Trying Not to Panic When the Plagues Descend - Plotting Tomatoes
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Trying Not to Panic When the Plagues Descend

I sat down this evening to the table and finally had the meal I had been waiting for all year: crusty bread toasted with garlic oil, just-picked basil leaves, sliced fresh mozzarella, and sliced heirloom tomatoes conveniently arranged in luscious rows for accurate taste testing, topped with sea salt. Oh, and a good red wine. It is a stack of happiness in the mouth every time.

Dinner never looked so good.

Tonight we relished in tomatoes named Cosmic Eclipse, Hawaiian Pineapple, Brandywine, Pink Berkeley Tie Dye and the reigning all-time favorite, Purple Cherokee. With its dark red flesh, beautiful dark pinky-red skin with green shoulders and its incredibly rich, smoky flavor, it always is the taste testing winner, hands down.

How I love thee, Purple Cherokee…

But in the midst of all this feeding of our collective faces, I had a worry. Even though I am harvesting so much goodness right now, something just isn’t right. I keep noticing that a few of tomatoes—namely the Cosmic Eclipse and the Purple Cherokee (only the favorites of course) have drooping branches that just suddenly started to die. And my heart sinks.

Drought or wilt?
Drought or wilt?
Drought or wilt?!

Are the leaves browning caused by Fusarium Wilt or just regular drought? Could it be something else? As the person that usually knows what to do in the garden, I suddenly feel very small and very naive.

I go online, because that’s what modern gardeners do, and I see a lot of photos of…well, sick leaves that look remarkably similar to my leaves, but also all look remarkably similar to each other. And the leaves that tell me ‘my soil is doomed forever’ look the same as the ‘drought stressed’ ones. Some sites don’t even have pictures at all, but plain descriptions. Which seems really silly.

So. Not. Helpful.

Researching plant diseases online is a lot like looking at WebMD. For people searching for answers to their symptoms, it always is CANCER. No matter if it is a stomach ache or split ends, it will always be CANCER. We should all stay off WebMD for our own sanity’s sake. For tomatoes, it is always BLIGHT or WILT online. But these problems are also in real life too, and apparently very common in my area.

On the left, Purple Cherokee, on the right Brandywine. It all looks terrible. But the tomatoes taste good, so…

I like to put a little information in my posts so I’m not just ranting about my garden like a crazy garden lady, but I have to be honest with you, I’m not sure what to do or how to proceed at all. I have a large, beautiful tomato plant loaded with my most favorite tomatoes in the world looking a little peaked and wilty, and I’m not sure whether I should pull it, slash at its base to check the color of the stem, fertilize like heck, trim all the old leaves off and have positive thoughts, or run around crying like a baby. I’m running scenarios of only being able to grow “Better Boy” in my beds next year, and it is really freaking me out. I cannot have a tomato blog with “Ace” and “Better Boy” tomatoes as my showcase. I would lose all my gardening cred. Plus I want to continue eating Purple Cherokee tomatoes until I die when I’m 102.

And after all that research, I realize I actually do have spider mites. Like a HUGE infestation of it. It’s on my tomatoes and every lovely dragon tongue bean I planted. The beans that have almost no beans because of the heat—and perhaps because of the spider mites.

The tomatoes and Dragon Tongue beans are under siege.

Are the spider mites causing the problem with my two tomatoes? With all my tomatoes?
Or maybe it’s the hornworms—because I found droppings everywhere.
Or perhaps because my plants grew so tall so fast, they don’t have enough air circulation?
Or maybe that new soil had too much nitrogen….

My garden is beginning to feel a lot like some sort of CDC superfund site. Maybe I should be wearing gloves at all times. Should I blowtorch my clippers after clipping each plant so I don’t spread disease? I’m really asking, because I seem to remember this being a ‘thing’ in my hort class I took a few years ago. Or maybe I am imagining things.

Maybe I should just burn it all down?

You experienced gardeners out there may be asking yourselves right about now: how can someone who has been gardening as long as I have be completely, ridiculously ignorant of all these common afflictions?

Well, cement jungle.

Let me explain: our last yard in Oakland had literally been under cement for at least the last 30 years and the area around me was not populated by a whole lot of other gardens. I grew most of my tomatoes in half wine barrels and repurposed the soil every few years to prevent diseases. There was just no way for my garden to pick up any of this stuff. I dealt with bugs and birds and cats and dogs, but nothing like this. One year, I did lose half a purple Cherokee plant to some kind of wilt, and ended up throwing out all the soil and starting over again when the season was over. I may have even scrubbed down the inside of the barrel with bleach.

My current backyard looks like a freaking national park and is surrounded by other avid gardeners. I just brought in new soil this year that may or may not have been contaminated. There are plants, bugs and birds everywhere, and they all want what I have, just like I do.

and those golden crowned sparrows sure loved my beans this year. To death.

So, let’s learn together. As I tell my 12-year old, please do not roll your eyes at me while we have this discussion, and we’ll come out all right. I would love some advice and/or perhaps sympathy.

Let’s figure out if the lucky winner for this year’s disease infestation is fusarium wilt or spider mites. Or something else. Or maybe all of it. it’s the journey, right?


Before I left on vacation I went in and clipped out all the dead leaves and branches of my tomatoes in the hopes it would make everything better. Ok, they looked better, but I know it won’t make everything actually better. I also gave them a foliar fertilizer bath with Maxsea in case the organic granular E.B.Stone food I was using wasn’t being absorbed because of the drip system. I increased the water frequency and time. I sort of slashed a little bit at my Cherokee Purple’s base to see if I could see anything brown, but it still looked fine. I cleared out the center of my densest tomatoes to give them light and air. I discovered that I’m going to have an absolutely HUGE harvest of Brandywine tomatoes after all the dead stuff had been cleared away.

I’m going to harvest at least 20 tomatoes off my Purple Cherokee vine this year. That doesn’t say Fusarium “will produce very few tomatoes” wilt, does it? But what I do have is spider mites. So, I am thinking it might be a combination of drought and spider mites. And denial.

Possibly the lesson to be learned here is that ignoring problems in the garden doesn’t make them go away. I’m going to have to aggressively address the spider mite and blossom end rot issues in my garden before next summer for sure.

Anyone have any great Spider Mite controls they’d like to share?
…I’m asking for a friend.

As the garden looks now… peaceful, isn’t it?









  • Cherise Khaund
    Posted at 16:56h, 01 August Reply

    Those tomatoes tasted so good! My Hawaiian pineapple is wilting without producing any tomatoes…

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