Tomato Blight: It Coulda Been Worse

Mortgage Lifters ripen on the kitchen counter instead of the vine
Mortgage Lifters ripen on the kitchen counter instead of on the vine

We got a really early start on the maters this year–and almost lost them to frost, then heat and drought. Others of our neighbors were not so lucky–especially if they bought sets from a big-box store garden department.

You’ll find lots of recipes for green tomatoes online this year, because many only have unripened fruits on the withered vines, victims of “late blight” apparently widely distributed on commercial vegetable sets but also dispersed all along the way, so that even many of the tens of thousands trying to have a garden this year for the first time, met with yet another gardener’s disappointment.

But this year is turning out to be different – quite different, according to farmers and plant scientists. For one thing, the disease appeared much earlier than usual. Late blight usually comes, well, late in the growing season, as fungal spores spread from plant to plant. So its early arrival caught just about everyone off guard.

And then there’s the perniciousness of the 2009 blight. The pace of the disease (it covered the Northeast in just a few days) and its strength (topical copper sprays, a convenient organic preventive, have been much less effective than in past years) have shocked even hardened Hudson Valley farmers.

According to plant pathologists, this killer round of blight began with a widespread infiltration of the disease in tomato starter plants. Large retailers like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart bought starter plants from industrial breeding operations in the South and distributed them throughout the Northeast. (Fungal spores, which can travel up to 40 miles, may also have been dispersed in transit.)

As if we needed one more force working against us. I guess we are fortunate we put away several dozen quarts of tomatoes and salsa this year. Next year, we’ll try to be better prepared do deal with the blight–whose spores now are in our soil for the long haul.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Thanks Fred…now I have one more thing to be concerned with next year as I’m planting my tomato sets. It’s good information for sure.
    This year I’ve been lucky. The tomatoes are huge, healthy, abundant and delicious. Love those Bacon and Tomato sandwiches we’ve been having. Do you like Chow-Chow? Those green tomatoes work great in that kind of relish. Wait till next year! You’ll be better prepared and armed to fight it off.

  2. I enjoy reading about your garden. Looks like you got some nice ones. Can’t tomatoes be treated for this fungus? Here in the Northeast, I’m having to battle black spot on my roses this year, which I guess is from excessively damp weather. Fortunately, there’s fungicide.

  3. Yep, I got smacked with the blight as well. It hurt to take out all those plants I started from seed way back in April just as they were starting to bear fruit in August. I’m just thankful that the eggplant and peppers aren’t showing any symptoms (they’re in the same family as tomatoes and can be susceptible to late blight as well). As for next year? I grew tomatoes in five gallon buckets for years and may go back to that. At least the soil in the bucket is fresh and spore free, although it’s no protection against air-borne spores. You really can’t be a gardener without being an optimist, too.