Blighted Hopes

Sharon August 11th, 2009

One of the consequences of this cold, wet year has been a devastating strain of Blight that has affected both tomatos and potatoes - much of the Northeast has it (it has yet to make it to me, but others have had it).  This has been particularlly destructive to organic farmers - pesticides can be sprayed to control the fungus that causes Late Blight, but while there are organic controls (Seranade seems to be effective), they have to be applied early, before the crop fails.  I know several farmers who have lost all their tomatoes and potatoes.  The bight spreads through airborne spores and is as far west as Indiana and as far north as northern Montreal and Ontario.  Just because you don’t have it yet, doesn’t mean you won’t.

Now the loss of tomatoes is a major inconvenience and an economic pain for gowers.  All of us want our salsa.  But the loss of potatoes, while a lesser economic trouble for most farmers and individuals, is actually more troubling - in tough times, potatoes are one of the more viable home staple crops.  Again, organic controls can be used, but these might not always be available.  In some ways, we are seeing the tremendous vulnerability we face in our food system - and the answer is not “great, let’s get out the pesticides,” obviously.  It is to diversify, and learn to live with our troubles.

I’ve heard people argue that this makes the case for industrial agriculture - if it weren’t for industrial agriculture, we wouldn’t have enough tomatoes, we are told.  But, besides the obvious fact that industrial agriculture doesn’t produce anything that tastes like a real tomato, there’s also the point that this is an industrial disease - late blight was spread in the US through tomato and pepper plants purchased from WalMart and Target and other discount realtors, and shipped around the country.

Certainly, it makes sense to use organic controls if they are available to you, and if you have the infection, to burn all affected plant material. But it also makes sense to learn to live with what we’ve now got.  This is little consolation for farmers and gardeners pulling out blackened plants, but people who have had chronic blight issues do point out that it is possible to learn to live with them.  Sue Robishaw, who has been saving potato seed for decades (most people have been told not to save potato seed because you might get blight, but since seed saving is method of creating food security, she’s had to deal with the reality of blight) has observed that often, early planted potatoes will set out a solid crop of potatoes before they succumb to late blight.  And those that succumb latest and produce the best are the ones to save seed from. 

With tomatoes, we can help by selecting blight-resistant varieties (and no, these are not only hybrids), by planting early determinate varieties that may fruit before late blight takes full hold, and by simply adapting ourselves to the spread of disease.

Just as important as diversifying our varieties, and developing resistant, will be diversifying our gardens.  Yes, tomatoes are a wonderful thing, and potatoes are a staple food.  But turnips and beets and sweet potatoes and corn and dry beans, carrots, parsnips and winter squash are all potential food staples as well - it never serves to rely on only one thing.  And if we don’t get tomato salsa, perhaps we will get roasted pepper, ground cherry or salsa verde.

This is the world we live in now - our vulnerabilities have been magnified.  The best tool we have for creating a resilient system is as much variety and diversity as humanly possible. 


41 Responses to “Blighted Hopes”

  1. Abbie says:

    I refuse to eat tomatoes out of season. They’re gross. Mine aren’t doing so well, and it looks like I won’t be canning this year. Not sure if mine have the blight (some look unhealthy) or if it’s just the stinky weather. I guess I’ll be buying canned tomatoes this year.

    I put in a very small amount (4 plants) of potatoes as an experiment this year. I was amazed with how easy it was to grow them and how many we got from the 4 “rotten” potatoes I had in my pantry and decided to try planting.

    And I couldn’t agree with you more: Survival is all about biodiversity.

  2. Jennie says:

    It’s true. I lost all my cucumber vines after a measly half dozen cucumbers, but my zucchini bush has no end of squash on it. I’m swapping out cucumbers for zucchini in my pickle making and really enjoying the results. :-) There’s always substitutions that can be made.
    I’m over in Iowa and thankfully had a really decent potato harvest. Still waiting for a tomato though.

  3. EJ says:

    Interesting the part home gardeners have played in this - inadvertently spreading disease by planting “cheap” seedlings.

    Goes to show that we need diversity in crops and diet as you say but also diverse suppliers of seed and seedlings.

    Small (and well considered) is looking better all the time.

