Disease spores ruin summer for tomatoe fan

Family Matters

September 19, 2004|By SUSAN REIMER

HOW GOOD A gardener do you have to be to keep one tomato plant alive?

I am no Farmer in the Dell. And I am not aiming for a victory garden.

I just want to be able to walk out my back door and pick a warm, red tomato every day or so.

Not a pepper or a cucumber or an eggplant or a handful of sugar snap peas. They all taste just fine from the grocery store.

But tomatoes donM-Ft. Even the ones marked M-tlocally grownM-v taste like winter tomatoes, all grainy and bland and dry.

Tomatoes are the one vegetable that you have to grow yourself. And everybody grows tomatoes. Because everybody can.

Everybody except me.

This summer, I watched with frustration as the lowest leaves on my tomato plants turned yellow, then brown, shriveled and died.

Whatever disease this is then moved up the plants like mercury in a thermometer until my tomato plants looked in early July like they should look in early November.

Dead.

I harvested no more than a couple of tomatoes before the plants succumbed.

Now I am an object of pity in my neighborhood.

And, no doubt, ridicule. I can hear my neighbors saying behind my back, M-tWhatM-Fs the matter with Reimer that she canM-Ft keep a tomato plant alive? Sheesh, any idiot can grow tomatoes.M-v

Any idiot but this idiot.

Jon Traunfeld, regional specialist with the University of Maryland Cooperative ExtensionM-Fs Home and Garden Information Center, told me he knows just what my problem is.

And he told me there is no solution.

M-tI can give you an explanation,M-v he said. M-tBut no comfort.M-v

My tomato plants have been stricken by something called Early Blight. It is a fungal disease, and it is harder to cure than a migraine headache.

The spores overwinter in the soil and then blow around in the wind or splash onto the plants in the rain.

The fungus infects the lowest branches first and quickly consumes the entire plant. By mid- July, my plants were shot.

M-tThis has been the worst year for it in a while,M-v said Traunfeld. M-tAll the rain and the humidity and the dewy mornings made it worse.M-v

Letting the garden lie fallow for a year wonM-Ft help because the spores will still be there when you plant again. Moving the garden entirely wonM-Ft help.

I learned that when I planted my tomatoes in brand new deck planters with store-bought dirt.

M-tThe spores are really flying through the air for you, arenM-Ft they,M-v said Traunfeld, and I thought I heard him laughing.

Early blight is the most prevalent tomato plant disease east of the Mississippi, Traunfeld said. But there are ways to combat its devastation.

Choose a sunny spot for your plants and space them three feet apart to provide lots of air circulation.

Cover the ground around the plants with mulch or black plastic to keep the spores down.

DonM-Ft water at night and keep the foliage dry when you do water because the spores need water to reproduce and to infect the plant.

Using a two-liter plastic soda bottle and the cone-shaped dispensers sold by Garden Supply Co. are the best solution because they provide water inground, directly to the roots.

If you have room, plant in M-trelaysM-v as some farmers do, Traunfeld said. By the time your first crop is decimated, the next crop should be producing.

Even before you see the telltale yellowing of the bottom leaves, spray with liquid copper or hydrogen peroxide M-y both cheap, easily available and organic. This may not stop the infection, but it will slow it enough to save the tomato crop.

M-tThese foliar fungi diseases are the worst tomato diseases,M-v said Traunfeld. M-tAnd they are everywhere. We are just seeing more of it this season because the conditions are conducive.M-v

Although there are tomatoes bred to be resistant to certain diseases, hybridizers have had no success producing a variety that resists Early Blight.

In the meantime, thatM-Fs me at the roadside stands and the farmersM-F markets, buying other peopleM-Fs tomatoes.

M-tI hope you have better luck next year,M-v said Traunfeld.

I said M-tThanks,M-v but I know I sounded bitter.

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