Tuesday, August 11, 2009


I've spent the last hour back behind the garage, in the area I refer to as "the tomato yard." I pulled up all my tomato plants this morning because they have late blight. This fungal disease is sporadic in occurrence, often hitting the plants after most of the tomatoes have ripened and been harvested. Cool, rainy conditions like we've had this summer favor the spread of the blight. This year it hit early, while much of the fruit is still green, and it is very widespread in the northeast and moving towards the midwest. A friend from the plant disease clinic on campus mentioned the other day that entire crops have been wiped out up north. I had checked my plants on Sunday and didn't notice any symptoms, but the disease was evident when I went to water them this morning. There are fungicides are available to protect against late blight and other fungal diseases, but it was too late for my garden. My neighbors' plants are probably infected as well, but I decided to take mine out as a courtesy to the other gardeners around me.

Heartsick and resigned, I started at one end of the row, clipping branches and stuffing the plants into a garbage bag. Late blight spores are hardy and can survive from one growing season to the next, so I didn't want to put the diseased plants in the compost pile. I should dig up the soil around the roots of the plants and dispose of it, but I decided to leave it in place and simply not plant any tomatoes or their relatives there for the next two years.

My hands quickly became coated with that peculiar yellow-green from the tomato stems, as if they're so full of life that they have to transfer additional chlorophyll to anyone who brushes up against them. The smell of bruised tomato foliage filled the air, one of my favorite smells. Swarms of whiteflies took to the air in a panic as I cut down their favorite food plant. Mercifully the little mosquitoes left me alone in my work. Most of the green fruit were only the size of a golf ball or small orange. None had even begun to turn the shades of pink, red, and purple that I had looked forward to seeing. I removed the worst of the plants and briefly debated leaving one healthy-looking plant with a half dozen tomatoes on it, but I shook my head and took it out, knowing that in another day or two it too would be diseased, with withered, drooping foliage and ugly brown lesions on the stems and fruit.

Japanese Black Triefele, Black Krim, and another variety I can't recall the name of....not that it matters now, they're all gone. I started each plant from seed back in April and have babied them for the past 4 months. I also have peppers and eggplants planted in the tomato yard. As members of the Solanaceae family (along with potatoes, tomatilloes, and even petunias), they're also susceptible to the disease. They look fine at the moment, but I'll have to keep a close watch on them. The Honeybunch cherry tomatoes are planted several yards away, and I hope that they finish ripening before they show symptoms.

I did save the green tomatoes. I could fry them up tonight, but the fruit aren't very large. I'll probably chop them up and freeze them for a green tomato cake or maybe relish later on this month. That's not the harvest I had hoped for, but gardening is always a gamble and you have to make the most of what you get.

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