  4. DiElla says:

    This year, because of an accident my Son had do to a drunk driver, my tomato crop went in much later than I usually. Then we had record breaking temps in June of over one hundred(I live in Oklahoma). My tomatoes wouldn’t set. It has been pretty upsetting but my acorn and butternut squash has been great and will last me all winter. My corn and okra have been good producers for me and are going in the freezer. And it looks like I will get a late but small crop of tomatoes. Oh, and my peppers haven’t minded the heat at all. The best part of all of this is that my Son will make an almost full recovery.

  5. Peter says:

    North of Pittsburgh, I’ve gotten nailed by the blight. It also appears to affect cucumbers. Mine were the most beautiful I’ve managed to date and they suddenly just wilted and died at the same time I started seeming evidence of the blight on the tomatoes. I have managed to harvest a few tomatoes, but I fear most will die before they ripen.

    As you point out, this is just something that has to be dealt with, along with rabbits and groundhogs and deer and Japanese beetles and so forth and so on. My garden is very diversified (if small). The beets have been fabulous (second harvest coming due), we have more peppers in more varieties than we know what to do with, and everything else has done reasonably well. I’ve got garlic to plant in the fall and I’ve begun trying to save a few seeds for next year from various things. For the first time ever, we’re trying to store a few things without canning (our usual mode of operation). Beets are the big one, along with paprika peppers (dried), garlic (some for planting in the fall, most for eating) and later on Brussels sprouts.

  6. Mareena says:

    I haven’t seen the late blight yet, but the early blight is endemic here in western NC, so I have been using a mixture of cornmeal tea (1 cup cornmeal soaked in 1 gallon of water for 2-3 days) and milk, diluted in water, to spray my tomatoes and other plants that seem to have various fungal disorders. I think it’s helped the early blight, so I wonder if it would work on the late blight. Milk sprayed on leaves is also very effective on powdery mildew.

  7. limesarah says:

    Our CSA lost all the tomatoes — we got one batch of green tomatoes picked before they went under. The one good thing to come of it is that I’ve discovered that I *love* green tomatoes in salad — I think I’ll suggest that as an option for next year. We at least haven’t lost any potatoes, and the eggplants are finally coming in. Around here, the wind and rain both spread the blight and made it impossible for the farm to spray preventative copper in time.

  8. Brad K. says:

    What is the control for grasshoppers? Roving neighbor dogs put the cabosh on letting the chickens run free, and besides, after foxes cleaned me out last year I only have seven, and two of them are bantam.

  9. Berkshire says:

    No late blight here. We are at 1600 feet and quite isolated - by several miles - from any other vegetable agriculture. The early blight on the tomatoes has been very bad and a few varieties are almost wiped out. I think I will experiment next year with some simple hoop houses to get the tomatoes and peppers off to a protected better start. They would provide some heat and keep the rain off the plants and from splattering the soil. I’ve tried hay and black plastic under the plants but with very little success. I’ll pay the price of some drip irrigation to protect the plants.

    The weather has been very cold and over 12 inches of rain fell in July. The peppers and egg plants are stunted with little fruit set. The one variety of pepper that has performed at all is “Carmen”. I just picked a dozen peppers of near normal size. I recommend it for these trying conditions. We raise all our own plants as my wife worked in a green house operation for 10 years. Make sure you have all the seed starting and green house material to last through any difficult times – that along with the seeds you’ll need. It is key to your future self sufficiency. I’m sure our own contribution to the future local community will be that of plant starters.

    I am digging my early Red Norland potatoes. The yield was excellent and no sign of problems. I see the first potatoes bugs which are a very late arrival. I have a few Kennebecs planted as a late experiment and they seem healthy. The wet and cold has little effect on the tuber crops. My storage beans seem near normal and have good set. I grow French’s Horticulture (for succotash) and Red Cranberries. We freeze the beans when in their fresh prime and do not dry them as the flavor and consistency is much better when frozen. We do dry enough for seed. The raspberries are prolific and hogging freezer space. We pick blue berries at local plantations and they have never been better.

    I am building raised beds and drains as I am afraid the spring and summer weather will be wetter and cooler here in the Northeast as a result of changing jet stream patterns. The melting Arctic will have far reaching climate consequences. Best wishes to all and back to bed building of the dirt variety.

