Can you relate to the kind of sinking feeling in your stomach that happens when you think of a summer without tomatoes! That is what happened to me when I found out the Irish potato famine fungus is “out there”…in Rhode Island [and the rest of the Northeast]. Yikes! Late blight! My tomatoes are at risk! First I panicked, and then I decided to get some useful, factual information about this.
OK, so the reason for raising the caution flags is that while late blight occurs sporadically in the Northeast in any given year it is different in 2009 compared to most seasons. One reason is that it is the earliest this disease has been reported over such a broad region of the country. Then, more tragic for the Northeast, is that infected plants have been distributed to large local retail stores from Maine to Ohio. Never before has such an extensive distribution to local retail stores occurred. The problem is this fungus is exceptionally contagious.
Here’s what we need to know. The symptoms that develop on tomato leaves, stems, and fruit are quite dramatic and they are obvious to the naked eye. (That’s a relief.) The leaf lesions appear water soaked when the foliage is wet and their edges will be covered with white fungal growth. When the lesions dry out they may appear lime-green or beige in color. This is a good start for identification, but when you see brown to black lesions on the stems…and on the fruit…you KNOW your plants are infected. Here’s the good news: you can still eat the fruit after you remove affected areas because the fungus is not harmful to humans. However, if you have infected plants you must remove the plants from your garden immediately and put in plastic bags for disposal. DO NOT COMPOST.
Here are your choices: Spray your tomatoes with a fungicide (must contain the chemical chlorothalonil, as, for example, Daconil) that is a protectant and could keep your plants from being infected. The bad news: the chemical is a carcinogen. The alternative is to do nothing, check your plants daily, and be prepared to give them up if you see any symptoms. The most important thing is that you act quickly to avoid spreading the fungus beyond your garden to neighbors or a nearby commercial grower.
My advice: Enjoy those BLTs…and don’t panic!