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Tomatoes & the Wilts – Part 1

Wolf Peach!!!!  Did you know – our tomato originated in South America and was originally cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas, came to Europe in the 1500s.  People were warned not to eat them until the 18th century!  Wolf Peach comes from German werewolf myths that said deadly nightshade was used to summon werewolves!  ‘Tis true, tomatoes are of the deadly nightshade family, and does have poisonous leaves.  But you would have to eat a LOT of them to get sick!  But they are not good for dogs or cats!  Smaller bodies, right?

Tomatoes & the Wilts – Part 1

Tomato - Healthy SunGold!

Tomato – Verticillium Wilt

Above on the left is a very healthy Sun Gold cherry tomato and happy owner.  On the right is a verticillium wilt fatality, not old age.  Almost all of us have had tomato wilt fatalities.  Very sad to see, disappointing and frustrating as XXX!  Tomatoes are pretty dramatically affected, but many plants get the wilt, including your trees, shrubs and roses.  Veggies affected are cucumber, eggplant, pepper, potatoes, rhubarb, watermelon, artichoke, beet, broad bean, strawberries, raspberries.  Cool, damp weather, like we had here in Santa Barbara area ALL last summer, referred to as the ‘May grays’ and the  ‘June glooms,’ is the worst. 

The leaves fold along their length, the stems get brown/black spots/blotches on them, the leaves turn brown, dry and die.  It is a fungus in the soil that is also windborne.  There may be too much N (Nitrogen), too much manure – lots of gorgeous leaves but no flowers.  That’s an easy fix, add some Seabird (not Bat) guano to restore the balance, bring blooms, then fruit.  The wilt is tougher.  When the toms get about a foot tall, STOP WATERING!  Remove weed habitat and don’t mulch.  The fungus can’t thrive in drier soil. Water the toms’ neighboring plants, but not the toms.  Tomatoes have deep tap roots and they can get water from below the wilt zone.

It is better to pull infected plants, called the one-cut prune, because their production will be labored and little compared to a healthy plant that will catch up fast in warmer weather.  And you will be more cheerful looking at a healthy plant.  Heirlooms are particularly susceptible, so get varieties that have VFN or VF on the tag at the nursery, or are a known VFN variety.  The V is for Verticillium, the F Fusarium wilt, N nematodes.  Ask a knowledgeable person if the tom doesn’t have a designation, or check online.  It’s just a bummer when plants get the wilt.  If you are one who removes the lower leaves and plants your transplant deeper, don’t let the lowest leaves touch the ground. When your plants get bigger, cut off lower leaves that would touch the ground BEFORE they touch the ground or leaves that can be water splashed – some say take all up to 18″ high!  The wilt gets into your plant through its leaves, not the stem.  Don’t cut suckers (branches between the stem and main branch) off because the cuts can be entry points for windborne wilts.  Wash your hands after working with each plant with the wilt so you don’t spread the wilts yourself.

Verticillium-resistant Tomato Varieties
AAS (All America Selections) are Starred & Bolded 
  • Ace
  • Better Boy
  • *Big Beef
  • *Celebrity
  • Champion
  • Daybreak
  • Early Girl
  • First Lady
  • *Floramerica
  • *Husky Gold
  • Husky Red
  • Italian Gold
  • Jet Star
  • Miracle Sweet
  • Pink Girl
  • Roma
  • Sunstart
  • Super Sweet 100
  • Ultra Sweet
  • Viva Italia

There’s little you can do for/to the soil to get rid of the wilt.  The only method I know that most of us can afford is Solarization.  Put black plastic tightly to the ground during a couple weeks of heat to kill it.  Problem is twofold.  1) That would be high summer to get that heat, so you can’t have your summer crop in that area.  If you have enough space, it’s doable.  If you only have a small space, that means no toms this year.  2) We are coastal and the temp needed to kill the wilt isn’t maintained over a two week period.  Sigh.  So we do our best, resistant varieties, little water, removal of lower leaves, remove infected plants.  A lot of smart local farmers dry farm tomatoes, and it’s water saving. 

You can use straw bale planting, or make raised box beds and fill them with soil that isn’t infected with the wilt.  That can help for awhile.  Here’s a link to my Green Bean Connection blog post on Plant a Lot in a Small Space that has a bit on hay/straw bale gardening!  It’s about 2/3s down the page, with link for instructions!  But.  Not only are the wilts soil borne, but airborne.  That you can’t do a lot about except ask everyone with infected plants to remove them.  

See Tomatoes & the Wilts – Part 2, including Fava & Basil Tips

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If you didn’t mulch, didn’t mulch thick enough, or your mulch is thin and tired, now’s the time to put some down! It keeps your soil cooler, reduces evaporation, you use less water. Mulch prevents light germinating seeds from growing, using up soil nutrients and your soil.      

Big weeds – if healthy with no pests, chop and drop – that can also include your spent big plants, tops that have bolted, ones you no longer want. Toss the heavy stems into your long-term compost or green waste disposal. Chop and drop practice makes perfect pure guaranteed organic mulch. Remember, you won’t be doing chop and drop with Brassicas that have poisons that kill small seeds like lettuce seeds.      

Little weeds – get ‘em before they seed. If you see flowers, no matter how cute, pretty, and tiny, tiny seeds are very soon to follow. Every one of those is a new little weed that will need weeding, eats up your time weeding, again, and soil. Grass, with that pretty little plume? Those are flowering, seeding. The wind will blow them about. DO NOT pull and lay them on your soil to regrow right there. Remove them, not even into your compost pile, especially if you are not doing hot compost. Even then, it’s not likely every part of your compost pile will get hot enough to kill those little survivor seeds.      

Pigweed, Lamb's Quarter - Chenopodium, Nutrient Accumulator

When you pull little weeds, and you want to use them for mulch, leave them with their roots up, not down where they may grab what soil they can and grow again. One way to instant ‘weed’ tiny weeds in soft soil, is to use a knife, thin blade or stick, and poke/cut them down, push them into your soil. Instant mulch! Works better than raking or hoeing because that dries out your soil, and exposes more light germinating seeds so they can grow too, more weeding.      

Good weedsGardeners, we can reduce or eliminate fertilizer costs and improve soil naturally with plants that are “dynamic, or nutrient, accumulators.” Often they have long tap roots that gather nutrients deep in our soil and make them available to other plants. Some are very nutritious!  You can steam them or eat tasty young tender leaves in salads!      

Pigweed/lamb’s quarters, comfrey, dandelion, garlic, yarrow (also helps heat, decompose your compost more quickly!), fennel, purslane, buckwheat, parsley, peppermint, chamomile, stinging nettle, thistle, vetch, plantains, are all nutrient accumulators! Yes, several of those are ‘weeds,’ but now you will never think of them quite the same way again!

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