Tomato blight

It’s important to stay ahead of the game when it comes to preventing tomato blight.

Tomato blight and blossom end rot are perhaps two of the most discouraging ailments that can afflict our gardens. Since planting time is upon us, here are my recommendations to combat trouble before it starts.

First, let’s talk about blight. Garden supply centers inundate folk with “improved” varieties of tomatoes; many are genetically bred hybrids claiming an immunity to the cursed blight. I won’t list the names of these tomatoes, because they are legion. Advertisers pontificate that their particular variety of tomato varieties resist blight, but before you fill the buggy with those varieties mosey over to the internet and read an article from Penn State that reads, “Currently there are no tomato varieties resistant to late blight; however, growers and home gardeners have observed that some may be less susceptible than others.”

Now, lean in close and let me share a secret, I haven’t planted a single hybrid tomato or “improved” variety on my property (ever) and I have never had tomato blight.

Let’s flesh this out for a moment. I start my seeds inside, using the highly technical method as follows: one plastic shoebox-sized container, one bag of potting soil, one package of heirloom seeds. Plant seeds in dirt, water lightly, set box on heating pad in the sun. Seedlings emerge in five to seven days and are ready to plant in four weeks. I don’t till the soil, merely walk into the row, dig a hole, chunk some nutrients into the soil, then the plant, and walk away. Meanwhile, in nurseries all over the country, improved varieties grow and thrive in controlled environments. In this hot and moist environment, isn’t it possible for seedlings to contract a teeny tiny case of the blight long before it reaches you? Isn’t it possible that the soil, or seeds, water, or air inside the greenhouse might contain the blight? Friends, the fungus can be among us in the greenhouse. And because this blight/fungus permeates the soil, once you plant a baby tomato, contamination is possible.

Take heart, if blight has previously persecuted your produce, it is important to incorporate crop rotation and careful farming practices. It is time to cover the tomato bed with dark plastic and allow the sun to “cook” the soil now, before planting. As the plants grow, carefully break off suckers that form and oversized leaves. This opens the plants to allow light and airflow through the leaves.

Even if your plants are healthy, as a precaution gardeners should also never discard any part of a tomato plant into a compost bin. As an example, I burn all tomato plants and other garden waste in the brush pile at season’s end. If burning isn’t an option, carefully remove plants, place them in a plastic bag and discard them in the trash, or use garden compost on flowers instead of vegetables.

Blossom end rot is a pernicious affliction that sneaks up on many gardeners. Caused by a lack of calcium in the soil and water woes, nothing breaks a heart quite like lifting a beautiful tomato only to find an ugly cancerous spot on the bottom.

With blossom end rot, prevention is also crucial. When planting tomatoes dig a hole twice the depth of the plant’s height. Add one handful of crushed eggshells or gypsum (I add both) and sprinkle in a quarter cup of Epsom salt. Mix in with the soil and then add a quarter inch of garden soil on top of the fertilizer. These nutrients feed the plant from day one, fortifying it with calcium as it grows. As the season progresses if you have even a single plant exhibiting signs of blossom end rot, pluck off the bad fruit and immediately add more gypsum as a top dress. Lightly scratch an area around the plant and sprinkle gypsum in the area then cover with dirt. Personally, I add a layer of mulch immediately after application, which prevents rain from splashing onto low-hanging leaves. I typically add this before a rain, paying particular attention to ensure nothing will splash onto the stem or leaves. Taking measures now should prevent heartache later in the season. Happy growing.

Renea Winchester is the award-winning author of “In the Garden with Billy: Lessons about Life, Love and Tomatoes.”