After a slow start, by mid-June the tomato vines looked set for a fruitful year. Their bed had been well enriched with a powdered organic fertilizer that offends the nostrils in a reassuring way. The vines, a mixture of full-bodied hybrids and heirlooms, were hydrated, staked and tied. Amid thick, lush foliage, the nodding yellow blooms were appearing on schedule. It seemed a safe time to leave town.
The next time I saw them, just 12 days later, they were unrecognizable. Some were almost completely denuded and all had many leaves in late stages of early blight — that is, brown and shriveled. I had missed the early spotting and yellowing; now they just looked scorched. The near-naked stems had splayed from their stakes and were sprawling over garden paths. I felt as though I had come across some dreadful scene in a spaghetti western. Cue the wandering tumbleweed, howling wind and the whinny of a white-eyed horse.
What had happened to cause this? A couple of biblical storms and a foot of rain or more in June alone, a month when we normally get a quarter of that. Yes, plants need water at this hot time of year, but, like camels, they prefer to take a long draft and then wait till things dry before taking another. Add humidity and stagnant air to that waterlogged soil, and you have another perfect storm, this one in which fungal diseases take hold.
With 12 inches or more of rain, even free-draining soil takes on the attributes of heavy clay. The only plants in the community plot that seem immune from the soakings are the rosemaries, but that’s only because they were planted in a bed that is 50 percent gravel with a further gravel mulch.
Back in Swampsville, the peppers are mighty sore, pardner, as in, “Take me to Boot Hill.” The grape clusters dangling from the arbor are the size and hardness of marbles — a month or more from ripening, but they won’t make it because a quarter of them already have black rot, and misery loves company. While I was trying to tie a tomato vine, I saw a chipmunk climb the nine feet or so to the bower and start munching on the grapes. Fallen ones attract catbirds. The sodden critters might as well have them.
But what of the tomatoes? Some are fruiting conspicuously — an heirloom named Pruden’s Purple has three large trusses with two or three tomatoes on each. The quandary now is: Do you pull the plants, cut your losses and turn to alternatives, or hope that with some grooming and care, the tomatoes will rebound?
The choice is linked to the condition of the vine. If immature fruit is dropping because there are too few leaves to support it, or if the plant is ravaged by blight, you’ll want to yank it out.
If there is life at the top, you can remove the blighted foliage, fix ties and supports to keep the vine off the ground, and cultivate the soil at the base to correct crusting and compaction.
Joe Brunetti, horticulturist at the Victory Garden next to the American History museum, says you should also look for sunken areas in the stem — lesions from fungal diseases — that would render the plant hopeless.
He managed to get five of six varieties of tomato through the Great Flood, but by anticipating what has become an integral part of tomato cultivation in our region, coping with blight. Tomatoes, after all, originate in upland South America, full of Andean brightness and evening cool.
He planted his late, on June 1, but as three-footers in gallon pots, and then removed all the lower leaves and stems up to about 12 inches. This makes them look like lollipops, but the imbalance is corrected as the plants vegetate. The bare ankles reduce the spread of early blight, which moves from the soil upward. He also mulched to keep spores off the leaves and used a preventative organic (copper sulfate) spray every two weeks or so. I’ve always resisted spraying my veggies with a fungicide, but that’s what it may take to raise decent tomatoes in these parts.
For good measure, he also gives them a foliar feed of fish emulsion every two weeks or so. All this may seem like overkill, but then, a foot of rain is beyond the pale, or certainly the pail.
If you pull the sickly vines, how do you salvage the garden in mid-July? If you can still find tomato plants, there’s still time to get a late-summer crop. Don’t go for slow-maturing beefsteaks. Brunetti suggests eager-to-fruit cherry tomatoes or quick-to-crop determinate varieties. You may know some plant-obsessed gardener who still has surplus tomato plants in pots.
If you’ve had it with tomatoes, there is still time to directly sow seeds of bush or pole beans (maybe not limas). You could also sow cucumber seeds, and they will mature in late summer and by so doing, outfox the cucumber beetle, the bringer of wilt.
Although it’s about a month early to get cool-season veggies going for the fall, Brunetti continues to sow beet seeds and the related Swiss chard through the summer.
A gardening neighbor who pulled five tomato plants is using the space to sow lettuce seeds. This would make me a little nervous, given the heat, but she plans to take them when small.
My thoughts returned to the problem of the tomato plants. Grooming and tying just one took 20 minutes in sapping heat.
“I’m jet-lagged, drenched in sweat and very discouraged,” I told her.
“That will teach you to go away in summer.” Harsh, but true.