Beating the Blues and Blight

Reader Contribution by Susan Slape-Hoysagk

It is raining. Again. For us at the northern Oregon coast our days this winter season have been either crystal-clear-blue-gem-sky days with temperatures down into the 20s and 30s, or a firmament of variations on the gray theme that dumps a deluge. Some days it really has been raining sideways. Yes, we normally get a good amount of rain here; something like an average of 68 inches a year (the landscape is green for a reason!). However, the rain doesn’t usually stop me from puttering around outside. But torrential rains? No thanks. Frozen ground? Pass. Besides, if you muck around your garden when the soil is water logged you will mess up its structure.

Admittedly, I am having a pity-party. This last year has happened to be one of the roughest in my life. Adding insult to injury, the garden is my therapist and the therapist has been out! Mother Earth has been either too soggy or too frozen. The grass crunches under foot or feels like a giant, wet, spongy slip-n-slide and it is only a matter of time before I end up horizontal. Not really very therapeutic and I find as I age I worry about breaking hips and things. Doting over my houseplants isn’t cutting it. Beautiful seed catalogs entice me only temporarily.

Thinking organizing my computer files might be a good idea (I didn’t day fun), I ran across pictures of my gardens from last year. This reminiscing triggered daydreaming. Then daydreaming’s fuzzy path led me to thoughts of spring, renewal, new beginnings – and as corny as it sounds, hopefulness started to slowly bubble up from within me. As there was a break in the weather, I decided to go for a walk in the yard.

Daffodils pushing through the frozen ground.

To my amazement there are signs of life! The daffodils have bravely pushed tips of foliage through the intermittently frozen and sloshy earth. My star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) is showing off her silvery buds. I do love the intricate, creamy white flowers those buds are hiding inside and sweet-yet-delicate perfume that comes with their early spring debut. Then I spy the lemony-yellow flowered Camelia japonica that is budding up right on time. It will open a stunning complex yellow flower that eventually fades to a soft buttercream. The more I walk the more I see the beginnings of spring. Tiny reddish buds of Viburnum davidii nestled amongst dark, leathery leaves. Little blips of bumps letting me know my blueberry bushes are waking up despite the crazy weather and my dampened mood.

I meander my way to the site of last year’s main vegetable garden. There are a few carrots left in the ground. The strawberry patch looks ragged but I know it is only a temporary winter wardrobe. My gardener’s mind now shifts easily to planning mode and begins to envision what will go where and when. “Oh! I need to start my tomato plants” interrupts my stream of thoughts. Then came the flashbacks. End of summer 2016 was the Late Tomato Blight calamity. The stars, and subsequent victims of this tragedy, were two Early Girl plants. These ladies were huge! To the point they looked like twice as many plants and were absolutely loaded with tasty tomatoey globes of deliciousness.

I originally had termed last summer as “The One with All the Garden Pests.” However, staying strong and stalwart in my battles against my slug and bug foes was paying off. My garden was beautiful and productive with plenty of fresh veggies for my table and extras for friends. Then came the rains after an unseasonably long dry season and soon after…dun dun dun…THE BLIGHT.

That was a very sad day here on Walton’s Mountain. Fraught with blood, sweat, and tears (no clue how I managed to cut myself) as I removed and bagged up my tomato plants and their gazillion blighted fruits of all sizes and shades of ripening. I put aside some of the few still viable maters; a mere drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds now discarded. The disease had literally spread like proverbial wild fire – fast, furious, lethal.

At first notice of something gone amiss in my veggie jungle I thought (hoped) it was tomato leaf spot Septoria lycopersici that was affecting my monstrous Early Girl plants. Leaf spot looks unsightly but is limited to the leaves and thus the wonderful red globes are left untouched. Numerous brown spots had seemingly appeared on my plants overnight. The tell-tale yellow halos of chlorosis quickly became evident and nearly in tears, I knew I was wrong. Tomato blight was the culprit and my crazily prolific plants doomed.

Tomato blight is one of many fungal diseases that can take away a tomato lover’s dreams of dancing amongst bushel baskets over flowing with those tasty bites of heaven called tomatoes. Late blight, the Phytophthora infestans, also causes devastation in potatoes and was the culprit of the Irish Potato Famine. Late blight spreads as spores ride the winds. They can also be carried on the hands and tools of the gardener. After plant removal I sanitized my garden implements, tossed my gloves, and showered.

The clean-up did not include two smaller heirloom plants that were a few feet away. They were late comers to the garden and had just started to set fruit. Neither had signs of blight so I opted to tempt fate and just observe. Although not nearly as productive as the massive Early Girl plants, these two did not get infected and lived on to produce until the first hard frost in early November!

My usual gardening practice is to mulch the vegetable garden with straw and water the ground and not the plants. This helps prevent blight. Copper products are also used in organic gardening to combat blight. However, I worry about build-up in my soil and subsequent peril to beneficial insects. There are biofungicides safe for our veggies and environment but really are best used as a preventative measure as once late blight appears it is pretty much too late.

I am going to try to mitigate a rerun of 2016’s tomato tragedy by starting all my own seedlings with heirloom varieties that are described as blight resistant and planting in a different area of my garden. Stay tuned! Now where are those seed catalogs…?

Happy dreaming, Susan

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