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Tomato Strife in Small Kitchen Gardens Everywhere

A cluster of tomatoes illustrates the ugly progression of late blight through my small kitchen garden. I’m losing about a bushel of tomatoes to the horrible disease.

It’s not news to anyone who owns a small kitchen garden: This has been a challenging year for gardeners in North America. I’m sorry if this was your first year planting a kitchen garden; I hope the aggravation wasn’t enough to discourage you in coming years.

The south western United States experienced sustained heat and dryness; I heard complaints from gardeners that they couldn’t keep plants watered and cool enough to get decent harvests.

The Atlantic coast and clear out to the Midwest had crazy, sustained rains and cool temperatures. Especially in the north—from New York up into Canada, rain drowned the roots of vegetable plants, and the cool temperatures slowed growth.

Late Blight and Tomatoes

Perhaps worst of all this growing season: Late blight, the fungus that created the Irish potato famine in 1845, shipped along with tomato seedlings to big-box garden centers all over the eastern United States. Late blight thrives in the cool-wet, and for the most part, tomatoes didn’t have a chance.

I completely fell in love with these tomatoes in 2009. Shaped like peppers, they grow quite large. They are so devoid of moisture that they float in water where beefsteaks and other slicing tomatoes sink. They taste terrific. Sadly, the last twenty or so still in my garden are infected with late blight.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, late blight is an American export; someone accidentally introduced it to Ireland. I long ago learned that the late blight fungus is pretty much always on-hand, waiting for the right conditions to kick it into action. A gardener’s best defense against late blight is culture:

  • Provide good drainage— If drainage is good, air movement around your plants’ roots is also good; and good for the plants..
  • Minimize moisture— Water only as much as the plants need; I haven’t met a vegetable plant that wants its roots wet constantly.
  • Control moisture— That is, focus watering on the soil near plants’ roots; don’t use sprinklers and spray nozzles that soak foliage with every watering.
  • Don’t crowd plants— You can plant things closer than seed packages recommend and you’ll get great production… as long as everything else goes right. I understand the risks of crowding and I take the lumps when they come… but please choose a level of pain that’s acceptable to you. Crowding traps moisture, blocks air flow, and provides easy pathways for insects and diseases.
  • Make sure air can circulate freely— If there’s a lot of air movement within your garden plot, plants will tolerate crowding better than they will in a well-sheltered area.
  • Rotate crops— Don’t plant the same crop in the same area two years in a row. Ideally, figure a three- or four-year rotation; don’t repeat tomatoes in the same space for three or four years if you can avoid it.
  • Follow a crop only with crops that aren’t closely-related— Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant are all related closely enough that if you plant one in a specific area this season, none should go in that area next season. Please check my small kitchen garden store for books that will guide you to responsible choices for next year’s crops.
  • Prevent the spread of disease— Remove sick plants quickly. Bag them and toss them in the garbage, but don’t compost them.
  • Plant seedlings grown locally— Best of all: learn to start your own plants from seeds about four-to-six weeks before you put them in your garden. If you prefer to leave that hassle to someone else, at least find a local nursery or garden store that starts its own seedlings. The farther you go for your live plants, the more opportunities the plants have to acquire unwanted pathogens.

Gardening Lucky

I feel pretty confident in guessing that this bell pepper is inflicted with late blight. I had been anticipating a second wave of peppers to harvest in early autumn, but the very difficult growing season had other ideas.

I got very lucky this season:

  • I started all my plants from seeds for the first time ever.
  • The micro climate of central PA was cool but “wet enough” meaning we got rain when we needed it, but not to excess. I’m quite sure it was low temperatures that caused the most trouble.
  • Despite heavy crowding, my plants showed no sign of stress until late August.
  • By late August, I’d already harvested about 3 bushels of tomatoes
  • Late blight spread very slowly in my garden; it seems to have missed the potatoes, though it seems to be damaging some of my peppers.

Despite the good luck, in just two weeks, my tomato plants have gone from late-season production of gorgeous fruits to overwhelming melt-down with nearly every fruit showing ugly brown lesions. I’m used to harvesting tomatoes up to the first frost, but this weekend I’ll be pulling all the plants and stuffing them into a plastic bag for garbage pickup.

Keep On Gardening

This was an unusual year! It is my first in fourteen seasons at this address where disease has taken hold… and some of those years were far wetter. My guess is that the temperature was the biggest villain in my garden’s problems; summer seemed to last about two weeks. Those weeks fell between three months of early spring and the sudden onset of autumn.

