Thursday, March 4, 2010

Late Blight

Report courtesy of Floral Notes Newsletter

Late blight, caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans, is a very destructive and very infectious disease that killed tomato and potato plants in gardens and on commercial farms throughout the eastern U.S. during 2009. As a result, many farmers across Massachusetts lost their tomato crops and incurred extra fungicide and labor expenses. While late blight is a problem on farms each year, the occurrence of late blight in 2009 was different compared to most seasons.

In 2009 it was the earliest the disease was reported over such a broad region of the country. More problematic for the Northeast, was that infected plants were distributed through large local retail stores throughout the region (Ohio to Maine). Never before has such an extensive distribution of infected plants occurred. This distribution, the exceptionally contagious nature of the disease and the cool, wet growing season all contributed to a disastrous year for farmers.
Garden retailers can help prevent the spread of late blight in gardens and on farms this growing season and provide customers with the facts about this disease.

Tomatoes. Late blight is not seedborne (however, it is tuber-borne in potato), so tomato plants started from seed locally (in the Northeast) would be free of the disease. Growing your own transplants from seed or purchasing from a reputable local grower will ensure a healthy start to the season for your customers and local farms. Disease-resistant or tolerant varieties of tomatoes exist, however seed is in limited supply this year. ‘Mountain Magic,’ ‘Plum Regal,’ and ‘Legend’ are three varieties with resistance or tolerance to late blight. Note that the variety ‘Legend’ has been grown primarily in the western U.S., where conditions are different than here.

In addition to late blight, each year tomatoes become infected with early blight and Septoria leaf spot, which look very similar. If possible, garden retailers can also offer tomato plant varieties that are resistant or tolerant of early blight; these include ‘Mountain Fresh,’ ‘Mountain Supreme,’ and ‘Plum Dandy’ and others.
Potatoes. Purchase certified, disease-free potato seed from a reputable source, and ask your supplier about their source of seed and if it was inspected in the field for late blight. Potato seed from the Northeast are less likely to carry the disease.

Know the FACTS about this important disease and share the information with fellow gardeners.

  • Potatoes that freeze or fully decompose will not carry the pathogen over winter.

  • Tomatoes will not carry late blight over the winter, because freezing kills the whole plant.

  • Tomato seed, even from fruit that was infected with late blight, will not carry the pathogen, so no need to worry about the tomatoes left behind in the garden or compost pile.

  • Certain perennial weeds can become infected with late blight, but none of their above-ground tissues live through the winter.

  • Late blight will not survive on tomato stakes and cages.

The biggest threat for overwintered disease is on potatoes. In the spring, gardeners need to inspect last year’s potato plot and any compost or cull piles for volunteer potato plants that might come up. If potato plants are found, pull them out and put them in the trash or destroy them. If tubers were infected and survive, then the late blight could grow upward from the tuber, infecting the stem and producing spores when weather conditions are favorable. These spores could then disperse to other tomato and potato plants.

During the growing season, pay attention to pest alerts to learn about whether late blight has been observed in New England, and what actions should be taken. If you or a customer suspect a problem, or to confirm a diagnosis, contact the UMass Plant Diagnostic Laboratory.

Photo galleries and other web resources:

Author Tina Smith is the Outreach Educator, UMass Extension, Amherst

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Looking forward to Heirloom Tomatoes?

Heirloom Tomatoes are available in a wide variety of colors, shapes, flavors and sizes. Heirlooms haven't been hybridized. Although some of them are considered ugly, are prone to cracking, or lack disease resistance, you can't beat their FLAVOR!

Heirloom tomatoes are the real deal. Some seeds are descendants of plants grown a hundred years ago. From Wikipedia, here is an excerpt of the history behind one Heirloom Tomato:
"Brandywine: ...excellent flavor and somewhat clouded history. A large fruited pink (red flesh, clear skin) variety produced on vigorous potato leaf foliage plants, Brandywine was passed on from the Sudduth family to an Ohio tomato enthusiast named Ben Quisenberry. Many seed savers traded seeds with Ben, and Brandywine eventually became widely available. ...likely that Brandywine is a descendant of two similar (if not identical) varieties offered in the 1880s - Mikado (Henderson seed company) or Turner's Hybrid (Burpee Seed Company). Though several other tomatoes (Red Brandywine, Yellow Brandywine, and Black Brandywine) carry the name of "Brandywine" in part, any true relation between them is pure conjecture. In fact, Yellow Brandywine most closely resembles an old Henderson variety only fleetingly available in the 1890s named "Shah".
As with most garden plants, Heirloom cultivars can be acclimated over several gardening seasons to thrive in a geographical location through careful selection and seed saving.
Last years' winner for best flavor and early fruit was Moskvich a heirloom variety from Russia.
Be sure to try one or two of the varieties offered at Woodbridge this year.

What is your favorite Heirloom Tomato?

Please add your favorite to the comments below.

If you're interested in learning more visit They "speak Tomato" and have information for beginners and enthusiasts alike.

A Bird Came Down the Walk, by Emily Dickinson

A Bird came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought –
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home –

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam –
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, splashless as they swim.

