Battling Tomato Wilt

Gardeners have often heard the importance of rotating vegetable crops during seasons. Rotate your crops! Your plants will drain the soil of needed nutrients otherwise! Rotate your crops! Your plants will become more vulnerable to disease otherwise! I have gardened with this maxim in the back of my head, but often have found the tasty homegrown tomato bounties’ siren songs too difficult to resist. And so, bucking common wisdom, I grew tomatoes in the same spot as tomatoes years past. Until this year, all was well. Tomato plants flourished in the same locations year after year.

Well, the time has come to atone for my gardening sins. How I rue my confidence now, thinking that a major disease could never strike my plants. Well, fusarium wilt, or verticillium wilt, came this year with a vengeance. I guess I was due for my lesson from Mother Nature.

Wilting Yellow Pear Tomatoes Disease
What bucking common wisdom will get you.

Both fusarium and verticillium wilt share many characteristics, making it difficult for a gardener to distinguish between the two. Both are soil-borne fungi, so the disease travels from the roots of the plant through the stem. [1] , [2]  Both brown the vascular tissue of the tomato plant, and choking the leaves off from nutrients from the soil. These leaves yellow, then brown, and then die. Individual plants are affected, with symptoms appearing when the plant begins to set fruit.

Fusarium and veticillium are distinguished from each other based on their ranges and based on how quickly the plant succumbs to the fungus. Fusarium wilt is much more common in the southern range of the United States. Veticillum wilt is common in the north, so much more than Fusarium wilt that the University of Illinois Extension office only has a website on the former. [3] The streaking that accompanies verticillium wilt is lighter than that of fusarium wilt and typically does not extend all the way up the stem. Veticilum wilt also proceeds more slowly.

photo of yellow pear with streak in leaf stem
Dark vascular streaking on Yellow Pear stem.)

There is no easy solution for either fungus. Instead, crop rotation and disease management is the only way to control the spread. This year, I have pruned the first foot of each tomato plant of foliage and have cut back watering to every other day. Without those lower leaves, the tomatoes have more airflow close to the ground.  Also, the drier soil prevents the fungus from spreading. Finally, in desperation, I have also treated each tomato with powdered copper fungicide below the fruiting level. This is risky because the plant is also in danger of being damaged by the fungicide and the copper never leaves the soil (it is a heavy metal after all). [4] I have also pruned all diseased leaves from affected plants on a weekly basis.

Kims Civil War Oxheart Tomatoes
Pruning foliage has the added benefit of giant tomatoes!

 

My efforts seem to have stymied the spread of the disease in all of the tomato plants but the Yellow Pears. Yellow Pears are my mother’s favorite variety of homegrown tomato, and so she has been particularly disappointed with this year’s crop. I have grown the variety for her before and never had any problems with them.  Foolhardily, I only planted one Yellow Pear this year. Well, Mother Nature, I have learned my lesson.  Next year I will take heed of old gardening wisdom and rotate my tomato crop!

Growing Up and Hardening Off

They grow up so fast, don’t they? One day they are only seeds, small, hard and so unlike a plant and then it seems all do is blink your eyes and they have grown into strong, tall, and independent seedlings. We weren’t as successful as we were hoping, our inexperience reared its ugly head as we moved through the spring and saw many of our seeds either not germinate or die soon after giving us a glimmer of hope. The weather, so cold and gray for March and April certainly did not help either, but despite all that we still managed (with the help of the local gardening store) to bring almost two dozen tomato and pepper plants far enough along to start planting them in our garden for the summer. Due to the number of seedlings versus available planting space, we are being more gentle with some plants than with others, as we can afford to lose a few but wanted to get as many plants into the ground as we could in time to take advantage of the great weather (mostly sunny and in the seventies and eighties much of this week) to try and make up some of the ground we lost due to the lousy spring.

The plants we planted this weekend fell into two categories: plants that were ready for the outdoors, like our tomatoes and cucumber plants which had both been spending time outside in their containers and grown unwieldy, as well as few varieties that were struggling inside and we were willing to risk to the whims of the garden gods: eggplant, garden store Serrano that was muddling along in the gardener’s limbo of not growing but not dying, and the single Ostra Cyklon pepper plant that survived, albeit barely, and was obviously not thriving in our apartment. I’ll be curious to see if the warm temperatures and full days of sun will be enough to revive those. Those varieties (excepting the Serrano) are also from cooler climes and should be able to handle the variances in the weather patterns of a Chicago spring.

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The plants we are holding onto are exclusively hot peppers.  This is mainly due to their size (pictured below) and their geographic region of origin. While tomatoes, eggplant, and cucumber find their homes in more temperate continental climates in the Northern Hemisphere, our pepper’s homes can be mainly found around the equator, meaning they’ll prefer to let the cooler nights of May pass indoors to await the warmer days of June and July more akin to their homes. As such, we are taking a more traditional hardening off approach with these, where we are placing them outside during the hottest part of the day and bringing them in at night. Over the next few days if they’re all looking good we’ll probably start leaving them out at night in preparation for their planting sometime next week.

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I’ll be curious to see if these end up doing better or worse than the plants we put in the ground this past weekend, with the Serrano serving as a perfect control. Feel free to share some of your approaches for kicking your adult plant children out of your home! I’m of the opinion that plants are fairly resilient organisms and can survive many conditions, so my approach to hardening off is accordingly lax, somewhat to the chagrin of Super_C#. This year might make me eat those words and adhere to a bit more rigorous routine for hardening off, but only time will tell. Until next time!