  10. TheNormalMiddle says:

    I am in central NC. Most people around here have had small tomato cropst this year, and we usually get more than we know what to do with. My dad called the local extension office and we were told our problem was too much rain early in spring when the bees would have really been out pollinating the plants.

    Overall, my garden under-produced this year, but the tomatoes were very obviously shorter than usual :(

    No blight, but thought I’d add in my .02 for what its worth! :)

  11. Laura Short says:

    This was the first year for a veggie garden for me. Wow. I live near Dayton and we’ve had cool and fairly wet weather. My tomatoes are just now taking off; peppers are too, finally. No blight, so far. The pumpkins are good, corn is off (but it went in late), bush and pole beans are quite prolific! Cucumbers are off and carrots never seemed to materialise. My CSA is having a great year!!! So it must be me…or the micro-clime my house is in.

    My roses are all stunted as well…and I’ve grown roses for years. This is just new-to-me land.

    Anyway, we have raised beds, and good drainage, so we’ll harvest what we can; started spinach and lettuce for Fall. After that, we’ll hunker down and plan on the cold winter the Old Farmers around us are predicting.

    All this talk reminds me of my Irish Forebears who came over during one of the Potato Famines. The reason the potato failed in Ireland, was because it was all one variety of potato. Diversify…diversify…diversify. Although, with the lessons from the current economy, we should all know that by now ;) !!!

  12. Cathy says:

    Last spring, a local farmer told me that he’s heard that “the government” was going to make home gardening illegal because home gardens were the source of blight and other diseases that blew over to the big farms. I pooh-poohed the idea, and while I don’t think that the USDA will outlaw our backyard gardens, I do see where he was coming from now.
    Tomatoes very scare in a cool, dry Michigan summer. Corn is tasseling but very short, melons are happy and producing like crazy. We should have watermelon for Thanksgiving! But at least no blight…yet.

  13. Stephen B says:

    Here in the southwest suburbs of Boston, the large garden I tend at work lost all of the potato foliage a week after the Boston Globe ran an article on blight. I sprayed copper, but it was too little too late. The tomatoes are fighting it, but are about half dead. They might hang on a bit, however, now that the weather is hot and sunny nearly every day.

    Just the same, our potatoes went in early and made enough of a crop before they died that we were digging some new potatoes already. I suspect that when I put a pitch fork to the rows, there will be a decent crop underneath anyhow.

    Meanwhile 1.5 miles down the road at the smaller garden in my backyard, the potatoes show no sign of blight at all with just a little bit on the tomatoes.

    Most crops are seldom a total loss and if we diversify, no garden overall, ever is.

  14. Wendy says:

    Thank you for this post. The blight has been particularly horrible for a lot of small farmers here in Maine (and really, there are a LOT of small farmers here in Maine - so the blight has really devastated a lot of people). I’m just a “gardener”, at best, and I haven’t seen the blight on my plants, yet, but I just learned today that my good friend, who is also a “gardener”, has found it on hers.

    What’s funny is that I was really depending on my potato crop this year, and the blight has made me realize what you say here - that we can’t be too dependent on one thing. As I was reading your post, I was thinking about the pumpkin I have growing out there, and thought that if we were to lose the potatoes, at least we could have pumpkin. And I also have scarlet runner beans, that will end up dried, and the fall pea crop has been planted, and the beets, too.

    Anyway, this particular topic has hit home pretty hard, especially today. So, thanks :) .

  15. Meredith says:

    My grandfather (farming for 50 years before he retired) got blight that killed all his tomatoes, and so did some of his neighbors - and it seems to have spread *fast* in his area of North Georgia. I had not realized it was affecting such a large swath of the country until reading your post. And I wish I could send you all tomatoes! We (in South Carolina) are having the most abundant harvest right now. I’m especially in love with Cherokee Purple, which was a new variety for me this year, and I just finished my first-ever batch of homemade sun-dried Romas.

    It occurs to me, when you first see the blight, can you rescue the green tomatoes to make pickles, at least? This is one of my s.o.’s favorite foods. Then at least the waste wouldn’t be total…

    On the downside, my crookneck squash all got mildew and died within a week. I’ve never seen that before. Usually they are pretty tough plants :( We had a huge, flash-flood-type rain after about 3 weeks of pretty much no moisture, and the next morning all the leaves began to turn white.

