May 21, 2018
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Fall work can keep tomato plants disease-free

By Reeser Manley

Brewer gardener Celeste Pare contacted me about her problem growing tomatoes in a raised bed. “In late June, the bottom leaves start turning yellow with black spots and eventually it moves up the plant. They still blossom and produce tomatoes, but I think the growth is not as good as it could be and the plants are dead way before a frost.”

The spores of bacteria and fungi that cause leaf spot diseases are spread from soil to leaf and then up the plant, leaf to leaf, in drops of water. These diseases run rampant during long periods of rainy weather, such as last spring, and also with frequent overhead irrigation.

The number of bacterial and fungal spores on the surface of the soil can be greatly reduced by removing all infected plant debris from the soil surface at the end of the gardening year. Do not compost this material, since the spores can readily survive the winter on top of the compost pile; burn it. Even if your tomato plants show no signs of infection, these sanitation practices are good preventive practices.

Keep the foliage dry as often as possible. Switching from overhead to drip or trickle irrigation not only reduces foliar diseases, but also conserves water. You can install a drip irrigation system or simply use the hose to trickle water over the soil instead of spraying from above.

Heirloom tomato source

Stan Maiden — a transplanted Southerner who, like me, calls them “maters” — gets his heirloom tomato seeds from Tomato Bob’s Heirloom Tomatoes ( He writes, “I have had tremendous success and satisfaction growing them every year. But here in Maine, it is quite a challenge. For the most part I grow them in pots, attaching their vast vines (except for the determinate) up the side of my south-facing garage wall (up to 12 feet tall). Especially satisfying are the potato-leafed Brandywines that you mentioned in your article.”

I went to Tomato Bob’s site and found photographs and descriptions of more than a hundred different tomato varieties with names that speak of their heritage: Arkansas Traveler, Cosmonaut Volkov (Russia), Dixie Golden Giant, Hillbilly (from the hills of West Virginia), Kentucky Beefsteak, Missouri Pink Love Apple, Nebraska Wedding and Thessaloniki (Greece); and there is Mortgage Lifter, a tomato variety for our time.

Thanks, Stan, for introducing me to Tomato Bob!

Sources for plants

Too often we are passive consumers, willing to settle for someone else’s decisions regarding the plant varieties we grow in our gardens, a decision based on a “one size fits all” philosophy of doing business. Gardeners should be driving those decisions, letting potential sources know what we want and doing business with those nurseries and garden centers that are customer-oriented.

For example, Trudy Eldridge of Northport is searching for the tall fragrant nicotiana. She wrote, “Several years ago we planted some nicotiana that grew to 5 feet tall. It was a delight in the evening to smell those huge blossoms! I have not been able to find them as seeds or seedlings. Is there a greenhouse in the Bangor (or Belfast) area that sells these as seedlings? I would love to grow them again.”

I was able to suggest two possible sources, but I also suggested that she contact her local garden retailers and let them know what she wanted. There are retailers who will grow or purchase “on demand,” a service well-suited for fast-growing annuals that can be grown from seed. Search them out and give them your business.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to Include name, address and telephone number.

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