Summer Blight

by in In Season, July 23rd, 2009

Monday morning, I began to write about the collection of tomatoes starting to ripen in my garden, ranging from vibrant yellow beauties the shape and size of gumballs to tiny green striated torpedoes and deep purple-maroon monsters with more crevices than an elephant’s trunk.

My writing was stopped short when our sous chef and fellow gardener Miriam showed up at my desk with news of the late blight fungus that is rapidly spreading throughout tomato plants in the northeast and Mid-Atlantic and likely to hit home gardens hard. The fungus, which is also found and carried in potatoes (think Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century), is sometimes found in small amounts in August and September, but this outbreak is on a scale rarely seen by plant pathologists and agricultural experts.

Although the fungus has been around for centuries, this outbreak is thought to have started in mass-market outdoor and gardening stores. Since Miriam and I buy most of our tomato plants from heirloom producers at the farmers’ market, we thought we might be safe.

Over the next few days, we gathered around every news and gardening report, filtering through the news that that for organic gardeners (like us), there is no known cure or prevention except extracting the plants and disposing of them (in the garbage, not compost). Fungicides can help prevent the fungus from spreading, but that’s an option many aren’t willing to make.  And as an organic gardener in a community garden that lives by that commitment, my own choice is limited.

We all went home, inspected our tomatoes, coddled them, and picked and cherished every healthy ripe tomato straight from the vine. We held our breath and hoped for hot sunny days (reported to kill late blight), exchanged worried glances during the rain, and promised that we’d continue to buy tomatoes from the farmer’s market, even as prices doubled, to support those that are quickly losing their crops.

Two days later, Miriam came in with an almost-ripe orange and yellow striped tomato wearing all the signs of blight. We stood in a quiet circle, inspecting her tomato, and patting her on the back, as if to say “we’re sorry this happened to you.” To lighten the mood, we joked about giving Miriam’s tomato a proper burial, and offered to sit shiva for her crop. But the truth is, the blight is no joke, least of all for the hundreds of farmers whose living depends on it — evidence that the many principles of sustainability, most primarily biodiversity, are wise ones. Planting large varieties of any plant in any garden or farm is the best defense against total crop failure.

Wherever your tomato plants came from, and however many varieties you’ve planted, I sincerely hope they will not be affected by the blight, and that you don’t give up on gardening if they do. And I hope just as fiercely that you’ll keep eating tomatoes, keep buying tomatoes, and keep our farmers (and tomatoes) in business for years and years to come.

Sarah Copeland, Recipe Developer and Good Food Gardens spokesperson

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