Some Cures for Heirloom Tomato Blues: Disease resistant hybrids; making a container garden

As with most things in my life it seems I must experience an event first hand before it’s significance really makes an impression on me. This is the case most recently with wilt in my tomatoes. There is nothing like spending time picking out all those beautiful heirloom seeds over the winter, then meticulously starting the seeds and growing healthy, vigorous plants that thrive to almost 4 feet within the first few weeks of being planted into the garden, only to have them start dying over-night to really grab your attention.

About two weeks ago some of my beautiful tomato plants suddenly began wilting just as they began to flower. Not the whole plant at first but, a leaf here and a branch there. Each day more of the plant would succumb to wilting until the whole thing was a droopy mess. So far I have pulled out four of my ten plants and I wonder if there will be any survivors of this plague.
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I learned about Fusarium, Verticillium, and Bacterial wilts years ago when studying Plant Pathology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst but, out of sight out of mind. Now I suspect they are possibly semi-permanent members of my neighborhood so I have been re-familiarizing myself with their behavior. These are soil born fungus and bacterial infections that behave very similarly to each other. Basically, when conditions are favorable, they enter susceptible plants through the roots and travel up through the stems causing infection and the tell-tale wilting.

So… now what?

Cornell University has a wealth of information about all aspects of growing vegetables on their website . You can educate yourself on vegetable plant diseases in the Vegetable MD Online section put out by the Cornell Plant Pathology Department. I have been spending a lot of time here and have become a convert to their attitude of “Test, Don’t Guess”. In my Get Your Soil in Shape post I suggested you may have your soil tested here as a good starting point for any garden. They also can help you identify plant diseases. I plan to send off some tissue from my diseased tomatoes for an analysis by The Plant Disease Diagnostic Clinic to hopefully confirm exactly what is killing my plants and for suggestions on what I can do to address the problem. I have linked the clinic here where you will find information on the various tests they perform, submission forms and pricing. The basic analysis costs $25.

There is little that can control these diseases once they have arrived and even worse, they will persist in the soil for years so you are stuck with their unwanted company. Fortunately there are disease resistant hybrids. I am a big advocate of growing heirlooms but these typically have little or no disease resistance. Now that I have encountered some of the heartbreak of ripping out heirloom plants that I have been coddling and dreaming about for the past two and a half months I am seriously reconsidering the varieties I choose to grow. I was very sad to see all my hard work go to the burn pile but, I was even more frustrated at the prospect of having no tomatoes to pick fresh from the garden.

If you are particularly driven to grow tomatoes I recently found the blog Tomato Dirt to be a wonderful resource for achieving success with these crown jewels in your garden. After bouncing back and forth between the Cornell site and Tomato Dirt I decided on a couple of different approaches to ensure I would have at least some tomatoes fresh off the vine at my home.
As soon as the weekend rolled around I drove to the nearest garden center that had disease resistant hybridized tomato plants and loaded up. Fortunately they were in pretty good shape and on sale since it is late in the planting season. Some of them had been bumped up into two gallon pots and were almost as big as the plants I had just taken out of my garden. I am not giving up on heirlooms, but in the future I will be sure to have a mix of disease resistant varieties worked into my garden plan.

How to find disease resistant varieties
The plants will have codes on their tags identifying the various diseases or pests that particular variety is resistant to as shown in the pictures below.
This tag from Supersonic shows resistance to: V (verticillium); F (Fusarium); and F1 specifies Fusarium race 1.

This tag from the variety Celebrity shows resistance to: V (Verticillium);FF (Fusarium races 1 and 2); N (Nematodes); A (Alternaria) 001

I planted these new arrivals in the vacant spots from where my wilting tomatoes had been yanked feeling a little guilty about putting them in a battleground of fungus or even worse, bacteria. Unfortunately, tomato varieties that have some resistance to Bacterial wilt are very difficult to come by and to my knowledge are only partially resistant. I am keeping my fingers crossed that my tests results do not come back positive for this particular wilt. Bacterial wilt can be devastating for all members of the Nightshade family (Solanaceae) so peppers, eggplant and potatoes would all be susceptible. Should my test results come back positive for Bacterial wilt I will have to avoid planting those vegetables in or near that plot for a number of years and try to wait out the disease. There are some measures one can take to create an inhospitable environment for these diseases which may inhibit them from getting established in your garden and prevention is your best bet. Again, I recommend doing some research at the two sites above and following their recommendations such as maintaining a soil PH of 6.5-7.5, having well-drained soil, and planting resistant varieties.

