By Vanessa Richins
As many of you know, this year has been a struggle for tomato gardeners in the Northeast and beyond.
After unusually long bouts of cool weather, rain and humidity, many tomato plants have fallen prey to the same disease that caused the great Irish potato famines – late blight.
In an Op-Ed in the New York Times, Dan Barber explains some of the conditions that made it a perfect situation for late blight to ravage tomato plants. He includes heirloom tomatoes and the explosion of interest in home gardening as a large part of the problem.
I can agree somewhat with what he is saying. As far as home gardeners go, he explains that the problems began when some of the large chain stores sold infected plants. This caused the plants to be grown in many home yards, which usually aren’t as closely watched for diseases as farms may be.
There have also been many more gardeners this year than before. As he points out, “According to the National Gardening Association, 43 million households planned a backyard garden or put a stake in a share of a community garden in 2009, up from 36 million in 2008.” More plants = more opportunities to spread disease.
I would, however, disagree that gardeners were the only ones causing the problem. What about the growers who supplied the plants? Somewhere along the line the disease managed to slip in and still be sent out for sale. If the diseased plants were never sent out, there wouldn’t have been as much of a problem.
He also says that part of the problem was that many people now plant heirloom tomatoes. I can also see this, to some extent. It’s true that heirlooms don’t always have the disease protection that hybrids can offer. I think that a two-fold approach needs to happen.
Breeders need to focus more on taste as part of their program (more focus is often put on shipping and storage capacity, along with insect and disease resistant), and perhaps more people should work on planting the heirlooms that do have resistance to diseases already.
We can use this year’s late blight disaster as a lesson for the future. Hopefully next year all will be ready to combat the disease.