January 4, 2010

Better Boy or Bubble Boy- Is there a Future for the Home Grown Tomato?

Image from La Tomatina in Spain fro webEcoist, perhaps this is what we will end up doing with our tomatoes next year?

Of all garden grown produce, it is the tomato, which reigns supreme, for nothing tastes as delicious and as good as a home grown tomato. Right?

But then, there came last year's nearly Nation wide, early and virulent outbreak of Late Blight. And suddenly, it seems that Big Boy and Better Boy aren't going to be good enough, what we might end up needing is something like a Burpee's Bubble Boy, the ultimate disease Free tomato of the future resistant to everything.

In 2009, in much of the US, everything seemed to change overnight when it comes to growing tomatoes. The emergence of a disease, which seemed to spread like wild fire, killed or maimed most every plant from Florida to Michigan, to Maine. Many of us wondered, "Is it even worth growing tomatoes at all?"

The season started off optimistic, with many home gardeners raising their own plants, many turning to organic methods, and even more first time vegetable garden growers giving the economy. Even the White House had a vegetable garden. It started to feel like the Victory Garden years in the 1940's, with growers planning to can, preserve and freeze their nutrient-rich treasures. But by mid-July, everything changed, at least the tomatoes and potatoes did.

2009 was a landmark year, for the pathogen the causes a disease called Late Blight seemed to spread overnight, starting in the mid-Atlantic states, and then throughout the North East killing most tomato plants in what seemed, every ones garden, even Martha Stewart's. We learned, eventually, in news reports that there we're a number of causes, and fingers started to be pointed at everything from the unseasonal weather ( cool and wet) to the big box stores like Wal Mart and Home Depot, who were reportedly selling plants that had spread the spores that could be traced to a single wholesale grower in Georgia.

Now, in early 2010, as many of us plan what we are going to plant in our home vegetable gardens this summer, some of us are reviewing whether we should our even could, grow tomatoes ever again. Since last year I had to yank my 14 varieties of heirloom plants by mid July, and had no tomatoes to can or put-up, I too am thinking "What am I going to do this year?"

So I've been doing some online research, and what I found has been interesting, and a little eye opening. Both, about the causes and newly found facts about Late Blight and the pathogen that allows it to grow ( Phytophthora infestans) and then, some facts on what we can, and cannot do to manage this disease. Then, I ran some numbers on what it would actually cost to raise a tomato in today's environment, organically.

First, some facts about Late Blight. Mostly from this excellent paper written by Margaret Tuttle McGrath, from the Department of Plant Pathology and Plant Microbe Biology at Cornell University. This site is updated frequently with newly found facts, and we should all read it.

1. Is Late Blight a New Disease? No. Many of us now know that Late Blight, is the same highly destructive disease that caused the great Potato Famine in Ireland in the 1840's. It affects both Potatoes and Tomatoes, and it has been in the US everywhere for over 100 years.

2. Why did many of us get the disease last year?
In many ways, 2009 offered conditions much like "The Perfect Storm". A cold, wet spring, mass distributed infected plants that could spread the spores, and little sunshine.

3. Will the disease appear again this year?
It's hard to tell, but most likely it will, since it tends to appear late ( the Late part in Late Blight), perhaps in the early autumn, when moisture and temps are perfect for the growth of the spores. But here is the surprising fact, according to the Cornell report, the blight does not occur every year in many locations, in fact, on Long Island, in has only appeared 4 times in 20 years.

SO what can we do to help avoid it this year?

OK, first, a few more answers to questions you may be asking.

1. Am I better off starting my own tomato plants from seed rather than by buying them from a nursery?
Perhaps, but honestly, it probably doesn't make a difference, unless the plants you buy from a nursery have the disease, as some did last year. Since the virus cannot live on seeds, both sources are safe from the beginning. Like a cold, your plants are not going to catch a cold if you keep them safe and not exposed to an infected plant "Sneezing" if you will, and giving them the spores. This is unlikely to happen in a typical year. For even plants grown in Northern nurseries could not possibly have the disease, unless it emerged early, again. I would perhaps avoid southern grown plants, but remember, the conditions last year included weather, for a few, hot sunny days could have changed much of this.

2. Should I be looking at sterilizing my soil in the garden, or burning last years plants? What is my neighbor never pulled their infected plants? I heard that the spores are in our soil, and can spread for miles anyway. so why bother?

Here's some more surprising truth. The pathogens which cause Late Blight cannot live in cold soil, and they die in the compost pile at 110 degrees F, which is well below what most compost piles reach, so there is no need to sterilize your garden soil, or to chastise your lazy neighbor for not cleaning up their garden.

The disease can only live in live plant tissue, so if your garden freezes solid, and you plants turn to much, you are fine, at least from this one pathogen. Care must be taken in greenhouses where the disease can live in live tomato plants, or, in other Solanum tissue, such as your home grown potatoes in the home, or cellar. Do not replant these live tissue plants into your garden, or you will be reintroducing the disease.

