Gardening Tips: Tomato Problems | Columnists


I returned from a five-day road trip in southeastern Ohio last Monday, where I spoke at a conference of rural landowners on “Why Ginseng Plantations in the Woods are Failing “. It was a bit of a depressing speech, as I could see on the faces of many people present. Not exactly what a keynote should be, but, since I was filling in for a friend who couldn’t give the keynote, that was what I had prepared for a later keynote.

The conference was held at the United Plant Savers headquarters near Rutland, Ohio. Rutland is about as big as East Durham in Greene County, so I feel quite comfortable there. I have a thing for cities that don’t have steady red lights and only one or two flashing yellow lights. No fast food, no chain hotels, no big box stores, one gas station, one pizza place, and two dollar stores. This particular part of Ohio features some of the most diverse and beautiful hardwood forests I have ever seen. It escaped the glaciers that carved into the Catskill Mountains, leaving behind a diversity of trees, shrubs, and even some animals that you won’t find anywhere else in the northeast. Some of these animals are native earthworms, which do not exist in New York at all.

It’s a bit warmer there than here, so I got to look a few weeks into the future at what’s happening in the local vegetable gardens. I think the happiest time of the season for us vegetable gardeners is right after all the crops are planted and starting to grow. Unfortunately, two or three weeks later, things start to go downhill.

Tomatoes are perhaps the most widely planted and prized home garden crop in the Northeast. Some of us won’t even buy supermarket tomatoes at all, as we are spoiled by the taste of locally grown ones. Before leaving for Ohio, I staked a large cherry tomato plant and potted it in a 15 gallon pot that sits on my picnic table. The seed of this plant (Matt’s Wild Cherry) was sent to me by a reader and a friend raised the transplants for me. The plant was growing vigorously before I left and I had tied off some of the shoots that were growing outside the cage I had placed on it.

When I returned I was appalled to see that the shoots, not the leaves, of the new growth on the plant had curled up in a way I had never observed, in half a century of cultivation of tomatoes. The sprouts looked like garlic flowers being left to grow. They looked withered, but were turgid (firm to the touch). Some of you may be seeing a common disease called “tomato leaf curl” right now. It is a harmless physiological disorder that causes the leaves of the plant to curl inward. Don’t be alarmed if you see this in your garden.

In my case, it was not the leaves, but the shoots that looked like fern fiddleheads that were unfolding. I had hoped that the problem was due to lack of water for the container plant, but I saw the same phenomenon in my garden, 100 feet away, on my Big Beef plants as well. Now, a week later, the recurving stems are showing a gray color. I am totally unable to diagnose the problem and have many, many years of experience diagnosing tomato problems. The damage most closely resembles the effects of 2-4 D, a common lawn weedkiller, but I haven’t used 2-4 D on my lawn. Using 2-4 D on your lawn when the temperature is 80 degrees or higher often results in “drift” as the chemical volatilizes. This can cause similar deformation up to 50 meters from where the lawn was treated. I hope the plants will outgrow the disease and do it quickly. If any of you see something similar to this, please email me.

Early blight now appears in most tomato plants. Symptoms are yellow areas on the lower leaves first, which spread. Eventually, the leaves turn brown and die. Sanitation (removing yellow leaves as noted) will reduce the source of infection, but by the time you see symptoms infection has occurred. Sterilization of stakes, cages and rotation will also help, but to prevent serious damage, proactive spraying with fungicide is usually necessary. There are organic and chemical herbicides that work very well. Your local garden center can offer you a suitable product. Yet another reason to shop at your local garden center.

Next week I will discuss other garden problems that are coming up right now.

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