Sunday, December 28, 2014

Late blight

Late blight, that scary fungal disease popping up in fields and gardens up and down the East Coast, is the talk of home gardeners. We're all a little paranoid, obsessing more than ever on our green tomatoes. We've entered the much awaited tomato season, albeit a little later than usual because the wet spring pushed everything back, and we're ready for the harvest. This is a Brandywine tomato plant, loaded up with fruit. I picked the first one yesterday, perhaps a little early out of concern that the dreaded resident squirrel would get it first and out of sheer eagerness to begin the feast. It sits on the kitchen counter ripening.

Late blight

Rosa 'All Ablaze' blazes cherry red in Burke Brothers' Tuscany exhibit, accenting classic Italian elements with bright flowers. (Ron Tarver / Staff photographer)
Rosa 'All Ablaze' blazes cherry red in Burke Brothers' Tuscany exhibit, accenting classic Italian elements with bright flowers. (Ron Tarver / Staff photographer)

Late blight, that scary fungal disease popping up in fields and gardens up and down the East Coast, is the talk of home gardeners. We're all a little paranoid, obsessing more than ever on our green tomatoes. We've entered the much awaited tomato season, albeit a little later than usual because the wet spring pushed everything back, and we're ready for the harvest. This is a Brandywine tomato plant, loaded up with fruit. I picked the first one yesterday, perhaps a little early out of concern that the dreaded resident squirrel would get it first and out of sheer eagerness to begin the feast. It sits on the kitchen counter ripening.

This morning I was talking to a master gardener in a South Jersey county that shall remain anonymous, asking him if he'd had any calls about late blight. He didn't even know what it was, and began telling me that he just clips off the yellow leaves and tosses them. His ignorance surprised me, given the activist role Rutgers has chosen to play in this and the tremendous price South Jersey would pay - in loss of tomato and potato crops - if late blight continues to spread. Today's weather - cool, cloudy, rainy - is perfect for spreading this scourge, which depends on airborne spores travelling miles in the wind and rain.

As I check my tomatoes daily, I'm fully aware that while they look healthy today, they could develop late blight's ugly brown lesions on stems, leaves or fruit tomorrow and I'd lose them all. If you see such lesions, you'll know - this is not black spot. This is not anything like what you might normally get at this time of year. The lesions are really disgusting looking. 

So while we all oohed and ahhed over out gorgeous, rain-fueled spring, and the amazing blooms it produced, there's a price to be paid now. Late blight almost never shows up this early; the rains made it happen. Yet another reminder that nature rules.

About this blog
Ginny Smith, a Philadelphia native, joined the Inquirer at 1985. After stints as both reporter and editor in the city and suburbs, she’s been happily writing – and learning - about gardening full time since 2006. She’s won two silver medals of achievement from the national Garden Writers Association and in 2011, Bartram’s Garden honored her with its Green Exemplar award for her stories about “the region’s deeply rooted horticultural history, cultural attractions and bountiful gardens.” She plays in her own – mostly - bountiful garden in East Falls. Reach Virginia A. at vsmith@phillynews.com .

Virginia A. Smith Inquirer Staff Writer
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