A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Intrepid Urban Farmer: Just about done, too fast, and uninvited miscreants rode the wet wave in

By Ginger Dawson
Special to NKyTribune

It’s just about done, I think. Growing season 2018 is winding down and it’s here too fast! It seems like just yesterday I was picking tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant thinking I had WEEKS to go.

The joys of early blight and tomato fruit worms

And then it happened. Uninvited miscreants rode in on the wave of an excessive amount of rain and luxuriated in a smothering blanket of humidity. Actually, it smothered me. The uninviteds were as happy as a pig in poop.

Early blight, gray mold, powdery mildew, and God knows what else just moved right in.

The stinking early blight had a field day with my tomatoes. Their good friends, the tomato fruit worms, added to the celebration and created a buffet. They just burrowed right in and made themselves at home.

Tomato fruit worms are the frat boys of the garden. They show up uninvited (they can smell a party a mile off), find a ripe tomato, and have their way with it. Mashers!

Their calling cards are little dark holes in the skin of the tomatoes. Portals to fruit worm lust!

They leave their victims violated and the tomatoes never recover. The worms take what they want and just leave an empty shell. Where is the justice, I ask you!

Horrifyingly, they like peppers, too.

I have never had trouble with these juvenile delinquents until this year.

Disgusting tomato horn worm caught flagrante delicto! Gross. (Photo by Caroline Grizzle, my excellent next door neighbor)

This is what keeps me gardening. New acquaintances and their particular sort of company keep it INTERESTING. I don’t have to go anywhere, they just all show up in my little universe and keep me happy, intrigued or agitated. Never a dull moment.

A few years back, I made the acquaintance of fusarium wilt. This is a particularly noxious thing because it is a type of wilt that establishes itself in the soil and likes to set up a residency.

It attacks tomato plants in the root system and shows itself by affecting one-half of the plant. The lower leaves on one side will start to wilt and turn brown. It will continue on up the plant (on one side, now!) and eventually kill the whole thing.

Amazingly, I saw what was happening (this was unusually precocious of me) and I immediately planned a counter-offensive. I did a lot of research and found that fusarium wilt is difficult to battle.

There are all manner of techniques that one can try that seem interesting and they all seem to take a LOT of work.

Here’s one: Solarizing the soil. Now, I know some of you gardeners out there have heard of this.

Let me describe it: When the soil is bare, preferably in the dead of summer when it’s hotter than blazes, you cover the section of your garden that is infected with the virus in black plastic.

Violated tomatoes. Poor broken blossoms.

Beforehand, you dampen the soil thoroughly and then anchor it to the ground in some manner (bricks, soil staples, etc..). Moisture helps create the higher temperatures that are needed to accomplish the killing off of the undesired viruses, in this case, the fusarium wilt.

Temperatures of 108 to 134 degrees over a period of 4 weeks is supposed to do the job. But here’s the thing. I couldn’t find one article that would say that this would definitively work! No thank-you. Too much work with too little certainty.

Another unpleasant symmetry lies in the fact that this approach is similar to one method of removing bedbugs. YUCK.

Here’s what I did instead. Being a gardener that is not afraid to use science and the ensuing chemicals, I discovered Oxidate. This is a disinfectant/fungicide that is used in commercial organic greenhouse irrigation systems, among other things. It takes care of fusarium wilt! I couldn’t believe my good luck. It is also a good fungicide for powdery mildew and other molds. One would have thought that I would have been a little more vigilant THIS year in light of this great discovery. I am not perfect.

I also discovered that Johnny’s Seeds of Winslow, Maine (one of my favorite sources), carries it. I ordered it, used it, and I am here to report to you that it does work. A potentially devastating crisis was averted. I am serious about this. The future without decent tomatoes is a horrifying thought to me.

Fortunately, I have plenty of survivors. Nearing the end of the harvest. Soon it will be fried green tomato season!

Another thing I did was to make sure that all of my tools, tomato cages, etc.. were disinfected to help assure I didn’t reinfect my dirt. You can use isopropyl alcohol, a 10% solution of bleach in water, or you can also use the Oxidate to disinfect.

One note about using fungicides — you must alternate different fungicides (and herbicides, too, by the way) from year to year because Mother Nature is a tough lady. Funguses, viruses, weeds and any other living organism will develop resistance to these chemicals if they are used too long in an environment, so they must be rotated in order to maintain effectiveness. Copper sulfate is a good fungicide to use for this rotation. Of course, there are others, too.

So now, for this next season, I will turn my attention to these monstrous tomato frat worms, er, FRUIT worms. As you may imagine, the books are open, Google — the dilettante’s dictionary — is hot and I am searching for a tomato fruit worm slayer!

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Ginger Dawson has resided in Covington, Kentucky since 1988. Raised on a farm in South Central Ohio, she has enjoyed a very eclectic and enriching life. She loves her Italianate Victorian Townhouse and particularly the garden behind it. See her new website at intrepidurbanfarmer.com

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