When the Red, Red Robin comes bob, bob, bobbin' along

Little Robin Redbreast

Sat upon a rail;

Niddle, naddle, went his head,

Wiggle, waggle, went his tail.

American Robins, with their distinctive reddish breast, are synonymous with spring. Robins, which are common in our yards in warmer months, begin reappearing from late February through early March to herald Spring's imminent arrival.

Interesting Robin Insights:
  • Despite it's name, Robins are members of the Thrush family. Nostalgic for European Robins, early English Colonists named our American Robins after their similarly colored, yet smaller cousin.

  • Although considered a harbinger of spring, Robins often winter in the northern states. By the end of August, most Robins have flown a bit south towards their winter homes; to return in February and March.

  • Their winter roosts are mostly unseen, in evergreens in cedar bogs and swamps. They gather in large roosts up to thousands of Robins where they feast on seasonal berries.
  • A true early bird: Robins are one of the first North American bird species to lay eggs, breeding shortly after returning to their summer home.

  • Most of us have seen Robins bobbing across a lawn, pausing, cocking their heads, then munching on their next morsel. I have always thought they were listening for worms and grubs. The truth is that Robins' keen eyesight detects its prey's miniscule movements before pouncing and pulling them out of the ground.

  • In addition to these delicacies, more than half of the American Robins' balanced diet consists of seasonal fruits and berries.

  • Unfortunately, Robins carry West Nile Virus. Since they live with the virus longer than crows and jays, they spread it to more mosquitoes who then share it with us.

  • Their territory covers an estimated 6 million square miles throughout North America.
  • Hatchlings, thanks to quickly developing wings, gain their flight license in just weeks.
  • Sadly, only about 25 percent of robin fledglings survive the first years.
  • The oldest known wild Robin lived 14 years. Their average lifespan is just two years.
Robins live in gardens, open woodlands, and agricultural land adjacent to grassy areas where they forage on the ground for invertebrates.

American Robin's will breed in woodlands, open farmland as well as urban and suburban areas.

Robin nests are cup-like and made of long coarse grass, twigs, paper, and feathers. The female singlehandedly builds a new nest for each of her broods, then she smears it with mud and even cushions it with grass and other soft materials. In northern areas where the leaves are slow to appear, the first clutch is usually raised in an evergreen tree or shrub.

A clutch consists of three to five light blue eggs which the female incubates singlehandedly. The eggs hatch after 14 days, and chicks leave the nest a further two weeks later. All chicks in the brood leave the nest within two days of each other. Robins normally produce two to three broods during their breeding season, which lasts from April to July.

During summer, while the females sleep on their nests, the males gather in roosts. As the young robins grow and become independent, they too join the other males in the roost. The female adult robins will join them only after completing their nesting duties. Robins usually have two broods a season; but, in a single year, American Robins can produce three successful broods.

PREDATORS and Problems

The adult robin is preyed upon by hawks, cats and larger snakes, but when feeding in flocks, it is able to be vigilant and watch other birds for reactions to predators.

Brown-headed cowbirds lay eggs in robin nests, but robins usually reject the cowbird eggs.


Both the male and female Robins proudly display their bright red orange breast, brown bill and legs. Female plummage is slightly less bright. Young robins are speckled brown which changes, once they molt during their second or third month.

Robins forage on the ground for soft-bodied invertebrates, such as beetle grubs, caterpillars and grasshoppers.

Although they won't enjoy birdseed or eating from a bird feeder. With patience, you may be able to lure Robins to a shallow container offering earthworms, meal worms, dried fruits and berries.

When the red, red robin
comes bob, bob, bobbing along,
there’ll be no more sobbing
when he starts singing his old sweet song…
~ Harry Woods

Their lovely song is sung by the male robins. They change their cheery carol throughout the day as they communicate, such as a warning when a predator nears. They also have a different song when a predator approaches their nest and another during winter.

Robins are among the first birds to sing at dawn, and often the last at night, too.

He rocks in the tree-top all a day long
Hoppin' and a-boppin' and a-singin' the song
All the little birds on J-Bird St.
Love to hear the robin goin' tweet tweet tweet
Rockin' robin (tweet tweet tweet)
Oh rockin' robin well you really gonna rock tonight

"Rockin' Robin" was written by Leon René under the pseudonym Jimmie Thomas
and first recorded by Bobby Day in 1958.

Because they often build nests that are easily seen, robins are loved by bird watchers and children. Robins are cherished symbols of spring as reflected in poetry and numerous songs.

Article compiled by Renee C. Brannigan

An excerpt from "The First Robin"

Few mont' ago it happen
dat I'm goin' walk aroun',
Getting' ready for de ploughin'
is comin' on de spring,
An' soon I wait an' listen,
for I tink I hear de song
Of de firse, de early robin,
as he jus' begin to sing.
It was very, very lucky
w'en de firse wan come along-
An you see upon your farm
dere is de place de robin stop,
For de way dat bird is yellin',
is enough to scare de dead;...
~ Dr. William H. Drummond.

According to Wikipedia and the author's wife, this was based on a Quebec superstition that whoever sees the first robin of spring will have good luck. When I read this, I had to smile. My grandparents were all from Canada, and my father speech resembles how this is written.