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Late blight comes early. July 29, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Ugh. Late blight has struck Pennsylvania’s tomatoes at the exact moment when the crop is ripening. This airborne fungal disease usually arrives in the fall, when the plants have had plenty of time to produce, but this year’s wet, cool summer has inspired it to show up at the beginning of tomato season rather than the end. It’s affected so many of the area’s plants—killing them in a matter of days—that it made front-page news in our local paper this week.

And no wonder. What’s summer without corn, tomatoes, and melons? Yikes! Our friend Ben has seen tomatoes going for over $2 apiece at local farm stands, a sure sign of a shortage.

Once late blight strikes, there’s not a lot you can do, since the airborne fungal spores that spread the disease can travel 60 miles. (Yes, that’s 60, not 6.) You’ll know if your tomatoes are afflicted because the foliage will develop brown, greasy-looking spots (technically “lesions”), and then the leaves will wither and fall off. Next thing you know, you have a dead, naked plant. And then a bunch of dead, naked plants.

There are a few things you can do to try to prevent a late blight strike, like spacing your tomato plants out in a well-drained, sunny, breezy spot so lots of air can circulate around them. Or, say, moving to Antarctica where nobody will be growing potentially infected tomato plants within 60 miles of your home. Our friend Ben was feeling fairly smug about the tomatoes Silence Dogood and I are growing here at Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home located in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, since I couldn’t see anyone else growing tomatoes on our road. But then I remembered the sickly tomato plant hanging out the bottom of a plastic container on a porch at the end of the road. Clearly, that plant doesn’t feel too well. Thinking about that tomato plant, our friend Ben doesn’t feel too well myself.

What to do if blight strikes your tomatoes?  If you’re chemically inclined, you could blast away with fungicides, and much good may it do you. But if you’re lifelong organic gardeners like Silence and our friend Ben, your best bet is to keep a sharp eye on your plants and immediately remove any that display signs of infection.

Prior to reading the newspaper article, our friend Ben would have been inclined to just pull up and trash any infected plants (spores live a very long time, so you never want to compost an infected plant). Huge mistake. Pulling up a plant shakes loose bazillion spores, which can then live on in your soil for years. Instead, the Penn State Master Gardeners proposed a novel solution: Put a black plastic garbage bag over the plant, then cut it off at the base and tie the bag shut. They suggest leaving the bag in the sun to “cook” the spores for a while before trashing it. If only there were any sun, this would doubtless be good advice. In the absence of sun, our friend Ben suggests trashing the bag immediately; it can always “cook” in the garbage can should the sun happen to come out.

Here at Hawk’s Haven, we’ve actually been getting a great crop of tomatoes this year, our best ever. So far, anyway. (That’s because the rain has been doing our watering for us. When you have to haul water in milk jugs to the back forty to water your veggies, they never get enough. Trust me on this.) But now, of course, I’m terrorized and am checking the plants every morning for signs of impending doom.

With tomatoes in containers and in one raised bed, however, we can never grow as many as we want, so we have to buy local tomatoes to supplement our crop. It’s starting to look like a very expensive year.



1. Curmudgeon - July 29, 2009

Wow! You really are having a Seattle summer. And we continue to bake out here in the PNW. We’re due to hit 100+ today. That’s just unheard of here. Seattle might just vaporize off the face of the map today!

Yikes, Curmudgeon! As a hater of heat and humidity, I’ve been rejoicing that we haven’t even hit 90 yet this summer. But that could all change in August!

2. Jen - July 29, 2009

Like you, I’ve been biting my nails before heading out to the garden every day. Lots here in the Hudson Valley have had to take out half their crops or more. I’ve heard that spraying on a compost tea is a good organic preventative – also chamomile but I’m a little skeptical of that (?) Very smart to cover before removing them!

I, too, have heard that a compost tea spray is a good fungus preventive, though I’ve never had to try it. But can’t hurt, might help, right? Thanks for the suggestion.

3. Mark Scibek - August 7, 2009

Well shaking off the spores would explain why after i snip off the dying leaves theres twice as many the next day lol. Ive gone ahead and sprayed on some copper soap and turned my water timer down abit. Im guessing that because my plants got so robust, and i wrapped them in tight, i built a nesting ground for this fungus.

Yikes, Mark! I hope you’ve been able to get a decent crop despite the wretched blight.

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