Pest invasions, early blight, mildew wreak havoc

Posted Aug. 28, 2009, at 6:05 p.m.

I am feeling blighted. Decidedly mildewed. A little wormy. And — not unexpectedly — beset by beetles. Welcome, my friends, to the year of pestilence.

It was not enough to have been plagued with precipitation for those few weeks when summer usually occurs. No, we must suffer more.

The scourge began several weeks ago when I noticed the sudden appearance of holes in the leaves of my broccoli and cabbage. This is not an unusual occurrence because I have some damage each year to these crops from the annoying cabbageworm.

But this year, it was as if it had been raining cabbageworms. I have never seen so many appear so quickly. The massive cabbage leaves were so full of holes that they were more hole than leaf. The broccoli was crawling with worms, rendering it inedible unless I wanted to eat the worms, too.

They even were destroying my nearby nasturtiums.

I ended up using a spray made from a powder containing diatomaceous earth and pyrethrin called Diatect V that I purchased from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in the spring to use on potato beetle larvae if that got as bad as last year. To do as little damage as possible to the beneficial insects, I sprayed it late in the day.

It worked. But the damage was done.

Then the Japanese beetles arrived in their usual fashion, tearing through one delectable variety after another. Just pick a plant and they likely are gnawing on it as you read this.

Enough said.

Two weekends ago, I went to check on the tomatoes — which had been looking perfectly fine — and realized something bad had happened over the course of mere days, not even a week.

The lower half of almost every tomato plant was dying.

I spent the better portion of a morning picking off as much of the affected vegetation as possible in a likely futile attempt to save what I could of the crop. Not all of the plants were as badly hit as the heirlooms, which are almost a complete loss. The cherries and the Early Girls are still trying, but I doubt I’ll salvage much.

It seems the tomatoes were ravaged by early blight. I had seen this over the past couple of years, although so late in the season that I hadn’t really wondered about it.

But this year, conditions were ripe sooner for this leaf-spot disease: high humidity and temperatures above 75 degrees. According to the Mother Earth News Web site, irregularly shaped dry patches appear on the lower leaves, often surrounded by a yellow halo. Inside those patches are dark rings, which are the spores. Those spores are the “fruiting colonies,” which splash onto other leaves when it rains.

Cursed rain.

Unless I want to be spraying a fungicide morning, noon and night, there isn’t much I can do about early blight this year, except thoroughly clean the tomato debris out of the garden.

But next year, I will be pruning the leaves off the lower foot or so of each tomato plant. This should provide better air circulation to dry things out faster, which should inhibit the spores’ spread. I’ll rotate the crop as usual, moving it away from this year’s tomato row location and the potatoes, which are just starting to show signs of early blight, too.

As if blight wasn’t enough, just last week I discovered the majority of my squash plants, both summer and winter, looked like they had donned polka-dotted leaves, seemingly overnight.

Greetings, powdery mildew.

I had seen it before on my squash, but never this early and never this magnitude.

I went online and found a few recommendations, most having to do with baking soda. Then I found a reference about using jojoba oil to not just halt the progression, but smother it.

So I mixed up four teaspoons of baking soda, a scant tablespoon of jojoba oil and a gallon of water in my new sprayer and went to it, covering tops and bottoms of leaves as best I could.

It seems to have helped. Some of the badly infected leaves were too far gone, but the ones I caught early seem to be fine.

Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t all doom and destruction. I have to remind myself that the garden finally is producing, just three or so weeks later than usual. Beans are doing OK. Peppers are good. Some eggplant is maturing. Carrots are coming along. Snow peas are plentiful. Cantaloupe is ripening. Celery stalks are slim, but OK. Onions are bulbing nicely. Herbs are abundant. Cucumbers are steady. The squash are picking up the pace.

As I write, however, the forecast for week’s end has cast a pall as predictions fly about low temperatures with the word “frost” being bandied about.

Before August has faded into September?

A blighted year, indeed.

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