Tomato Death, and Other Disasters

My daily walk through the vegetable garden, normally so pleasant, could this morning only be described as dismal. Seventy tomato plants – the pride of my growing activities – are all in various stages of decay and death, struck down by the deadly late blight of tomatoes and potatoes that has swept across New York and New England. Gone is any hope of fresh tomato salads; gone the gazpacho; gone the row upon row of smiling glass jars of canned tomatoes, awaiting a mid-winter feast. Gone, gone, gone… A few handfuls of cherries, and perhaps a salvaged beefsteak or two, will be the only result of all this effort.

Could anything more have been done?

Probably not. I started my own plants from seed, to prevent importing any disease from outside sources; I grew a large selection of varieties, both hybrids and heirlooms, some of which should have been more resistant to the blight; and most importantly, I began a regular spraying program with chlorothalonil, the fungicide recommended by the experts, the second I was notified of the problem a month ago. All to no avail. The weather, so incredibly wet, simply washed off whatever application I made, and spread the fungus faster than I could combat it. (Either that, or this year’s strain, as rumored, is resistant to fungicides, a very scary proposition…)

How's this for an appealing harvest? Late blight on the green tomato fruit.

How's this for an appealing harvest? Late blight on the green tomato fruit. This photo comes courtesy of the University of Maryland. I was too damned depressed to take my own... (:

All of which brings up an interesting point. There’s been a lot of finger pointing in the press recently, claiming that late blight began with plants shipped to New England box stores by Bonnie Plants, the nation’s largest grower of tomatoes. Local media outlets have all picked up the story; Dan Barber even did op-ed piece in the New York Times repeating the account. But I’m not entirely convinced. A little research led me to a very interesting press release from Bonnie, which clearly chronicles a time line that doesn’t conform to the story circulating through the media. In short, Bonnie points out that late blight was noticed by scientists from Cornell in a commercial field in Long Island several weeks before it was noticed at one of Bonnie’s nearby growing locations. The incredible ability of the fungus to spread quickly –  it’s transmitted by wind and rain up to forty miles, so easily that it was considered as a biological warfare agent during the Cold War  – means that it’s just as likely that Bonnie’s facility was infected from local sources, rather than the other way around. (Keep in mind too that late blight is nothing new; it pops up regularly in this part of the world, but normally late in the season – hence the name – a factor which generally limits the damage.) Either way, the press accounts circulating that the infected plants were shipped by Bonnie from the South seem to be untrue, and in any case, pointing fingers at growers and retailers isn’t the answer, as much as I would love to find an easy target for my gardening wrath.

The real culprits, then? Obviously, dear old Mother Nature bears the largest portion of the blame: one of the coldest and wettest Junes ever on record helped this disaster along very nicely, ma’am, thank you. But we humans also share responsibility. As Barber himself points out, a prejudice in gardening circles to promote old heirloom varieties, which generally have little or no disease resistance, over modern cultivars bred to withstand such onslaughts, has contributed mightily to this year’s problem. Give up my historic Brandywines? Never. But I would have killed to have had at least a few of those immune Magic Mountain experimental tomatoes that Barber mentioned growing in my garden. Even if not the tastiest, they would have had to be better than the red rocks sold at the supermarket. Our only salvation here may be from science, even if it’s in the form of that great bugaboo, genetically modified crops. Recently, for example, genes from wild potatoes immune to late blight were successfully integrated into several modern varieties, giving them complete protection from the pathogen. Similar research with wild tomatoes is underway. And thus, gentle reader, a conundrum: given a choice, which would you prefer: tomatoes sprayed with fungicide, genetically modified tomatoes, or no tomatoes at all? This last option, though seemingly histrionic, is already close to reality for many gardeners in the Pacific Northwest, where late blight has become established in the soil year round, destroying most home crops before the plants even yield a single fruit. Personally, I’m not certain which of the other two options I would choose, but as I pointed out in an earlier post, not everything old is sacred, and in a time of climatic change in which new pests and diseases are imported daily from around the globe, we gardeners had better learn to roll with the punches, or else give up the game.

But oh, I will so miss my beloved tomatoes this season…

Same time next year, my dears…



Tomato Death, and Other Disasters — 6 Comments

  1. Yep, an ill wind did blow this season. Tomatoes dead and gone, I want to rant against the big box stores but as you pointed out they may not have been the source although they did help spread the fungus.

  2. Interestingly, I’ve heard several authorities, including one on our local PBS station, claim that the proliferation of home gardeners helped spread the fungus! If that be the case (and it’s probably true) then, yes, the box stores did contribute indirectly, but I don’t think shutting down home gardening is the answer. If the box stores are at fault, it’s in not having trained personnel in the garden centers. I’ve read several reports stating that various qualified people visited the box stores, noticed the blight on the plants early on, notified the management, and returned a week later to find the same plants on sale! Whether removing the plants more promptly would have helped, I don’t know, but getting major vendors to pay more attention to local conditions, and local needs, is a big part of the solution.

  3. Interesting question that you pose. For me, it’s between no tomatoes at all and GMOs…hard to pick which one. I don’t want to eat tomatoes sprayed with fungicide. In reality, I would probably opt for “no tomatoes” at first. Then, observed those around me who were eating the GMOs and watch for possible side effects. If it seemed safe, then I’d eat (and probably grow) the GMO tomatoes 😉 Yikes. I hope it doesn’t come to this!

  4. I’d not want any GMO tomatoes. I’ll take fungicides first, and no tomatoes second. I see nothing wrong with breeding resistant varieties the old fashioned way – crossing tomatoes with tomatoes. But tomatoes with fish or spider genes? No way no how. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t want to be a guinea pig for another great idea by a huge corporation.

  5. Well, if the research were taking foreign genes and putting them into plants, I would agree wholeheartedly, but actually what they have done is track down wild varieties of tomato that are resistant to the blight, identify which genes are responsible for this protection, and splice those into modern varieties. It’s the same process as crossing, except far more accurate.

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