Tomato Blight Hits the Midwest

Ann Arbor Food

picture from my garden

From Sept 21 2009:

Even during this recession, companies that sell seeds for home gardens are thriving with record sales. The surge of new home gardeners have been spurred on by the recession and people growing their own food to counter rising food prices. Michelle Obama’s high profile new vegetable garden at the White House may have also peaked interest. Whatever the reason, I was happy that more people were gardening this year.

Gardening is a great way to get outside and exercise, to learn about plants and to get some fresh, local, lower carbon footprint eats. This new surge in garden activity unfortunate created a perfect storm that lead to the Northeast Tomato Blight, which I am afraid has also made it to Ann Arbor Michigan.

Tomatoes are the single most popular garden plant for home gardeners. They are easy to grow in part because they are planted from plant starts, and not from seed. Besides for having to provide some structural support like a tomato cage, they are a set them and forget them plant.

Almost every gardener grows them. Gardeners at my community garden plot set out their extra tomato plants, which can be hard to pass up.  It is not just community gardeners that offer free tomatoes. I have seen various groups from churches, to my local food co-op, and even auto parts store give away free tomato plants as a kind gesture to growers. Tomato starts come in various size packs from a single plant to six packs. It is common for a gardener to find it hard to throw out a plant, so when they buy a six pack they plant them all.

It is because tomatoes are so popular, and that they are openly exchanged with fellow gardeners that this blight was able to spread. According to Dan Barber, the chef and co-owner of Blue Hill in an op-ed piece for the NY Times:

According to plant pathologists, this killer round of blight began with a widespread infiltration of the disease in tomato starter plants. Large retailers like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart bought starter plants from industrial breeding operations in the South and distributed them throughout the Northeast. (Fungal spores, which can travel up to 40 miles, may also have been dispersed in transit.) Once those infected starter plants arrived at the stores, they were purchased and planted, transferring their pathogens like tiny Trojan horses into backyard and community gardens. Perhaps this is why the Northeast was hit so viciously: instead of being spread through large farms, the blight sneaked through lots of little gardens, enabling it to escape the attention of the people who track plant diseases.

The blight was discover in late June and the plants were recalled by the company that supplied them, but many plants were sold with signs of blight through garden centers, some of which are not trained to spot plant disease. The result was a wide and fast spread blight. The cool, and rainy weather of early summer did not help. The picture shown on this post are from plants that were grown from seed from my community garden and not from the plants suspected of starting the blight outbreak. Unfortunately they still got the blight.

What do we do if we had blighted tomatoes plants? Bag them in plastic and throw them out. Do notAnn Arbor Food compost them. I plan to throw out all of my tomato plants this year regardless of signs of blight. The blight can also spread to potatoes, so if you grew potatoes this year, it is recommended that you do not reuse this years potatoes for next years seed potatoes. The good news is that climates with a hard frost like Michigan can help to prevent a blight next year. Hopefully action will be taken to prevent the spread of blighted plant for the 2010 growing season.

It is unfortunate that a wide spread tomato blight happened this year when so many people were taking up gardening for the first time. Don’t be discourage. As a seasoned gardener, I know these things happen. I hope this does not turn people off from the joys of gardening. I see this as an opportunity to branch out and grow different vegetables. Growing a variety of different plants will insure we get something.

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