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There are a few things that we southerners can really get serious about and tomatoes are one of them. They have been a staple in southern gardens for generations. If you love them, and there are many of us that do, there is great anticipation for that first ripe tomato straight from the vine. That’s when we know summer is in full swing and there will be more good things to follow. But along with rising temperatures and high humidity, diseases can begin to emerge. With a few preventative practices, hopefully they can be held to a minimum.
Tomatoes are a member of the Solanaceae family along with plants including peppers, eggplants and potatoes. When related species are planted in the same area year after year, pathogens from previously planted crops can remain in the soil. Diseases like bacterial wilt thrive in soil and can enter plants through wounds in the root system. Tomatoes and plants related to them should not be planted in the same area more than once in a three year period to prevent buildup of diseases. Crop rotation with non-susceptible plants like corn (members of the grass family) or beans (legumes) can be beneficial by interrupting the life cycle of the pathogen.
Conducting a soil test prior to planting will give you the most accurate measure of nutrients in the soil. Maintaining proper pH levels and amending the soil according to test results will ensure a healthy foundation to enable plants to withstand pressure from diseases. Choose disease resistant varieties of tomatoes if possible. There are many varieties that have some resistance to diseases like fusarium and verticillium wilt, but there are some diseases that no variety is resistant to. Fungal diseases like early blight, late blight, septoria leaf spot and leaf mold favor high humidity levels. Their spores can be spread by wind and rain to other plants in the garden. Give plants plenty of room with good air circulation and try to keep the foliage dry by avoiding overhead irrigation. A layer of mulch around plants will help keep diseases that are present in the soil from splashing onto stems and leaves. Many of the symptoms of disease like spots and lesions begin to appear on lower leaves and move upward. Remove and destroy infected foliage to prevent further spread. Should the use of fungicides become necessary, contact your local extension office for recommendations. Be sure to read and follow all label instructions.
Some diseases such as spotted wilt or yellow leaf curl may be spread by insects such as thrips or whiteflies. These insects can infect plants from nearby crops or weeds. Remove plant debris and try to keep weeds under control throughout the garden and in adjacent areas. Good sanitation practices will help reduce the population of insects and help limit the spread of disease. For more information, view the Clemson article Tomato Diseases & Disorders.
Our weather patterns can differ from week to week. Summers can be hot and dry or near normal with lots of rain or a combination of both. We never know what we are going to get. Sometimes conditions can be quite challenging when growing tomatoes, but to most folks they are worth the time and effort. Love them or hate them, they have long been a part of our southern history, our culture, and our childhood. This humble fruit may be considered one of our spiritual foods, something that binds us. The late Tom T. Hall, singer, songwriter and storyteller once penned “I love honest open smiles, kisses from a child, tomatoes on the vine, and onions”. Me too, Tom, me too.
Gail Griffin is an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer with North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.