So, don’t be discouraged. Chances are, next season will be “normal…” and if not, perhaps the season after that will be.

 

 

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10 Responses to “Tomato Strife in Small Kitchen Gardens Everywhere”

  • That is too bad that you got the late blight…I got a lot of septoria leaf spot early in the summer cause of the frequent rains in june and july. Now we have had 2 weeks without any rain and it has completely stopped the leaf spot. The tomato plants are trying to grow again…they look very funny. At least you were able to get a bunch of usable tomatoes early on, the season wasn’t a total loss. I know that is not much consolation though.

  • I’ve taken your advice and now pick all tomatoes when the have even the hint of color. It’s been a race against blight for the past many weeks.

    I’ve also been experimenting with green tomatoes. We fried some for the first time last night. They were pretty good. Even my husband who is pretty much of a carnivore liked them.

    I’ve found that the best way to ripen the green tomatoes is to wrap them in newspaper. A lot have rotted no matter what I do, but some have ripened and have been delicious.

  • Good pictures, thanks for sharingi it.

  • I’m so sorry this happened to you. You did manage to get a decent harvest in before the blight, though. I’ve heard of gardeners who lost it all! I have to say, I lost almost everything last year to drought, and I learned a lot — mostly patience!

    And yes, the best advice in all your article is what you said last: keep going. If we don’t keep trying — well, what else is there in life? Organic gardening had a steep learning curve for me. And we’ll always be learning in the garden :)

    Enjoying your blog, as always!

  • admin:

    Gardenmom29: Thanks for your comment! It seems so late in the season to have plants just recovering from difficulties. I’ve found that fruits that develop in cool weather (in autumn, for example) never develop quite the juicy softness of hot weather tomatoes. I hope you get a satisfying harvest despite the early setback.

    Kerry: Thanks for sharing. At the very end of past seasons many years ago, I’d pick the green tomatoes and wrap them in newspapers. Some would ripen, some would rot… but I never liked the ripened ones. I came to believe that tomatoes maturing in very cool weather simply aren’t as good as hot weather tomatoes. When I learned the “pick-pink” approach, there was no mention of newspapers, and tomatoes heaped in big bowls have become the rule here.

    I lose tomatoes two ways: 1. When I have more than I can keep up with, natural aging can take over and a tomato or two will melt down… which, of course, promotes other tomatoes in the bowl to melt down faster; I at least try to pick through the bowls every 2 or 3 days to remove the bad ones. 2. Late blight expresses itself on tomatoes I’ve harvested. Sometimes, part of the tomato is still usable when this happens, but especially with smaller tomatoes there’s no hope. In the past three weeks, I’ve thrown out a lot of tomatoes that expressed blight days after I picked them and put them in bowls to ripen. It sounds as though you’re having similar problems… so sorry; it has been a most frustrating year in the kitchen garden.

    Kokkener: Thank you.

    Meredith: Thanks for your comments. Yes, so many gardeners got smeared this year. It’s so sad, and so natural. I hope people stick with it anyway; this truly was an exceptionally bad year, and even a mildly good year in the garden can be exceptionally satisfying.

  • Alliey Roche:

    I’m new to your blog and I’m really enjoying digging through the archives as I plan my very own first small kitchen garden here in Houston, TX. I’m very curious to know the name of the variety of tomato that looks like a pepper. Haven’t found that tidbit in my reading so far, please help! :)

  • admin:

    Thank you for visiting. I hope you find some of my posts useful, but please stay attentive to the differences in climate between here and Texas. This past summer apparently was heat-and-drought deadly for some standards (such as tomatoes) in Texas and Oklahoma. Also, I suspect the insect pests in Texas are quite different from what we see up here.

    As far as what variety are those pepper-shaped tomatoes? Wish I could say. Given to me by a neighbor, he’s been growing them for, perhaps, 40 years and got them from a farmers’ market or a neighbor. I saved a lot of seed this year and hope to offer trades or a give-away or some-such to distribute the variety to a wider area. I saw evidence of some cross-pollination with other varieties within the tomatoes I processed this year, but the pepper-shape and extreme meatiness expressed themselves in all the tomatoes.

    Stay tuned, and I’ll post my scheme for sharing my unusual tomato seeds as soon as I figure out what the scheme will be.

  • Great! It is nice to know this information coming from you.

  • [...] posted about late blight in an article titled Tomato Strife in Small Kitchen Gardens Everywhere, and subsequent conversations got me curious about late blight. I did some research and learned [...]

  • [...] Tomato Strife in Small Kitchen Gardens Everywhere | Your Small … [...]

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