Homeyer: Late Blight

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(HOST)  Now that late blight has been confirmed in two Lamoille County locations, commentator Henry Homeyer thinks it’s a good time to inoculate our gardens – and ourselves – with a liberal application of common sense.

(HOMEYER)  I love tomatoes. This year I’m growing 23 varieties for a total of about 53 plants. I say about 53, as somewhere along the line I lost track – but I grow a lot of tomatoes and use them every week of the year. I freeze them whole, I make sauce and paste, and I dehydrate those sweet nuggets of summer, Sun Gold cherry tomatoes.

Despite all this, I’m not in a panic about the possibility of tomato blight infecting my crop. I’m a garden writer and my e-mail is readily available so I get lots of e-mail each week from my readers. Right now many of the emails are about tomato blight, and what we can do to prevent a recurrence of last year’s devastating loss.

Yes, spores can travel hundreds of miles. My crop could be ruined. But still, I’m not willing to spray toxins to prevent the occurrence of late blight. Let me tell you why:

Simply, a disease needs 3 things in order to infect a plant: the pathogen itself – in this case wind-borne spores. Next there must be a susceptible plant. Lastly, the proper environmental conditions must be present. Should any of these 3 conditions not be met, our tomatoes are safe. And the copper-based sprays approved for use by organic gardeners are still powerful chemicals.  They are not something I want to spray on my food. Some are lethal to fish, and I garden near a stream.

I believe there’s never a good enough reason for a home gardener to spray chemicals on the food we’re growing.  So how can you prevent late blight? Grow healthy plants in healthy soil. To me, that means being an organic gardener and having a rich soil full of organic matter. If you see diseased leaves on your plants, cut off the foliage and dispose of it promptly in the trash.

The blight can only penetrate the leaf of a healthy plant if it’s moist, so sunshine is the best preventive. But you can also prune your tomato plants of excess foliage so summer breezes will dry the leaves more quickly.

Do not water your tomatoes with an overhead sprinkler. If you must water, use a hand-held device such as a watering wand.  It will allow you to direct the stream of water to the base of the plant. And only water in the morning, never in the evening.

Let’s put it in perspective. Yes, I might lose my tomatoes. But I will not starve, and tomatoes will be available for sale. Meanwhile, I’m crossing my fingers and hoping for lots of sunshine this summer.

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