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Posts Tagged ‘blight’

Commercial Tomato Woes

If you visit Your Small Kitchen Garden blog often, you’ve probably seen this photo of diseased tomatoes on the vine in my garden. Home growers were particularly distressed by tomato diseases, but some commercial growers also lost crops.

I’ve written much in Your Small Kitchen Garden about the woes of home tomato growers in 2009. As you might expect, some commercial operations also suffered this year. While most apply chemicals to stave off late blight and bacterial infections, some don’t. What’s more, conditions were so bad this season that even chemically-treated crops might not have escaped disease.

Our local paper ran an article yesterday about a crop-sharing group that lost money because of the tough tomato-growing weather. It’s fascinating to see the figures the commercial growers cite in the article. For example, the growers expected to harvest 31 tons of tomatoes per acre; instead they reaped only 19.42 tons per acre.

Another telling statistic: Because of low temperatures and excess moisture, it took 42 days for tomato plants to grow significantly after planting compared to seven days last year, and only four days in 2007! Everyone in the eastern united states seems to have had this type of weather, but apparently your plants might have faired better if you planted them later in the season.

Buying shares in crops can be an economical way to get fresh produce for non-growers… though some crop shares pay out only in cash (as the ones in the article seem to). Crop shares are also a terrific way for farmers to spread risk for years when things don’t go quite right. This was one of those years.

The article is an interesting read. Please check it out: Tomato gamble withers on vine

 

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After Late Blight in a Small Kitchen Garden

Late blight infections in 2009 spread all over the eastern United States, wiping out many small kitchen garden tomato crops. Late blight can express itself as brown discoloration on tomatoes – green or ripe.

As the plants fade in your small kitchen garden, the temptation grows to get out there and clean things up. If the plants aren’t going to produce more, why keep them around? The question became more complicated for many this year when late blight destroyed tomato plants all over the north eastern United States.

I 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 stuff about late blight that every tomato- and potato-grower should know.

Late Blight is Mold

For years I’ve heard late blight referred to as fungus, but last month at a tweet-up with a group of gardening enthusiasts in upstate NY, Bridget McManus (@b_mcmanus on Twitter) put me onto an article that identifies late blight as mold. So, late blight is mold, but it’s susceptible to chemicals that kill funguses.

Pretty much any place a late blight mold spore sticks to living tomato tissue, a lesion will emerge in four to six days. By this time, chances are spores have infected other nearby plants and tomatoes.

There’s vaguely good news about late blight: most late blight in the United States is of one strain or another so in a particular infection, every mold spore is genetically identical. These identical molds can reproduce only asexually resulting in spores that can’t survive beyond about four hours without a living host… unless they’re in the soil. To make durable spores, mold must breed sexually—that is, it must breed with a strain of the mold that is genetically different from itself.

To gardeners, asexual late blight means infections die out along with the plants on which they live.

Small Kitchen Garden Late Blight Management

If late blight can survive only on a living host, why do people fuss about the importance of removing blighted plants from your garden… and not adding the plants to your compost? There are several reasons:

    Late blight shows as brown splotches on stems and leaves, and rapidly spreads over the entire plant, eventually killing it. In the lower-right background of this photo, there is a seriously-infected green tomato… actually quite brown at this point in its demise.

  • Active late blight on any plant can rapidly spread to other plants. In fact, if you see lesions on a leaf, stem, or fruit, there’s a reasonable chance that blight spores have already spread to other leaves, stems, and fruits.
  • A plant may not show signs of infection for four days after becoming infected.
  • A single lesion can release hundreds of thousands of spores every day, each of which can cause a new lesion.
  • Spores, while not hardy, can survive for about four hours without a host—or several weeks if they get mixed into the soil. That gives them plenty of time to ride the wind to neighbors’ plants or to wild plants that might provide a nurturing environment.

So, your attitude toward blighted plants should be about containment: By the time you recognize late blight in your small kitchen garden, it may be too late to save your crops. However, if you remove the plants and bury them six inches underground… or bag them and put them out with your trash, you may slow the spread and spare other gardens from the ugly disease.

The risk of composting is that the compost heap may provide ideal conditions to keep asexually-produced spores alive far longer than they’d live out in the air. Worse: if you also compost susceptible roots or tubers, spores may infect them and winter over.

Put Your Small Kitchen Garden to Bed

With rain and wind, late blight spores eventually spread over the entire surface of a plant, making it look mummified. Amazingly, while every scrap of green on this plant was overwhelmed by late blight, the actual fruit ripened and dried without growing lesions.

Late blight dies along with the plants it’s infecting. So, if you have blighted tomato plants in your garden when killing frost hits, your blight problem may be past. I say **may be** because you might also have potatoes in your garden… or there may be wild plants nearby that can host late blight mold spores.

So, if your tomatoes had late blight, pull the plants out, bag them, and put them out with the trash… or dig a deep hole for them well away from your garden, and buy them under at least six inches of soil. Dig your potatoes… make sure you don’t miss any. The one you leave behind could be the vector for next year’s late blight infection.

Aside from these activities, don’t work the soil in your infected garden bed; once you’ve cleared the plants away, give remaining late blight spores several weeks to die out: don’t cover old, dead or dying plants with mulch (grass clippings and fallen leaves count as mulch). In fact, I’d leave the garden bed exposed to the elements through the winter and plan on adding amendments at the beginning of the next growing season.

Protect Your Potatoes from Blight

Yes, the late blight that went after tomato plants this year is the same disease that can turn potatoes into hideously stinky mush. And, for all the discussion about infected tomatoes, I’m amazed that I heard of not one potato blight infection.

In my research I was fascinated to read that the blight mold doesn’t spread through a plant’s circulatory system. Rather, a lesion starts where a spore comes to rest on the plant and apparently expands over a limited area… except that as more spores form, they alight on nearby living tissue until the mold completely consumes the leaves and stems.

The tubers of a potato plant don’t get infected simply because the leaves and stems of the plant are infected. Generally, tubers develop late blight when spores drop off of infected greens and sift into the soil. You can protect potatoes by planting them deep and topping them up as they develop so the tubers remain more than three inches underground. Also: don’t hoe or otherwise stir up the soil; anything that helps the spores get closer to your potatoes could lead to disaster.

Sad News for Prevention

When last I wrote about late blight, I explained steps you can take to reduce the chances of your plants becoming infected. Sadly, in a wet growing season, those steps may be only marginally effective. The sad truth is, the only reliable way to prevent infections is to treat your plants against fungus throughout the growing season.

Naturally, there are chemical, non-organic sprays that are highly successful. I’ve spoken with several farmers at the local farmers’ market whose sentiment is, “I didn’t have any problems with blight this year because I used chemicals.”

Apparently, the most effective organic preventatives are sprays containing copper… which can build up to toxic levels in the soil. Alternatively, spraying foliage with compost teas has proven somewhat effective according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.

So, the answer to the question, What can I do now to prevent late blight infection next season? is, very little:

  • Hope that your late blight has lived asexually
  • Remove all plant material that could host late blight in and around your garden (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and nightshades must go)
  • Leave the soil undisturbed and uncovered for two or three weeks before amending it or mulching it

Next year, you’re not likely to see late blight unless the weather treats you the same as it did this year. If you hate to gamble, you’ll have your best chance of success if you treat your plants regularly with antifungal spray that’s labeled as a late blight preventative. You need to decide what treatments are acceptable to you… and what level of loss you can tolerate should your garden disappoint.

Some information for this post came from the Cornell University Vegetable MD Online web site. It’s an awesome resource for kitchen gardeners.

Here are some other sources for information about late blight:

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