  16. Ani says:

    The blight is quite bad here in VT as well. I haven’t gotten it(yet) but it’s only early August. There are a lot of misperceptions about it- I hear it at Farmers Market- some people believe it is only on plants that were bought at a Big Box store- they will tell me they are safe as they bought their plants locally or they are heirlooms or whatever.

    The newbie gardeners are also at risk as they don’t know what they are looking at- I have never even seen late blight before, and I’ve been a grower since the mid-90′s. It is NOT their fault- they are just ignorant of the issue and what to do.

    I think that while it is too late this year, we DO need legislation to require that seedlings be inspected before shipping to these stores and to hold the sellers respnsible for the diseases that they spread. This is the whole globalization industrial ag model at work- the ability to spread such devestation over such a large area of the country due to the shipping of infected seedlings.

  17. Mark N says:

    Salsa verde made with tomatillos is what I will be making and enjoying this year. My tomato plants got hit and are long gone. Tomatillo plants (and ground cherries) are standing tall and green.

  18. sealander says:

    This is why I’ve been experimenting with tubers like mashua, yacon and Jerusalem artichokes. My potato crop was poor last year, but I have oodles of artichokes. I don’t like them as much as potatoes but they sure are easier to grow.
    And since I struggle to grow bell peppers here, but we like to eat lots of them I’ve been trying out achoecha because supposedly the fruit tasts a lot like a green pepper. They also are easier to grow than peppers so may prove an acceptable substitute, but some selection for larger fruit is needed. I’ve yet to find any thing as good as a tomato though! :)

  19. sealander says:

    It occurs to me that there are plenty of books around that tell you how to garden in all sorts of ways but not much information about gardening in survival mode - i.e. best practices to use when you really are depending on what you grow. For example I can plant broad (fava) beans here in autumn. They overwinter and produce beans in mid-spring before most other crops are ready. I can also plant them in early spring and get a crop in early summer, so that is a plant that has the potential to either produce 2 harvests in a year, or a back up harvest if the winter crop fails. But I only know this from experience, it isn’t something that gets mentioned in my gardening books.

  20. ctdaffodil says:

    I have lots of green tomatos and the leaves on the vines are drying up. I’m not to happy about this. because of the lack of hot sunny days coupled with days of RAIN RAIN RAIN I have the spindlyest looking tomato plants around.

    Unless these green ones start turning colors I’ll be picking and processing them if the vines continue to deteriorate.

    As for potatoes - We don’t eat tons of them - but I will stock up on baking ones and instant flakes before the prices go nutty.

  21. cecelia says:

    crummy summer here in the northeast - cool, rainy - perfect late blight conditions. While I did well with my early c rops - onions radishes and I have tons of beans - some of my tomato plants haven’t even ripened yet. Forget eggplant. Disappointing season so far.

    The late blight thing reinforces the need to buy your plants from local nurseries - not the big box stores.

    Thank goodness we have beans!

  22. Susan B says:

    We had heard about the blight but thought we were small and protected here in our yard in central MA. Today the summer squash leaves had white mildew spots all over the older leaves. I cut them off hoping to stop the spread but it is raining again now. My cucumbers produced well but have stopped and are dying and leaves of the tomatoes are starting to turn brown.
    Would using a green house for vulnerable plants protect them from insects and spores?

  23. Tammy and Parker says:

    Even in Utah our garden has been funky this year. My tomatoes, which usually produce more than we could ever can….aren’t this year. I’m still waiting for many to get red and others to get big enough to turn red.

    This year I’ll be canning salsa verde with my tomatilloes. Starting tomorrow.

    My squash and cucumbers look great, and have lots of gorgeous flowers, but the flowers don’t set. I’ll be lucky to get enough zuchinni to be able to freeze enough for muffins and zuchinni bread during the winter.

    Yet I have a bumper crop of pumpkins. Looks as though I’ll be canning lots of pumpkin pie filling too.

    One variety of potatoes sprouted, grew, then turned yellow as they shriveled up and dies. In the Fall there will be farmers from Idaho selling their potatoes from the side of the road. Hopefully this year too. I like to make up giant batches of mashed potatoes and twice baked potatoes……and freeze them for quick meal sides.

    The other variety are doing great.

    Tons of garlic. No shallots. Great onions. And the peppers are finally starting to get their act in gear.

