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. Nancy says:

    I guess this is as good a time as any for an update on my North-Central NJ tomato adventure. Three Big Boys in a regular self-watering container (crowded, no doubt) raised above the ground (lawn chair) in a maximum (for us) sun location (about 6 hours/day with optimism thrown in) and one Big Boy in an upside-down planter (same location, sun, weather, etc.).
    All doing well as of 7/14 when I left them. No sign of disease so far. About 25 tomatoes-to-be across the plants, some big, some small. The recent increase in sun was very welcome. First “upside-down” problem: self-watering pan/wick not working well at all; now my husband (designated plant-care person while I am away) has taken it out and will water regularly from the top. Not sure how this will go…

  2. James Novara says:

    Hi Margaret! Hope you are well. :)

    This year has been a funny year to start gardening after so long in the concrete jungle. Although I have nearly perfected my “snail juggling” the garden is unimpressed with the amount of rain we have received in Babylon. (Except for the weeds of course which just seem to be loving it.)

    Yet we press on. We did manage to get two nice tomatoes and some great snap peas. I’m certain next season will be awesome.

    Take care,


  3. Kathy Stilwell says:

    I noticed the wilting leaves on my tomatoes yesterday. Read your post and went out to attempt to “DO” something to save them but alas, whatever it is seems to be moving rapidly. Lots of tomatoes…a few just beginning to turn … sigh. I am learning large lessons. Thanks. I always find such interesting and useful information here.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Kathy. Glad to help, even when the news is no help. Failing mightily myself here this year with many things due to weather, so at least we can all commiserate. Hope to see you soon here again.

  4. D says:

    I have been reading many of the post on here and I have a slightly different experience, this is truly an off weather year and because of that time lines are a little off and the plants needs are a little different. I feed the garden (this is my first time), liquid feed once a week since planting and watered, using a soaker, one lone soak in the morning and a light soil wetting with the hose, set on gental shower, in the afternoons on hot days. Right now I have six foot plants with lots of things happening. The point of it all is this, be a little more patient this year beacause the same weather that made come mature early this year in NJ is causing the tomatoes to go a little slower.

    As for the discoloration of leaves, I pinched off the problem leaves, and since the mirical gro liquid feeds was high in nitrogen the leaves were replaced quickly. It just took a lot more management then I expected but my plants in my opinion are doing really well, and I just started getting tomatoes that are turing red. It’s the first week in july I planted them in an upside down planter on the first of May and they are 50 day hybrids (early girls) so that 66 days and they are just starting to rippen.

    The same is the case with my cherry tomatoes in the ground, the plants are nearly 6 feet tall I see tomatoes all over the place but becasue of the weather, they are taking longer to rippen, but I am being patient and giving the plants a lot of attention, and they seem to be doing well.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, D. Sounds like you are having great success! And you are right: patience is a key ingredient. :) Hope to see you soon again and hear about a bountiful tomato harvest. (This post, from 2009, was about one of the hardest years ever for tomatoes; this year, 2010, mine are better, too.)

  5. Vicki says:

    We have 6 plants all doing very well (about 7 feet tall with many green tomatoes) as a matter of fact I am finally seeing alittle red in the massive sea of green on the cherrys– but oddly one Roma plant has blossom rot. What I do not understand is our tomatoes are grown in those grow boxes (on our deck–only place in the yard with sun!) and the other plant in the box is doing fine— From what I have read blossom rot is from over fertilizing or water issues… Why don’t both plants have the problem? hmmm??

  6. Donna Campbell says:

    Dear Margaret, This is my first year to plant a veg garden in many years. It’s April 27 and I’m so proud to say that my sweet 100’s and husky tomatoes plants are producing little green babies. My retirement time is paying off. Your knowledge came my way just in time and watching Martha paid off too. That’s how I came to follow your blog. Thanks!

  7. Perry Hall says:

    My garden flooded 200 tomato plants. I dug trenches by them with the hoe, and it seems to help. Before the hoe the plants were goners.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Perry. Horrible! So sorry. If you got the area drained off quickly, they may be OK…but when roots are under water, the plants seem to suffocate and decline. And 200 plants — that’s some garden. (Farm?)

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