What Late Blight Teaches Us About Our Gardening Practices

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A few weeks ago, my friend updated me on her first container garden. The basil was healthy, the marigolds were in bloom, her cilantro was ready for a new guacamole recipe — everything was good. “Except the tomato bush,” she said, “is it supposed to have white splotches on the leaves?” I feared the worst, thinking, ” she’d better stock up on supermarket romas because those tomatoes have blight.”

My family in Iowa has lost several seasons of tomatoes to blight. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that my father spent much of this spring devising his own planting apparatus, soil mixture and “blight-proof” mulch. In Atlanta, the recent drought curbed both blight and our interest in preventing the disease to the point that my friend could have easily figured blight for a food flavoring rather than a fungus. Mmmm,  ripe beefstakes… now seasoned with Blight!

In this Sunday’s New York Times, Dan Barber — chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns — explains the natural disaster that blight causes. This summer’s soggy conditions supercharged late blight, destroying  tomato crops, incomes and many a meal in the Northeast. However, it was not just the rain that led to this year’s crop failure. Barber notes that “Large retailers like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart bought starter plants from industrial breeding operations in the South and distributed them throughout the Northeast.” Even in the South, backyard gardeners like my friend bought plants from their local big-box stores along with their household refills of toilet paper and toothpaste, never realizing the Trojan Horse they were potting on the apartment patio or adding to the neighborhood garden.

So, how do we prevent this blight from…well, being a blight? Barber suggests a few tips for planning next year’s household garden.

Buy your plants from small, local nurseries. Not only is there a better chance that the plant will be locally grown, but many nursery owners and managers have horticultural training and can more easily spot (and get rid of) diseased plants.

Find and talk to local growers and gardeners. Being part of an agricultural network can help you find, buy, and grow your garden as well as diagnose disease when it happens.

Contact your local extension office. If you live in a rural area or just need expert help with your garden, look up your county’s extension office. (If you’re near a university with an agriculture school –like Iowa State University—  you may find that they have their own extension office.) Extension offices offer useful updates and news, and they can help you diagnose disease, test soil conditions,  and they can even recommend specific plants for your needs and yard.

Choose your plants wisely. Some varieties of tomatoes have a naturalized resistance to blight and other diseases. Barber mentions “Mountain Magic,” a potentially blight-resistant variety developed at Cornell University.

Diversify your garden, no matter its size. In any garden, some plants will thrive and some plants will not. Planting new additions will not only help you develop a system of trial-and-error,  but diversifying your garden also creates ” a system of agriculture that values and mimics natural diversity.” Plants have evolved to exist in an environment with other plants so there’s no need to turn your backyard into a roma tomato farm or  sweet corn maze. Try growing different vegetables as well as experimenting with new varieties of your favorites. You’ll not only discover new techniques but new tastes along the way.

Thankfully, my friend’s tomato did not have blight and is now contributing its share to her pasta salad,  veggie sandwiches and guacamole.  But, next year she’s driving past the shopping center on the interstate to a community farm to start her garden.