after the flood: tomato troubles in a wet year

tomato-troubleT OMATOES ARE IN THE HEADLINES LATELY, particularly throughout the areas of the country where weather has been record or near-record wet. The gardener’s best-laid plans may not prove to be enough to guarantee a bountiful harvest, or so I fear, with the first signs of some ailment or other showing itself on some of the lower (older) leaves of some of my plants right now (above). But do I have early blight, or Septoria leaf spot, or Verticillium wilt, or (as the scariest headlines have already noted is upon us) so-called late blight? Will there even be a crop this year?

I actually have no certain diagnosis; so many of these issues look somewhat alike, unless you are a plant pathologist, and so far I only have a relative few affected leaves. I nevertheless love Cornell’s diagnostic tool, a photo-driven system arranged by plant part (leaves, stem, fruit).

What I do not seem to have, thankfully, is the late blight that’s been the source of the most dramatic headlines, and of a thorough story by Adrian Higgins of The Washington Post, late last week. This dramatic outbreak has also prompted warning bulletins from Cornell and other extension services. My plants have none of its characteristic early sign: dark stem lesions.

This is the affliction (affecting tomatoes and potatoes) that caused the 1840s Irish Potato Famine, and it has never been recorded this early in the United States, apparently, nor this extensively, with much of the East affected. Fears that further wet conditions will bring vast commercial-crop losses of tomatoes and potatoes are running high. Fungicidal sprays are the retaliation tactic (weekly Neem oil being the non-toxic choice) but even those may fail in severe cases, and if the weather helps the fungus to get an increasing edge.

I’m guessing I have some Septoria leaf spot or early blight (Alternaria) or Verticillium wilt happening, a bit of a misnomer as the disease doesn’t actually wilt tomatoes this early, typically, but causes bottom-upward leaf afflictions. I can live, and probably harvest some tomatoes, with either one of these, I suppose; I still have lots of leaves to do the job of photosynthesis, and maybe the weather will normalize now (whatever normal is anymore). Rutgers has a great PDF on fungal diseases of tomatoes, for your information.

Heirlooms (which are the plants in my garden that are being affected) are often not resistant to verticillium, though many modern hybrids have had resistance bred in (though resistance does not equal total immunity). I wrote about tomato troubles last year, when my biggest worry was that the fruits (below) just wouldn’t seem to ripen, and there are other links and tips there.

If you are seeing tomato troubles and feeling cheated, I hear you: Yes, I planted where there hadn’t been tomatoes lately (crop rotation), and took such care preparing the raised beds here for growing this year’s crop of tomatoes. I followed all my tomato-growing tips: The seed was started correctly; I spaced the transplants properly to allow for good air circulation, caged them right from the start to keep them up off the ground, and then it all just didn’t matter, did it?

Thirteen inches of rain in June just made all that wash right away, as if the right steps never happened, and the only harvest would be of slugs.

  1. Thank you for sharing the Cornell site, I am an avid gardener struggling this year with snails and squash bore in northern Florida and tomato blight in New York. My heart breaks to see a plant weaking and when I have to pull something which has gone from a vibrant garden, I become truly saddened. All of my families hands have been in the soil, and I am glad to have your site as company.

  2. In looking at my mother’s and my niece’s (she’s 12) gardens, none of their tomatoes are ripening. I heard that tomatoes need warm nights to turn red, and we’ve had nights here in Maryland that have been in the 50s. EEK. My wee cherry tomatoes are ripening, but I live in the inner city.

    My gardenia’s doing briliantly! It’s 10+ year old cutting from my mother’s 45-year old plant.

  3. Margaret says:

    @The Blushing Hostess: Yes, very sad to lose things that you know you “did right.” Sigh. Glad to have you here, too.

    @Pigtown*Design: Nice to see you! Nights have been cold here, too, so we shall see what happens next with the green fruit on the tomatoes, and whether the current round of flowers sets more fruit or not. Fingers crossed. Sounds like that gardenia doesn’t need any crossed fingers, however. Wow.

  4. Johanna says:

    I saw a roadside stand last evening with the deepest red tomatoes right up front. All I can imagine is that they grew them in a glass house — SW Michigan has had nights in the 50s, like you out east. Boy, they looked tasty but I am remaining true to my garden (at least for the moment!) and waiting for my girls to carry through.

  5. ann says:

    The bottom leaves on some of my tomatoes are yellowing too, but I just thought that might be because they were the ones most damaged by the massive hail storm we got back a month ago. Now I’m worried it’s something more insidious. Man, this gardening is not the low-stress activity I had hoped it would be!

  6. kate says:

    I have been following your site now for a couple months, and have found such invaluable information, thank you!
    I am a first time homeowner, and first time gardener.
    We have six tomato plants which my husband refers to as the Charlie Brown trees. *sigh*. It is very reassuring to hear that I am not the only one who has these plants which have been drowned by June’s weather (in Connecticut).
    What little tomatoes there are, have been ripening though, so I still have hope. And the few that we have eaten so far have been divine.
    Thanks again for your words of wisdom!

  7. chris says:

    most of my tomato plants are doing fine, with the hardiest getting to the top of their texas tomato cages, but i did cut off some bottom leaves on some that do look like your lead photo; no tomatoes yet since i pinch flowers for longer than most, in an effort to hearty the plants up; i’ll just og with the flow, as is my usual want in things gardening.

    green beans doing very well, cukes for some reason not so much

  8. Charlotte Cantrell says:

    My tomatoes also are not getting ripe. Lots of green ones. Oh well, we here in the south are a hardy bunch. And we LOVE our fried green tomatoes! :-)

  9. Amy says:

    I try and grow all heirloom vegetables, but confess I have pretty much had to give up on heirloom tomatoes. The area I live in borders wetlands, with a very high water table, and even in a relatively dry year the heirloom tomatoes just don’t survive the soil diseases. I have good luck with Sungold, Matt’s Wild Cherry, Stupice, Celebrity and Jersey.
    No, not low-stress with all the elements and critters constantly attacking our “babies.”