    But it looks like I’ll be needing to buy a bushel of corn to freeze.

    Luckily I have neighbors who don’t want their tree-fuls of peaches and apricots.

  24. ctdaffodil says:

    this morning while looking online for pictures of the blight…I found the most horrible news - no one is imune to this scourge!

    It has even hit

    Martha Stewart’s Tomato plants and she has a picture on her blog!

    Oh the humanity!!!!

  25. Lisa Z says:

    Here in Central Minnesota it’s been cold so the tomatoes and other plants are slow and small, but no blight has hit us.

    I have what may be an ignorant question, but I really don’t know the answer: can you harvest your potatoes when you first see some blight, or even after the leaves are blighted, if you’ve at least got little ones? Does blight ruin the taste or the vegetable itself?

    I suppose I can google for the answer to that one, but I’ll check back here too.


  26. Green Assassin Brigade says:

    my tomato plants look like crap and are struggling to mature even a few of the paste variety, the eating variety did not even set fruit before they went yellow and fell over, yet my spuds are amazingly healthy and I’ve not even seen a single potato bug. Working in a community garden I expected to overrun by the little pricks but so far so good.

    Beans, peas, zucs and peppers have done well despite the wet and cold in Ontario this year, corn is lost and my exeriment with wheat to save the seed got totaly flattened by a nasty storm that flooded the basement, and damaged the roof.

    Having never grown them before I underestimated the size of the foliage on a parsnip and they have totally overgrown the adjacent carrot rows,oops. If this was a real food emergency year I’d be losing weight at a rapid pace.

  27. Green Assassin Brigade says:

    I guess I should have explained that better. while some things did do well the loss of corn, tomatos, cucs, and squash and wheat represents half of my crop space. Next year I’ll weight it more towards root crops/tubers.

  28. rdheather says:

    I’ve discovered how much you can garden when you’re in year two of an extreme drought-none.

    My water supply is rainwater collection and I’ve already had to buy water for the livestock this year so there is no extra to throw at plants. I’m keeping the fruit trees and the annuals alive with sink/wash/shower water.

    So be glad of rain! At least something will grow…..

  29. dewey says:

    Here in St. Louis I’m having the same sort of experience as Tammy and Parker. Plants in my vegetable patch GREW pretty well (so we got a lot of lettuce and radishes earlier, and some beets recently) but, except for the zucchini, they don’t FRUIT. We have three big healthy tomato plants and have gotten only a few minuscule cherry tomatoes from one, with some green ones now developing. A healthy acorn squash with one tiny little squash that we’ve brought in early because something gnawed a hole in it. Three healthy pepper plants with hardly any flowers and, now, a total of one pepper. What the hell is going on here?! Not enough nitrogen? Not enough pollinators?

    And something ate every single baby peach off my new dwarf peach tree. Part of my survival gardening techniques would obviously have to be developing skill with the air gun. Fried squirrel for dinner, anyone?

  30. D says:

    We have blight here in WI - it’s definitely moving west of Indiana. My tomatoes don’t have it (yet), but those of us in the Upper Midwest might want to think about protecting our plants, if you have any that are actually bearing fruit in this weather! (it figures, just when it’s getting warm enough…)

  31. Jay Moses says:

    the blight is in wisconsin now too. with a little luck, we may get a substantial part of the crop in even if we are hit. so far in wisconsin there are no reports of potatoes affected, but there is not much potato cultivation in thei state.

  32. ctdaffodil says:

    I officially have blight- totally pissed too because I started these plants from seeds inside rather than buying them at HD or WM like I would have normally.

    I looked up pictures again and my plants look just like those ones. there must be 20# of green maters out there too - I’m gonna slice into a couple tonite and if they look good maybe make pickles- or chowchow (dont really like it though)

    Cant compost the plants either…they will be put into a pile and either burned or tossed in the trash.

  33. risa b says:

    >Fried squirrel for dinner, anyone?

    We have eaten them for years. Unfortunately, our current big problem is deer, and it’s illegal for us to retaliate against those here — they are reserved for something the State calls “sportsmen” — fortunately, for them and for us, only if far away from our houses.

  34. Rebecca says:

    I’ve got powdery mildew on all my squash. I sprayed with 1 qt. water, 1tsp. baking soda, a few drops of tea tree oil and a few drops of canola oil. It seems to be helping, although that might be the warmer temps, too.

