Tomatocide: I’m guilty!


Yes, I, Bob Nixon, am guilty of the shocking crime of tomatocide.

I didn’t mean to do it—of course.  I’m a University of Maryland Master Gardener Emeritus.  I should have known better.   Yes, I should have.

Why did I do it—age, early-stage forgetfulness, or worse?

No, I’m only 80, the new 60, so age isn’t a factor, and please stop smiling. Forgetfulness?  Not really because when I go into the garage to get my weeding hoe or pruning shears, I usually—yes, usually—remember why I’m there.

But I did kill my tomato plants this year—lots of them.

They all started out beautifully, either from seeds I started in cups, or, later, replacements that I bought at the local hardware store and my favorite nursery.  Brandywine, Celebrity, Cherokee Purple, Better Boy, Favorita, and Five Star: they looked great when I set them out in my small veggie gardens that wrap around the top of our backyard hillside.

I had carefully prepared the beds, dug planting holes and sprinkled in a bit of fertilizer, carefully placed the plants, watered them, mulched them, and caged them.  They started to thrive, to reach for the sun.  What joy and contentment for a lifelong tomato grower.

And then I started to worry.  Tender young leaves curled under and sometimes twisted.  Plants stopped growing.

Herbicide drift?  Too much water?  Some insect or mite problem?  Some strange new tomato virus?  

I researched at the Home & Garden Information Center and other online websites and analyzed my situation.  Logical conclusion: herbicide drift. But I knew of no neighbor using 2,4-D or other herbicides.

So, I replaced the most severely damaged plants—all of which I had started from seed—with the store-bought ones.  And relaxed and watched my new plants grow. And then the replacements started to curl and twist.  

Just what is going on, I asked myself?  I went online and fired off my question to “Ask an Expert” at the Home & Garden Information Center. 

An expert replied: “The downward curling and twisting sounds like phenoxy (growth regulator) herbicide injury…. The injury is often random.  A few plants affected in one row.  Plants do not recover.  2,4-D drift can be insidious!  There’s still a chance that some businesses have tomato plants.”  The ellipsis included this link: Herbicide Damage on Vegetables.

I responded: “Thank you… for confirming my worst frustration—probably 2,4-D drift.  And I could have added in my question that some early leaves on a nearby row of zucchini were similarly ‘stunted,’ but those plants seem to be putting out new leaves….  All is not lost—just delayed—as when I saw the problem developing I started six new cups of seeds, and those plants are about two inches tall and I’m looking forward to transplanting them later this week.”

When transplanting day came yet again, I went about pulling out the damaged plants and suddenly had a shocking thought.  This is an herbicide drift problem, and no one is using herbicide in the neighborhood.  Could I be causing the problem?  What about that bag of fertilizer that I have been using—the one a neighbor gave me when he moved away last year?  I had seen the N-P-K figures and had skimmed over all the big print on the bag.

But did I read everything?  I almost ran to the garage and looked at the front of the bag—and it gave no hint of herbicide.  But on the back, in small print at the bottom, a box eventually got around to the point that the fertilizer contained 2,4-D, mecoprop, and dicamba, three herbicides.

Oh, no!  I was shocked!  I had been sprinkling death pellets into my tomato-planting holes all spring.  Herbicide drift?  No, it was herbicide intake through each tomato’s root system.

A green plant in a garden

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Herbicides in the fertilizer product caused new leaves on my tomato plants to be small, curled and twisted.

I am embarrassed, of course.  One rule every Master Gardener learns during initial training classes is “Read the label.”

I thought I had read the label—but I hadn’t read the fine print—just the big stuff.

And my tomato plants curled and twisted and ended up in the trash bucket.

I confessed to my crime to the Expert at the Home & Garden Information Center and explained that I had tried to shovel out polluted soil from the planting areas and wondered how long the problem might persist.

“Helluva story, Bob,” the Expert replied.  “The three herbicides have been shown to break down within 60 days (dependent on sufficient soil temperature, moisture, and organic matter) so no worries for planting later this summer or next year.”

The good news is that my latest tomato transplants are nicely growing—but three weeks behind in the size they should have been.  But the fact remains that I was guilty of tomatocide.  I should have read the fine print.

And I have excellent advice for every gardener:  Read the Label—All of It!

-Bob Nixon

UME Master Gardener, Howard Co.

Kent’s blueberry cage

a row of blueberry shrubs protected by homemade cages

Some people like to keep birds in cages. Kent Phillips, a Master Gardener in Howard County, likes to keep birds out of his cage.

Each June, Kent and two helpers assemble a 10’ high by 10’ wide by 60’ long cage around his blueberry patch so the Phillips family, not neighborhood birds, will feast on the 16 to 20 gallons of fruit that his nine high bush blueberry bushes produce from early June into early August.

kent with blueberries

The uprights of the cage consist of 10-foot lengths of ¾-inch PVC pipe. Each upright is strengthened by a 10’ piece of rebar. Cross-supports at the top link everything together with a system of PVC T’s and L’s. Some are glued permanently, while others aren’t, to facilitate assembling the cage in spring and taking it down in the fall. He pounds a 3-foot piece of one-inch iron pipe into the ground to make 12” to 18” holes into which he slips the PVC/rebar uprights. He then wraps the huge, rectangular PVC box in plastic bird netting.

“I started out 20 years ago with a wooden structure,” Kent explained, “but that was frustrating because the bird netting snagged on every splinter. After a couple of years, I switched to PVC pipe. I use plastic ties to attach the netting to the PVC pipes.”

Kent estimated it takes about 2 ½ hours to put up the structure. “But all the work is worth it,” he said. “I have six varieties of early, mid-season, and late blueberries that produce over 6 to 7 weeks. Harvest depends somewhat on the weather.”

Kent listed three important factors to keep in mind when raising blueberries—pH of the soil, water, and the every-hungry birds.

a handful of blueberries

“The cage takes care of the birds, of course” he said. “My drip irrigation system takes about 3 hours a week to put down an inch of water, without which the berries would be stunted and production would fall. The Home and Garden Information Center has outlined a program using ferrous sulfate and elemental sulfur to keep the pH of the soil between 4.5 and 5.5, the range for maximum fruiting.

“We’ve been picking since early June,” Kent added. “This morning my grandson and my two daughters picked a couple of gallons and cleaned me out.”

What does his family do with up to 20 gallons of blueberries?

“We eat about half fresh and freeze the rest for later use,” he said with a smile. “Our wintertime favorites are blueberry muffins, blueberry pancakes, and blueberry buckle. They’re hard to beat.”

“I’m sure,” I replied, salivating at the thought.