Friday, August 14, 2009

Big Bad Tomato Blight

My father, who just turned 91, is one of the best vegetable growers I’ve ever known. As a little girl I reveled in his large garden, once eating every single ripe strawberry in the entire bed with my best friend in one half-hour spree. It was the worst crime I ever committed in my childhood, and my accomplice and I were forbidden to see each other for two weeks.

By mid-August my father’s corn crop would resemble a tall amber-tasseled army of the Trojan War, in neat rustling rows with dim fragrant pathways between. The harvest involved a dinnertime ritual. We’d set a big pot of water on the stove, and as it was about to boil, we would dash out to the garden, pick an armful of ears, and run, not walk, back to the house, husking as we went. The yellow ears would be plunged into the pot within 30 seconds of being picked; 5 minutes later we’d be feasting on them, butter and juice dribbling down our chins.

His garden specialized in berries, corn, squashes, beans, onions, and tomatoes. About ten years ago he finally stopped growing strawberries (weeding too laborious), then corn (raccoon invasion), and recently squashes and beans. Tomatoes were always his pride and joy, however, and I always envied his gorgeous, plump, scarlet, juicy, flavorful, plentiful fruits.

Enter the late tomato blight, the great debacle of 2009. In May my dad and I bought locally grown tomato seedlings, and he put about 30 of them into the ground on a rare sunny weekend at the end of that month. Unfortunately, New England was enveloped in a cold, cloudy, rainy spell from May through July.

On a blighted plant the leaves and flowers appear normal but the tomatoes look like something out of a low-budget horror movie.

My father noticed by early July that his tomatoes weren’t doing anything: not growing, not flowering, simply not thriving. We blamed it on the lousy weather, but a couple of weeks later a newsletter arrived from Caretaker Farm, our CSA. Don Zasada, the farmer, alerted us to the pending catastrophe of late blight, which was threatening to destroy the entire tomato crop and the later varieties of potato. “In my 14 years of farming,” he wrote, “this is the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced.”

Half of this tomato looks okay; the other half has simply rotted away.

Us, too, and I am determined to help my dad meet this challenge. By now his plants are a sorry sight — one or two bruised and blackened fruits dangling limply from spindly stalks. An individual tomato will seem okay when green and then turn bad in hours. And this is happening all over the Northeast, as farmers and restaurateurs have been reporting during the past weeks. Chef Dan Barber had a long article on the subject in last Sunday’s New York Times, and the Northeast Organic Farming Association conference this past weekend in Amherst, Massachusetts, held an emergency roundtable session on sharing solutions.

Scientists say that three elements have to coincide to allow late blight to take hold: the spores of the disease; a susceptible host plant (tomato or potato); and cold, cloudy, rainy weather. It’s now believed the spores hitchhiked here on seedlings shipped from large-scale nurseries in the South and then wafted over to infect other plants.

The typical tomato in a blight-stricken garden is not a pretty sight.

Tomatoes grown in greenhouses have managed to avoid the disease, as well as certain varieties — Dan Barber praised Cornell University’s experimental ‘Mountain Magic’ variety as resistant to blight, so far. And my cherry tomatoes are not showing the symptoms, although clearly they are sulking about the weather.

For a lot of good information on late blight, check out this article on Timber Press's blog site.

Next steps: pull up all my father’s tomato plants and burn them or put them in a trash bag and dispose of them; they cannot be composted. We’ll research whether the spores linger over winter, and if so, how to remediate the soil — I know compost can work wonders. Next spring it’ll be easy enough to start a few flats of tomato seeds and have a completely fresh beginning.

After all, even at age 91, there’s always something new under the sun — even when it doesn't actually shine.

Deb Burns, Acquiring Editor


Melanie Jolicoeur said...

When I returned from Maine earlier this week to find my tomatoes withered and brown I wanted to cry. Wandering through the garden and eating fresh little Sungolds and Super Sweets still warm from the sun is a highlight of late summer I'll certainly miss.
And where will I plant them next season now that the soil is tainted?

Kristy Rustay said...

Over the weekend I pulled 15 rainbow heirloom tomato plants from my garden that were over 5 feet tall — all infected with blight. The leaves, stems, and fruits showed signs. It was heart-wrenching. I started these from seed in my basement in March, and have cared for and babied them for the past 5 months. They were large and green, a few weeks away from being ready to eat and to make into sauce.

I followed the instructions from the Timber's post on how to properly dispose of them. The one question I have is how to treat the tomato stakes. Can I wash them with bleach and reuse them next year? And, I know that I cannot plant my tomatoes in the same spot, but can they be planted in a close-by raised bed with new soil?