    It makes sense to know what your wild food options are in your area. Eat your weeds!

  35. S Barringer says:

    Wet, wet year. It was hard to get any crops in at the right time. So everything is late (in my opinion).
    I’m gardened since I was 11 years old, and found that diversity is the key to having storage food to hold you through. One year certain crops will be lousy; then the next year the same crop will excell. It’s a matter of adjusting to what Mother Nature decides to give you that year. Diversity is the major factor. Plant a large variety of everything and you’ll come up with something to eat. It may not be your favorite, but it beats being hungry.

  36. Shira says:

    We had a cold, wet spring in the Pacific Northwest, except for the freak bursts of heatwaves. I got all my tomatoes in late, except for the very late ones. The volunteers are the same size as tomatoes that I planted indoors in March and fussed over.

    Blight report:

    The bad one is two large tomato plants in the middle of my buddy’s potato patch. The tomatoes came as big plants from a national chain store.

    I start my own tomatoes from seed. The tomatoes in one 2′ by 6′ plot are showing the leaf curl signs of blight. That’s the bed that I planted for seed saving, away from the main tomato rows. Peppers grew there two years ago and it must have been too short a rotation between family members. The main tomato planting is fine for now but the proximity of the blighted big box store plants is a bad sign.

    I’m watching the volunteer tomatoes for blight resistance and taste. They came up in the squash bed and it’s a no holds barred vine thrash. Any tomato that spontaneously germinates in this climate and holds its own against squash has potential.

    Shira in Bellingham, WA

  37. Ani says:

    Lisa Z

    You can harvest potatoes from blighted potato plants IF you immediately cut down the potato plants upon noticing blight. Try to remove the potato foliage to plastic bags or burn it- don’t just leave it hanging about if blighted. Wait a couple of weeks to toughen up the potatoes IF you have checked and find them big enough to be worthwhile storing. If not, then harvest them immediately and use as “new potatoes”.

    The blight won’t harm you directly- it will just destroy the potatoes if it gets into them so the trick is to remove the vines before the spores can migrate down or wash down into the potato tubers themselves.

    One recomendation is that if you have not experienced potoato blight but it is in your area, and your potatoes are of a size that would be reasonable to harvest and store, to mow the foliage down instead of waiting until it dies back naturally as it would in late summer/early fall. Then wait a couple of weeks to allow the potato skins to toughen and harvest and store as normal.

    hope this helps.

  38. Barbara says:

    Yup, we’ve got the tomato blight now too. And what annoys me is that it hit our seed grown tomatoes first and is now affecting our few nursery bought tomatoes. We have been lucky enough to get some harvest in and we are hoping to ripen what’s on the vines now before we have to yank it all out. Thank goodness for fall gardening, we’ll plant our next crop and move on. But, no canning for us this year, either. And I doubt we’ll have tomatoes in September. Gosh, it’s depressing.

  39. Wendy says:

    We have blight here in the CT Valley……our CSA caught it early but is still struggling. In my own kitchen garden I lost some of my Amish Paste tomato plants but my red and yellow pear variety are thriving. Maybe the pines that surround our property are acting as a filter? We thought we’d have more bottom rot with the cold wet then horribly humid temps here but have been fortunate. My Brandywines are slowly ripening (got them in a bit late) but this crop was hit the hardest. Bush Beans are doing fantastic…harvesting every day now and freezer and jars filling well. I have always been of the mind that diversity in the garden is key….each year will bring a different bounty and we do, after all, still have plenty to eat.

  40. citygardner says:

    Here in Los Angeles, CA, where it’s supposed to be hot and great for gardens, all of my squash vines have gotten the blight. Tomatoes are fine, but not prolific. Watermelon & cantalope vines growing long and massive, but there’s only 1 melon & 3 lopes. Corn seems fine at this point. I planted a huge variety of vegetables, so diversity isn’t a proble. But can’t rely on them for all our needs. We get most of what we eat from the farmers’ market & then use whatever we can from the garden. But I so enjoy watching it all grow… it’s worth the hassles, even with a small harvest.

    Love reading all of your experiences! Wish there was something organic for squash blight!

  41. Purple Wave says:

    is selling eight ballz bath salts ?

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