3. Should I sterilize my garden stakes? Or, even use them again? What about containers and soiless mixes? I heard that tomatoes grow best in sterile soil, and that I should replace it each year?

There is no need to sterilize stakes, tomato cages or pots each year, since the pathogen cannot live outside of live plant tissue. That said, there are a host of other diseases like Fusarium, etc, that would be killed with a 5% bleach solution wash, but that is up to you. For the subject of this post, there is no need to sterilize anything. You cannot 'Disinfect something which is not, infected. Plain, and simple. As for sterile soil. it is true that sterile soil helps with many plant diseases, especially for tomato culture, and many tomatoes survive longer in, let's say, ProMix, than in the garden, so I would be safe, and use new soil, not to avoid Phytophthora infestans, as much as other pathogens and diseases.

In the garden, it is always wise to keep your garden clean, but there is no need to sterilize with black plastic first, or wash your cages. Plant as usual, and then mulch with plastic or straw, to keep the soil from splashing on the lower foliage, for other disease can spread. If there is another outbreak, there is not much you can do anyway.

4. OK. If there is another outbreak, and if I see damaged leaves, what can I do?
Since this disease is so aggressive and fierce, I personally would sacrifice the crop again. But if you want to save it, perhaps, if the crop is infected late in the season, you can try removing all infected parts every day, and spray with an organic fungicide, but there is not much you can do, and the disease is latent by 4 days, so once you have it for the year, you are stuck with it.

5. Why did my local farm stand have tomatoes and I didn't?
Commercial growers are more aggressive in managing their crops. We can all take a hint from the large commercial organic growers, and spray with an organic fungicide weekly BEFORE the disease is reported. This management program is critical, since, once your plants show signs of leaf browning, it is too late. The reason you saw tomatoes at most farm stands last year, is that most commercial operations use non-organic fungicides ( not to be confused with insecticides), which are stronger and more effective in controlling the fungus like disease.

Here is an odd fact about the spores I should note: For now, in the North East, we are safe, but know this; Although they are neither male nor female, they do need to reproduce. Biologists call these spores "mating-types" or Oospores. These special structures, if formed, can allow the disease to survive the winter in the soil without living plant tissue, and perhaps will be something to look for in the future, but for the moment, these Oospores have only been reported in Florida in both mating types, so for now, we in the north, are safe. Another reason to stay tuned to efforts in genetic plant breeding efforts, like Monsanto, as they experiment with genetically modified research, it can be good, or disastrously bad. ( I never was one of those conspiracy theorists, but after watching the film Food Inc, I'm starting to think differently).

6. Is this copper fungicide, which is supposed to be organic, safe to eat?
Reportedly it is. But it is still best to wash it off, which is easy with water. And, it's another reason why you need to spray every 7 days, it washed off to easy. The blue residue may seem scary, but copper fungicide is a surface treatment, a "contact fungicide' and it is not absorbed through the cell walls of plants. Human consumption according to the RDA is safe, see the Cornell Report for specific info, but unless you have a rare copper sensitive disease, it is considered harmless to humans.

SO, this brings us to what we might do this year regarding home grown tomatoes. Simply, it appears that any seed is safe, and that perhaps, home grown plants in good, sterile soil is the safest bet. In our modern world, there are some varieties which are more resistant to the disease, so I researched and found which ones ( see below). Although many heirlooms are popular, many are also more susceptible to disease, but in regards to this specific one, variety is either "resistant" or not. There is no in between, so grow what you want, and cross your fingers.

I've also been thinking if it is even worth growing your own tomatoes. I mean, does is even make sense financially?

At my local farm stand, which is not organic, field grown heirloom tomatoes are $5.00 a pound in season, and regular tomatoes are $3.99 at the cheapest week, the first week of September. In our nearest organic supermarket, a Whole Foods in Framingham, MA, heirlooms were being sold at $8.99 per lb in August, peak tomato season. They were $10.99 per lb. in July.

Last year, I purchased 14 varieties of seed, some new containers from Garden Supply Company, and some new cages, at significant cost. Then, there was the cost of the ProMix. I laughed a little and joked with my friends that I am going to grow the most expensive tomatoes in the world.

But this year, I really had to think about not only the cost, but whether is was even worth the time and effort, if all I was going to do was to yank my yellow, diseased plants and toss them by July. After this research, I am more hopeful about a decent crop of tomatoes, if the weather, and disease spores play along, but still, there is the cost thing..... so, I wondered, what do my tomatoes cost?

Let's see...

