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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Airport – – –

A Crazy but True Cautionary Tale for Gardeners and Growers

Once upon a time, a few months after 9-11, I was almost out the door on vacation when I decided to water my patio pots one more time before heading to the airport. Everything was packed up, luggage in the car, wearing new slip-on tennis shoes for the walk through airport security.

After watering, I decided to spray the plants with liquid fertilizer to be sure they stayed healthy for 2 weeks. Because a bit of the spray threatened to stain the concrete on the patio, I removed the fertilizer sprayer and hosed off the patio (walking through the puddles as I cleaned up).

Fast forward to the airport check point, where I didn’t pay any attention to the sound of an alarm going off until I was asked to step aside and wait. After consenting to a pat down, I agreed while the TSA attendant swabbed my hands. She then swabbed them a second time; the alarm beeped again, and a supervisor arrived to question me.

“Are you a Nurse or caretaker?”

Are you a heart patient?”

“Are there any heart patients in your home?”

She then unloaded my purse, phone, and my make-up and pill bottles. She then crushed each of the pills and swabbed the crushed pills as well as everything from lipstick and mascara to ink pens and tissues with the detector. At that point, I was escorted to a private room and asked if I would step behind a screen and hand my jeans to a female attendant for further scanning and inspection as they had set off the alarm as well as my hands and shoes.

Feeling mystified and a little apprehensive, I re-dressed and was introduced to an FBI agent who now took charge of my questioning (and was, in fact as handsome as those clean-cut professionals pictured on TV). At this point I was just hoping to get this nightmare over in time to gather my computer, purse and phone and still make my plane.

“I know we have asked before, but think again ─ did you help anyone take their nitroglycerine tablets recently?”

“No, never.”

“And you are not a Nurse?”

“No,” I sighed. “Can you please tell me what’s going on?”

“Are you a Gardener?”

And then it all made sense! Splashing tiny droplets of that ocean-colored liquid fertilizer (with nitrates of course), onto my jeans, walking through the liquid with my tennis shoes, and handling the crystals as I poured them into the sprayer…all absorbed, carried innocently into the airport, and triggering the wail of the TSA sensors and the whole domino effect of escalated interrogation.

“Really? Someone couldn’t have asked that question about two searches ago?”

Relieved, I explained the watering/nutrient routine, got my gear back, and was cleared to catch my plane with barely 3 minutes to spare!

While I certainly learned a lesson that day, I fly frequently across the US, and have seen an abbreviated version of this “re-scanned gardener” scenario more than once at a TSA check point. Although they generally ask the “Are you a gardener or farmer?” question a bit earlier, it is still a very intimidating way to meet a movie-appropriate government agent!


The TSA guidelines are clear in specifying “no fertilizers” on their prohibited cargo list. But there are more detailed guidelines about lipstick and baby formula than the troublesome traces of nitrate that might cling to the shoes, hats, clothing and fingertips of plant caretakers.

But not filing this information in your memory bank could very well make you miss your plane, nevertheless.

Here are few HortGrow Best Practices for globe-trotting gardeners and growers:
  • If you are handling nitrate fertilizer in any form before boarding a plane, be extra industrious washing your hands to remove all traces.
  • Laundering jeans and shoes before wearing them to the airport should eliminate the problem. Better yet, just pick a travel outfit that hasn’t been anywhere near a garden.
  • The soles of tennis shoes are porous and can absorb and hold traces of the nitrates. They should be washed at least twice if you plan to wear them through a TSA checkpoint. If you are a winemaker like Curt Dunham of LDV Winery in Arizona, it’s probably best not to take the chance!
farmin shoes

Happy travels, to all you “Green Thumbs” out there ─ and better yet ─ choosing organic plant nutrients like NeemGrow to keep patio gardens healthy avoids this possibility all together!