it cause illness or infection? If so, how?
Potting mix is commonly made of peat moss, bark, and perlite. All of these materials are porous, and when heat and humidity are added, they create a great environment for microorganisms to grow and thrive. While some potting mix is steam-sterilized to get rid of them, not all of it is, so you should still practice caution regardless.
Should you cut yourself while handling your potting mix, there’s a chance that you might acquire an infection from the microorganisms in the soil. If you’re immunocompromised or your infection goes undiagnosed or untreated, it may become serious enough to cause gangrene or even life-threatening sepsis.
Tetanus, on the other hand, is a nervous system-affecting illness that causes muscle pain and spasms, which in turn cause difficulty swallowing, breathing difficulties, lockjaw, and eventually, convulsions.
Like infections, it’s sometimes acquired by contact between potting soil and open wounds, and if it reaches the point where you can’t open your jaw, it can also be deadly.
The microorganisms that can live in the potting mix can when breathed in, also cause infections in the lungs. This is commonly referred to as pneumonia, and it can range from being mild and weatherable at home to being severe and needing treatment in the ICU.
When pneumonia is the result of legionella bacteria, which is commonly found in potting mix, the resulting illness is often called Legionnaires Disease.
Legionnaires Disease is a form of severe lung inflammation and can be acquired by breathing in particles from the potting soil. While most healthy people aren’t susceptible to developing Legionnaires, those who are immunocompromised or otherwise ill are more likely to acquire it.
The initial symptoms of Legionnaires Disease are fever, headaches, and muscle aches. Several days later, those affected develop a cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain. They may also suffer digestive upset or changes in their cognitive ability.
Pontiac Fever is a milder form of Legionnaires Disease that doesn’t infect the lungs, and the infected person usually returns to relative health within five days. However, it’s still best avoided.
If you’ve been handling the potting mix and are suffering from any of these symptoms, it’s important to mention that you’ve been using potting soil when you see your doctor. Without this information, it may be difficult to adequately treat you in time to avoid lung damage.
Wear Equipment While Handling Potting Mix
So, how do you avoid disease, illness, and infection while using potting mix? What equipment should you wear to protect yourself?
The first piece of equipment you can use to protect yourself is a mask. You’ll want a mask with a respirator to filter out any fine particles—an N95 or P2 mask is recommended. By wearing a mask, disease-causing microorganisms won’t be breathed in nearly as easy, preventing pneumonia and Legionnaires Disease at the source.
Gloves are your second line of defense, preventing cuts and other wounds and helping keep microorganisms from the potting soil out. Any form of tough gardening glove should do, so long as you remember to wash your hands thoroughly with soap immediately after taking them off.
You don’t want to spread the microorganisms to your face or body, or to objects or surfaces that you can then touch and reapply them to your hands.
Proper Storage of Potting Mix
Gloves and masks are well and good, but is it possible to store the potting mix in a way that minimizes the risk?
The microorganisms present in some potting mixes require heat and humidity to grow and thrive, so storing your potting mix in a cool, dry place should help. Keep your potting mix bags out of direct sunlight, and ensure they don’t get wet from rain or other precipitation. If in doubt, your garage or basement is a good place to put them.
In addition, buy the potting mix in resealable bags and store them in a sealable container. This will not only help to keep the mix fresh but will help contain any microorganisms or spores that might grow in it if something goes wrong.
How To Handle and Use Potting Mix Safely
So, what can you do in addition to the above to handle and use your potting mix safely?
The first thing you can do is open it away from your body in a well-ventilated area. You should avoid gardening with open wounds on your hands or arms, too.
- Open in a well-ventilated area: When you open your potting mix bags, do so outside in the open air. Open the bag facing away from your body, so you don’t wind up breathing in any particles. This should help prevent pneumonia and Legionnaires Disease and will help prevent the particles from getting in your eyes due to the wind, too.
- Avoid gardening with open wounds: The best way to overcome an infection is to prevent it. As I’ve said above, getting potting mix on or around an open or healing wound can cause severe infection. So, if you’ve recently cut or injured yourself, put off gardening for a day or two—or at the very least, wrap it up tightly and wear a pair of thick gardening gloves.
- Avoid touching your face: When you touch your face while gardening, you can transfer the potting soil to your nose, mouth, or eyes. While this may seem to be merely irritating in the short term, it can lead to an infection or even Legionnaires Disease.
- Don’t smoke, eat or drink: Not only does smoking affect your immune system, making you more susceptible to lung infections, but smoking, eating, or drinking while using potting mix gives the mix a direct gateway to your mouth and nose. Always wait until you’ve finished with the potting mix and have adequately washed your hands.
What To Do If You Cut Yourself While Gardening
But, what should you do if you cut yourself while gardening? You can do everything you can, but accidents may still happen—what do you do in such a circumstance?
If you cut yourself while gardening, the first thing you should do is wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. Then, apply a topical antibiotic such as Polysporin and bandage the wound to protect it. If you need to go back to your potting mix, make sure that you wear gloves.
Should you want an extra layer of protection, you can put your hand into a plastic bag, then place your hand with the plastic bag around it into your glove.
Should You Wear Gloves To Handle Compost?
Potting mix is commonly used, but so is compost. Do microorganisms grow in compost as well, and if so, should you wear gloves to handle it?
You should wear gloves to handle compost, just like with potting mix. You can read more about why in my article: Should You Wear Gloves to Handle Compost?
Does Potting Mix Expire?
Can potting mix expire? Is it safe to keep old soil around, or even use it in your garden?
Potting mix expires. Over time, the minerals and nutrients that go towards feeding the plants dissipate, and your garden may fail to thrive. In addition, the microorganisms in the mix can survive the winter, sticking around to attack your plants in the spring.
Reusing old potting mix requires cleaning, solarizing, and replenishing its nutrients. It’s a time and effort-intensive process. In many cases, it’s simpler to get rid of the old soil and buy new bags, even if it’s been impeccably stored. Otherwise, your garden may suffer as a result.
If you still wish to reuse old soil, store it for the winter and solarize it using a black garbage bag left out in the sun. This is called solarizing, and you can read about the process in this article by Treehugger.
Wear gloves while using potting mix because it can cause infections, tetanus, pneumonia, and legionnaires disease. Wear a mask as well, and store it in a dry, cool, indoor place. Don’t smoke, eat or drink while gardening, and avoid touching your face. Remember, potting mix expires.