First, I would have a strategy, and mine is this:
Grow mostly disease resistant varieties, and there are a few, that are resistant to Late Blight.
I'm going to buy the seed of the highest quality ( non genetically modified) organically grown seed of the newest hybrid varieties like Johnny's Selected Seeds' JT0-99197, a sexy sounding name for one of their blight resistant varieties, and then, there is this handy chart supplied on line here by Cornell University, which lists the major tomato varieties, and their disease resistance ( note - there are NO varieties of tomatoes that are completely immune to the early or late blight, only some that are resistant- then, factor in weather conditions, soil, moisture, air borne pathogens, etc).

According to the Cornell document, there are only a few varieties that are 'resistant to Early Blight, and/or Late Blight. Unfortunately, a few if not most of these are not immune or resistant to other tomato diseases like Fusarium wilts, etc, but I will take my chances. There were a few surprises on this list, mainly the variety known as 'Juliet', a small indeterminate ( long vine) plum type introduced in the past decade. Juliet is resistant to both diseases, so that is on my list.

The other tomatoes are here, broken out by the disease they are most resistant to.

Early Blight Resistant Varieties

JTO-99197 ( From Johnny's Selected Seeds)
Matt's Wild Cherry
Mt. Fresh Plus F1
Tommy Toe
Old Brook

Varieties Resistant to Late Blight

Golden Sweet

then, I will grow my plants in both garden soil in the garden, with mulch, and in containers with sterile soil.

I will fertilize not with a high nitrogen fertilizer ( like MiracleGRO) but with one which is high in Phosphorus, starting right from the beginning. This is important, in building strong, healthy plants.

Most importantly, I will establish a routine organic spray of a Fungicide BEFORE I see any hint of disease, in an effort to keep my plants growing as healthy as ever. Eventually, they will succumb, but hopefully, they will survive until late September.

Now, the cost. Here is my shopping list.

$148.00 Clean Soil ( 4 bales sterilized ProMix) $37.00 for starting and growing plants
$29.95 4 units of Jumbo plastic cells at $12.95 ( or a soil black maker for $29.95)
$79.95 1 heating mat @ $79.95
$50.00 Tomato Seed - Budget $50.00
$29.90 Plastic mulch for garden grown varieties (biodegradable) $14.95 per 32'unit x 2
two more plastic containers from Garden Supply $29.00 each
$45.00 Floating Row Cover for new plants 83' at $45.00
$39.95 Wooden Plant Tags 1 unit $39.95
$37.95 Dustin Mizer dust sprayer $37.95
$119.00 Solo Back Pack Sprayer $119.00
$155.00 Oxidate® 2.5 Gal. to mix for organic control of fungus $155.00
$99.00 Actinovate organic control for foliar disease $99.00
$ 155.00 Champ® Copper hydroxide, the premium control for tomatoes that is organic, 20lb for $155.00
$108.00 for 8 Tomato Grow Bags from Gardeners Supply, $14.95 each ($13.50 if more than 2)
$93.90 Tomato cages for tomato grow bags, 4 for $46.95
$94.50 Sea Com, no nitrogen organic fertilizer- natural Sea Weed, the best for tomatoes, $94.50

Grand total for proper supplies to grow disease resistant tomatoes is
$1285.10. give take a hundred for substituting the unnecessary wooden plant tags or heating mat. Still, this was the list I made last night, and this was the total for just growing tomatoes. Not cukes, or beans, but just for tomatoes.

And that of course does not include twine, water, heat, labor, etc.
OK, If I grow 16 tomato plants, 8 in containers, and 8 in the ground spaced at the recommended distance of 36 inches apart, and assuming that I get 15 tomatoes per plant, that would be roughly 240 tomatoes. Alright, some are cherries, but let's not go there. Now, I will round out the number to 250 tomatoes, being optimistic. This brings the total tomato cost , per tomato, to bring the cost of each fine, perfect tomato to,

here is the moment of truth.......

$5.14 per tomato.


Not bad, really. I didn't expect to get this result, since I was thinking, maybe $100 per tomato! Perhaps it isn't such a big deal to grow your own tomatoes, given the comparison with local in-season markets and quality, at least, I will know what went into mine, and yes, I can reduce costs with the little things like containers, creative stakes and labels.

In the end, I will still try growing tomatoes. Damn it, I will! And, I'll even splurge on the fancy wooden labels, what the Hell! They deserve it. Heck, I deserve it.


  1. I seriously hope you are joking about buying that much 'stuff' and spending that much money to grow tomatoes. If not, I think I'll be feeling rather sick in a few moments....

  2. Paul, Pittsburgh, PA10:57 AM

    In our neighborhood community garden no tomatoes were afffected by late blight. We did not have as many ripe tomatoes last summer, however, due to the cool, wet weather. We grow our own plants from seed and rely mostly on rain to water our garden, which may have helped. Perhaps we were just lucky.

    On the bright side, the cardoons were huge by the end of November.

  3. Ah, tomatoes. A few are just ripening on our vines now. I am living vicariously through the successful tomato growing of others.

    how to grow tomatoes


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