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Jul 1, 2011
Dealing with disease
Erin Etheridge  Burpee Home Gardens Guest Blogger

Call me a wimp if you want, but I’ve just emerged from the sick and twisted depths of tomato plant disease, and I literally feel faint. I really don’t know what it is about tomato plant disease that inspires a strong negative physical response in me. Past experience, maybe? Or perhaps the abundance of information using loaded descriptive terms like “infected” and “fungus” and “lesions”? Oh, gross.

And the images! Mama mia. Do yourself a favor: Don’t Google “bumps on tomato plant stems” unless you have a strong stomach and a high tolerance for the grotesque. (The more accurate term for bumps on tomato plant stems — which I’ve seen described as egg-like lumps near a stem burst, eesh — is “root initials,” and it happens when a plant’s vascular system is stressed ... here I go again. Keep it together, Erin … So the plant tries to sprout roots out of the stem, oh gag.)

The reason for this torturous foray into the abyss? Several of my plants have shown evidence of … stress. Yeah, I can handle that.

After a lot of research, and a significant number of smelling salts, I have a few leads about what’s going on. Although I’ve been diligent about not overwatering, we’ve had several torrential downpours lately. The excess of water has apparently 1) Distressed the plants, and 2) Created the perfect breeding ground for early blight.

As soon as I saw the word “blight” I experienced what I think is mild PTSD. Two seasons ago, in That Awful Year for tomato growers, I lost my entire (and first) crop to late blight. Adding insult to injury, I learned that tomatoes and potatoes are basically the same plant when it comes to blight — late blight is what caused the Irish potato famine that affected my ancestors so horrifically. What a slap in the face. It’s like the universe doing a big giant Neener Neener at me.

However, early blight is apparently fairly common and much more manageable. It is a symptom of warm temperatures and high humidity (check); the lower leaves turn yellow and drop (check); then higher foliage develops brownish spots before wilting and eventually dying (sigh, check).

Taking the advice of a dude online — who said early blight makes your tomato plant look “like the grim reaper took a crap on it,” thus lending him credibility in my eyes — I’ve pruned all the affected leaves and stems. I’ve also treated all the plants with a fungicide, hopefully preventing further damage.

In the good news column, I can say that a couple of my grape tomatoes are starting to ripen! I am worried, though, because those plants seem the most affected by water stress.

Also, does anyone know when the best time to pick tomatoes for the fried green purpose?

Reader Comments (8)
Oh, Erin! We're pulling for you!

Blight is a fungal disease that can hit tomatoes and potatoes when weather conditions are just right — a lot of moisture and high winds. There is no way to predict or completely eliminate the risk of blight because certain environmental conditions that increase the chance of blight are beyond anyone’s control.

To reduce the risk of early blight, rotate crops in your garden each year, avoid over-watering, and stake tomato plants to provide proper air circulation.

Local university extension offices have regional information about pests and disease for your area. Click on this link to find your nearest office:

For you, Erin, NC State University has additional resources available on disease:

Good luck!
Friday, July 1, 2011 | Burpee Home Gardens
Thanks for the cheerleading and the great resources!
Friday, July 1, 2011 | Erin @ Fierce Beagle
Hmmm. I only eat the fried green kind, so I have little to offer in the advice column - I don't like tomatoes. Lame Lish.
But! I do love their smell and surely that counts?
I'm also phenomenal at growing things I don't eat.
So onward with your battle, lady!

Fried green tomatoes - dear heavens - are so danged yummy and are best before the tomato has started to ripen. It's an inexact science because you still want a good measure of the green firmness and the red squishiness. I find that when they've lightened from the darker green to the light green JUST before the actually turn yellow is around the perfect time.
And if you use anything other than a frying base with cornmeal then you're going the wrong direction!
Saturday, July 2, 2011 | Lish
I'm with you, Erin. Some disease or another always seems to get my tomatoes, no matter what I do. Living in KS, Lo, the wind is always with us! As for fried green tomatoes, yum, I haven't found that it makes a difference when you pick them. I prefer them under-ripe, bright green, so they aren't too soft inside.

Good luck!
Monday, July 4, 2011 | Nancy
Oh, the dreaded early blight problem. It is indeed common and the popularity of growing tomatoes makes it all too apparent in early to mid summer. I find that the best way to avoid this problem is to do what I always do, and then some. First, I use lots of mulch. That helps keep the fungal spores that reside in the soil from splashing up onto the foliage. In addition, my watering is done from soaker hoses and drip irrigation, placed BELOW the mulch. I also proactively cut away the lowest foliage and branches so that not even a single leaf comes in contact with the soil or mulch. In addition, plants are staked or placed in cages from the start, so the only place they have to grow is up...away from the ground and the nasty spores that reside there.

But beyond that, rotating my plants from year to year is a very good way to deprive those spores a favorite host plant, and hopefully starve them out over time. By the 4th or 5th year, I can replant in the original spot. The practice has worked well for me so far. I've been able to avoid early blight very well through these methods. Yet one remaining step is common and helpful, and that is to apply a commercial fungicide proactively before any problem starts or at least, at the first signs of problem. I don't use a fungicide, but I ALWAYS remove any foliage the instant I see the first leaf spot. This almost always starts at the bottom of the plant.

Yet even with all of that, there is only so much you can do to ward off the problem. But I can tell you, it helps a lot!
Wednesday, July 6, 2011 | Joe Lamp'l
Thanks for the tips on fried green tomatoes, everyone! Maybe I'll get brave and pick a few now.

Joe—Thanks for this information. Invaluable! I'd prefer not to use fungicide in the future, so I'll definitely be more proactive with extra mulch and pruning next season.
Thursday, July 7, 2011 | Erin @ Fierce Beagle
How do you stop blossom rot on tomatoes?
Friday, July 29, 2016 | Ernest
Hi Ernest! Blossom Rot is mostly caused by a calcium deficiency and irregular watering schedule. According to Ohio State University extension, "When a rapidly growing fruit is deprived of necessary calcium, the tissues break down, leaving the characteristic dry, sunken lesion at the blossom end." Make sure you have mulch at the base of your tomato to help it retain moisture. Some added nutrition to your soil may be needed, but generally a well-hydrated plant can pull in the needed calcium from the soil. Harvest any damaged fruit (those generally can't be helped). Your plant will still produce more flowers/fruit this season. Here's the full fact sheet from the university:
Friday, July 29, 2016 | Burpee Home Gardens
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