  10. Jane Perrone says:

    Great post! My tomatoes over here in the UK have exactly the same symptoms. It’s been rainy here interspersed with hot sun so conditions are ideal for disease to take hold. Outdoor tomatoes are always a gamble: there’s always green tomato chutney if everything goes horribly wrong at this stage!

  11. jen says:

    yep, my tomatoes leaves are unhappy campers. The older heirlooms seem to be the worst affected, I’m still getting a fair amount of tomatoes, but no more blossoms and sad leaves.

  12. Elisabeth King says:

    My tomatoes are very unhappy. Too wet and too cold this year. I offer them my condolences daily. It doesn’t seem to help. The zucchini have wilted in solidarity.

  13. fern says:

    My tomatoes here in CT look good so far, still green, though. Cukes growing like gangbusters. Ate a LOT of lettuce this year. Potatoes and peppers ravaged by slugs. String beans and wax beans doing really well, in flower now and forming tiny beans.

  14. Margaret says:

    Welcome, Elisabeth. Your comment (though too long to technically be a haiku) sounds like a piece of poetry to me. I love it, like that circa 1686 Japanese one by Basho about the frog:

    The old pond,
    A frog jumps in:

    Tomatoes unhappy;
    Zucchini wilts in solidarity.

    Welcome, also, to Kate. I love your husband’s characterization; hilarious. In gardening, one is rarely alone with one’s troubles. Chances are, if something’s eating/infecting/killing something of yours, it is doing it somewhere else nearby, too. So don’t hesitate to shout whenever it happens. We all love to share our battle scars here. See you soon!

    @Jen and Amy: Heirlooms taking it worst here as well, which is to be expected (and why I always plant both modern hybrids and oldtimers, a mix).

    @Jane Perrone: So we are not alone, huh? I love to make green tomato mincemeat or chutney (no suet involved) from this recipe. Good as a condiment or a pie filling, strangely enough.

    @Chris: I cut off the affected leaves, too, so we shall see! Next year I think I will pinch the early flowers, like you say. Adding that to my list…

    @Charlotte: OK, I am jealous. I admit it. :)

  15. Cherylann says:

    My heirloom Brandywine is tall but looking a bit punky with bottom leaves that look like yours. However, the three volunteers from last year are doing splendidly–but no fruit yet. I’m in the same area as you, so it’s been all about the rain:weeds doing very well, mint is delirious and daylilies are incredible. Still, I live in hope of tasty tomatoes before September!

  16. Tammy says:

    We had the monsoon rains in the Spring and some of the lower leaves on my tomato plants resembled yours. However, now we are at 104 degrees and they have (ahem) somewhat dried out. I am loving the Porter (cherry)tomatoes for this heat, as they are STILL producing. My heirlooms, not so much, but they did produce some, in all of this craziness, and that is amazing to me.

  17. Bob Jacobson says:

    My tomatoes are growing very large…oops! that’s the plants – no tomatoes yet, just flowers. Should I cut back these monster plants to give more energy to making fruit? Snip the tops? Help.
    Grandpa Bob

  18. Margaret says:

    Welcome, Bob. The best article I ever read on pruning tomato plants was this one in Fine Gardening. Scroll down quite a way, and you will see the part about how they top-prune a month before frost. I have never topped a plant except in that case, but am re-reading this article now, too, to see what options we have.

  19. Marie Bryhan says:

    So the weather for tonight is low 40s. (This IS July?) here is upstate NY. My peppers have given up the ghost, and the tomatoes are shivering, but not blight struck. I think it is now really October, but no one changed the calendar.

    No salsa for us this year. Sigh.

  20. jen says:

    so smart! I just happened to pick up a hybrid at the nursery today as a back up. It can be my own little science experiment.

  21. Jan says:

    At least you can blame your tomato troubles on the weather. I have tall, thick, lush, dark green plants with very few blossoms or fruit. Yup, I over-fertilized and I know better. It is also a very wet, cool summer preceded by a wet, cold spring here in IL. Raised beds and grass clipping mulch seems to help my vegetables and ornamentals survive all the water.

  22. chigal says:

    If anyone’s garden can weather the storm, it’s yours.

    I had a lot of green tomatoes late last year, too. So this year, I’m going to prune some of the fruit as I go and top the vines in August, in hopes of bigger tomatoes and faster ripening. They’re a little slow going this year, but no disease (knock wood).

    My cherry tomato vine has exploded. If even half of these flowers become fruit, it’s going to look like a glamorous catalog picture. It’s HUGE! Last year, I crammed three miserable cherry tomato plants in one pot, following someone’s advice to always overstuff containers because the plants will do fine and the pots will look better. Not true.

  23. deb says:

    When I have had similar leaf problems with tomatoes plants, I picked off the effected leaves, mulched under the plants with shredded newspaper (to keep any splash up from the soil of new problems) and the plants have been fine.

    Normally I trim down the bottom leaves this time of the season, anyway, so it’s easier to deal with than many other problems.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Deb, and thanks. Yes, I took off the bottom leaves carefully, on a dry day when hopefully I could not spread anything, and destroyed them (in the trash they went) and added some clean straw. So far, so good. See you soon again, I hope, and thank you for the newspaper tip.

  24. Honey Sharp says:

    Just over the border from you in MA Iwas told by a farmer (Dan at Taft Farms) that we had 24 inches in 35 days! He showed me the huge plastic bags he used to dispose of his plants. Thanks for clarifying rot from the blight! Mine just rotted!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.