Posted on 26 August 2009 by

Some Partly Blame Home Gardeners, Heirlooms for Late Blight Explosion


angry-tomatoBy 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.

5 Responses to “Some Partly Blame Home Gardeners, Heirlooms for Late Blight Explosion”

  1. wiseace Says:

    There’s enough ’cause’ to go around but mentioning heirloom tomatoes as one of them is silly. There are no immune tomatoes when it comes to Late Blight.

    Sorry to say, bad news comes from big boxes. The distribution system put all the tomatoes in virtually one basket. When things go wrong they then can go horribly wrong.

    My peeve is with the big boxes and Bonnie Plants. They may have recalled tomato plants but they never announced they had sold infected plants until the media made a story of it. I imagine many gardeners would have weeded out their gardens if they had been informed just how serious the problem was.

  2. Kira Says:

    But this is exactly why growing heirlooms is so important! We need as much genetic diversity as possible in order to prevent something like blight from causing catastrophic crop failure. The Irish potato famine happened not simply because blight showed up, but because the Irish were monocropping and ALL their plants were susceptible. This kind of thing is, in fact, EXACTLY what people who are trying to protect genetic diversity by preserving heirlooms have been warning about.

  3. Vanessa R Says:

    Yes, you’re both right. I do blame the stores and the growers more. If there hadn’t been so many infected plants sold (and as you pointed out, they didn’t even own up to the problem until the news caught wind of it), would we even have such a big problem?

    And heirlooms really are quite picked on 😛 There’s that Sci Am article I wrote about before. It’s part of the problem I have with GMOs in general. We need diversity (true diversity, not some version cobbled together with totally unrelated DNA) to preserve the crops.

  4. Patty Says:

    I have been searching and searching and cannot find the answer to this question. Sometimes, when I cut into a tomato, the seeds are DARK green…I mean, very dark. Is this safe to eat?

  5. cathy Says:

    My tomatoes were infected with late blight. I started ALL of my plants from new seed. I had both heirloom & hybrid & they both were infected. Guess what??? IT WAS THE WEATHER!!!! Wet all summer with weeks at a time without sunshine. The only two varieties I had (among at least 20) that did NOT get the disease were Pineapple (heirloom) & Aker’s West Virginia (also heiroom.) And the lemon boy (hybrid) was devastated. So don’t blame it on heirlooms. Sounds like somebody has an agenda here.

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