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Protecting Tomatoes From Dread Diseases

Q.What would I put into my soil to prevent tomatoes from blighting outshortlyafter starting to produce fruit? Here where I live it happens everyyear. Wecan grow all sorts of other vegetables with little or no problem. Thanks…            ---Frank Moneris; Boonecounty, W.Va. (just south of Charleston)

A. I suspect thatyour plants are being blighted by a wilt rather than wilted by ablight, Frank.Among the numerous fungal diseases tomatoes can catch areearlyblight (leaves get brown spots, then turn yellow,tomatoes rotinside) and lateblight (leaves look water spotted,develop white fuzz on undersides and smell real funky). But I think(and youhope) that your love apples have succumbed to the MUCH more commonverticilliumor fusariumwilt instead. (These diseases cause the leaves to wilt andcurl,then yellow and drop off.)

Bothof these wilts(verticillium is more common in cooler climes; fusarium where itswarmer) lurkin soil where tomatoes (and some say their relatives—spuds, peppers andeggplant) have grown in seasons past. They can persist in aplot for 15years (!), but generally die out if you don't plant those gardenfavorites inthe infected area for four seasons or so. Morning sun, good drainage,highlevels of organic matter in your soil and lots of airflow around theplants areall helpful in controlling the problem; chemical fertilizers are NOT—thefast, weak growth they cause is prone to such disease.

So,if you MUST growyour love apples in the same areas as seasons before, be prepared. Ifthey'realready in the ground, check them carefully, remove alldiseased parts,clean up around the base of the plants, then mulch the surface of thesoil withthe highest quality compost you can find—an inch deep and a couple offeet outin all directions. Living organisms in the compost will actually eatthedisease spores. Yum. Then be vigilant—pull off discolored leaves assoon asthey start to look funky, and remove the old compost andreapply a freshinch every month.

Spraythe plantsweekly—either with a naturalfungicide, composttea (home made or one of thesuper-charged compost teas being brewed at larger garden centers) orTheCornell Formula: A tablespoon each of baking soda and vegetable orhorticultural oil, plus two drops of dishwashing soap, in a gallon ofwater.  Be sure to remove discoloredleaves first, only spray first thing in the morning and really soak theundersides of the leaves.

Ifyour love applesare not yet in the ground, try and find a new space to plantthem in. Orplant at least a few in big containers that are totally free of ANYgarden soil. Use a high-quality, organic potting soil containingcompost orother natural fertilizers; or my famous mix of equal parts peat,perlite andcompost with a tablespoon of lime or wood ash to adjust the pH. If thecontainers do great and the dirt does not, there's your answer.

Infuture seasons,seek out disease resistant varieties; they'll have "VF" (the initialsof thosewilts) and probably a few other letters, like N for root knot nematodesand Tfor Tobacco mosaic virus, after their name. Or try some of the huge,fast-growing heirloom varieties like the super-tasty Brandywine;theserangy vines often grow so fast they can 'outrun' disease! And remember—these wilts generally only harmthe leaves of your plants; the actual tomatoes tend tobeunaffected, and are always perfectly safe to eat.

True blightis ararer and MUCH more serious problem. If blight it be, cry. Thendoeverything we've said and to do it perfectly: Have LOTS of roombetweenplants; put every tomato where it gets morning sun, remove diseasedleaves thesecond they show their spots; have a heavy hand with thecompost; andalternate weekly sprays between the three disease preventers we justmentioned.  Oh, and maybe try thevariety "Legend" next year; it's the only tomato I know that claims toberesistant to early and late blight.

And no matter what elseyou do…

Make sure you addeggshells to your planting holes!  Laterthis season I'll get tons of emails from people who want to know whatdiseaseis making their tomatoes turn black and rot down at the bottom.  That's no disease—that's blossom end rot,and it's caused by too much water, too little water, or just plainunevenwatering. Once you get to the rotten bottom point, there's no realcure—but youcan prevent it now. With eggshells.

That'sright—eggshells   First of all, I hopeyou all know to plant your tomatoes deeper than other garden plants.Tomatoesform auxiliary roots along their buried stems, allowing them to take upmorefood and water and anchoring them better in the ground. If you've got afoottall start, remove the bottom leaves and bury 8 or 9 inches of the stemBELOWground. And add the dried, crushed shells of a dozen eggs tothatplanting hole. The calcium they provide will allow your tomatoes toregulatetheir water needs so well, they simply can't get blossom endrot.  And they'll taste better too! MUCHbetter!

The flavor oftomatoes comes mostly from volatile aromatic oils that we perceive notwith ourtaste buds, but with our noses. And tomatoes NEED calcium to producethoseoils. So if you haven't been adding eggshells and think your tomatoestastegreat, wait till you see the improvement calcium can make—you'll nevergoeggshell free again.

Now, if yourtomatoesare already in the ground, don't panic. If you didn't bury them deep inthatwonderful heavy clay of yours to begin with, dig 'em up and do itagain—thistime, nice and deep, with a dozen eggshells and a handful of compost inthehole for good luck. Do this in the evening, water well afterwards andagain thenext morning and they'll be like 5 year olds being carried in asleepfrom thecar; they'll just wake up in bed the next morning with no idea anythinghappened.

And if youdid everythingright except the shells (or are in a blind panic trying tofigure outwhere to get enough eggshells right now) use a calcium-richorganic fertilizerinstead. Just be sure and check packages or product descriptionscarefully;even though almost all our soils are deficient in calcium and plantsneed it, alot of fertilizers don't contain it

YouBet Your Garden   ©2004 MikeMcGrath

HelpfulProducts  from Gardens Alive!

Beingblighted yourself? Here at Gardens Alive we have plenty of products tohelp ridyou garden of these troublesome spores!

WeedBarrier Mat

Crops stay Clean and areLess Vulnerable to soil-borne Diseases.

Use Weed Barrier matto help block out soil causeddisease while choking out weeds! Also helps to retainmoisture in soil while producing larger harvests.

Soap-ShieldFungicidal Soap

An important breakthroughin Natural Disease Control!

Soap-Shieldcombines copper with a naturally-occurring fatty acid. Together theyform a"true soap" with disease-fighting power never before seen in anall-natural fungicide! WithSoap-Shield, you'll pick fresh tomatoes much later in the season thaneverbefore!

GardenersGold Premium Compost

The best way to treatyour soil!

Gardener's Goldgradually releases nutrients,stimulating plant growth and improving disease resistance. Use it tohelp "eat"those disease spores from your dirt!

Quik-CalPelletized Calcium

The most efficient-actingcalcium we've ever used!

Preventsbitter-pit in apples, and blossom-end rot in tomatoes, disordersassociatedwith calcium deficiency.