My vegetable garden is located a couple of hundred yards from my home in a spot where there is just enough sun peeking through our woods to allow vegetable plants to grow and fruit. I decided to create a small container vegetable garden on my front porch to kill two birds with one stone. Planting a tomato plant far from my garden and in sterile soil would provide at least some fresh cherry tomatoes for a salad if total devastation took place with the plants up in the garden. Also, it is really nice to have a collection of herbs available close to the kitchen when you need a pinch of basil or thyme and you are in the middle of preparing a meal. I plant a larger crop of things like Italian parsley and basil up in the garden for batches of pesto or when I know I need a large cutting of parsley for a marinara sauce or a Tuscan bean soup.

My favorite choice for a container garden is a whiskey or wine barrel. These are usually easy to find and cost the same as a much smaller clay pot. I think their rustic, but timeless nature fit almost any style of home decor. I bought mine from my grocery store for $19.

How to Plant a Vegetable Container Garden:

When using a large container like a wine barrel it is unnecessary to fill the entire thing from the bottom up with soil. Good packaged soils can be a little pricey and most herbs and vegetables only need 12-16 inches of soil depth for their roots. I usually use some leftover 4″ plastic pots turned upside down and placed in the bottom to help displace some of the space as shown below.
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I like to choose a soil that is labeled as a soil builder or a potting soil that has some beneficial ingredients such as microbes, worm castings, bat guano, humus, etc. It is well worth spending a little extra to have soil that can hold some moisture and encourage good root growth. If you are re-using a container from the previous year I recommend removing the top twelve inches of the past year’s soil and replacing it with a fresh bag. Otherwise you run the risk of diseases from the previous year, that may have infected your soil and remained over the winter, harming your new plants. Investing in some new soil is a small price to pay to protect your new plants. Once you have your container located where you want it on your porch or deck it is a good idea to place some stones or bricks that are are of uniform size under the barrel or container. This allows the water to drain freely out of the bottom and if you have a wooden deck surface it prevents soil from building up between it and the container which can cause your deck to rot over time.

I start by planting the larger, deeper rooting plants first such as a tomato.
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You will need to place a stake in the container for the tomato to lean on or place the container near a post or railing as I have in the picture below. Then perhaps some peppers such as Serrano or jalapeno depending on how hot your palate is. I love the taste of a hot pepper that has just been been sliced in half and gently touching it to certain foods as you put them in your mouth. Next I filled in with my favorite combination of herbs and some flowers for color. If you don’t have vegetable plot you can grown a rotation of salad greens in your container. I start new seeds every 2-3 weeks to replace the ones I am pulling to eat.
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2 Responses to Some Cures for Heirloom Tomato Blues: Disease resistant hybrids; making a container garden

  1. I grow all my tomatoes in pots, too. They never go into the ground and so far I haven’t had any disease problems with my vegetables. I’m surprised you added a sage plant to your tomato container since they grow so large. I’ve found that since tomatoes are such heavy feeders they do best without any other competition.

    • Christi says:

      Hello Casa Mariposa- Yes, I agree ideally some of the herbs, in a perfect sunny situation, would love pots of their own! I live in a log home in the woods and have very limited access to full sun and even less deck space with access to sun. Given that these plants get only half a day of sun they do not grow as vigorously as they would in full sun. Also I was trying to focus on using one simple container for readers who may have very limited space such as a balcony in the city. I find that one large deeper container is easier to maintain and keep from drying out in those instances than a few smaller clay pots. Thank you for your comments.

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