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.

Vegetable garden successes

One of the joys of this otherwise largely depressing year has been hearing the stories of first-time vegetable gardeners who took the step of growing some of their own food due to economic insecurity, extra time on their hands, a desire to give back to a community via food donation, or a need to be outdoors more. Welcome to the club! We would have a secret handshake, but that’s not such a great plan right now. Distance elbow bump pantomime!

The fall months are a good time to look back on the season and assess what worked and what didn’t. In this post I’m going to mention some of the plants and cultivars that produced well for me this year. I emphasize me and this year because a secret of vegetable gardening is that each year is different and each garden is different, so I’m not guaranteeing these will be as great for you, or even for me next year. But if the descriptions sound good to you, they may be worth trying.

Continue reading

Semi-novice Gardener – Raised Bed Vegetable Garden Adventure (vol. 4)

Here’s update #4 on my raised bed garden efforts this year. While we are enjoying eating our vegetables, some other creatures are as well. As our summer crops are winding down, we are starting some light fall vegetable crops, and planning to prepare the other beds for the winter.

Critters are back

Last time, we had corn coming up in one bed. It looked like we’d eventually have little corn cobs to pick, but soon after we took the picture below, something came in and ate the entire crop!

The same night our green bean crop, which was providing lots of beans for our dinners, was eaten as well.

That’s pretty much the end of both crops. We got a lot out of our green beans, so that was not a big loss, but we are sad that we didn’t get to see what the corn was like eventually.

Since we think our short fence is pretty solid, we are assuming this was deer coming in to eat the crops. Next year, better deer protection is definitely on the menu. We’ll look into either floating row cover or building a bigger fence to keep out the deer.

Interesting insects

This doesn’t have much to do with our vegetables, but we have a potted butterfly milkweed plant placed just inside the fencing, and it was a host to a bunch of insect activity.

We found a couple big, juicy monarch caterpillars hanging out munching on its leaves, and at the same time, a whole crew of orange aphids were sucking sap out of the stem. A few days later, all the leaves were gone off the plant.

We began to have to check our green beans for caterpillars. We’d occasionally find these little guys or their holes in the beans. We think it is a young armyworm caterpillar. The problem wasn’t enough to do anything about — just an entertaining mention.

Caterpillar eating my green bean
Caterpillar eating my green bean!

In this action-packed scene below, we have a tomato hornworm hanging out on my tomato plant while being a parasitized host for Braconid wasps, while a tomato fruitworm lounges above with a fly on top of it.

a tomato hornworm hanging out on my tomato plant while being a parasitized host for Braconid wasps, while a tomato fruitworm lounges above with a fly on top of it.

Powdery mildew and insect stippling on our ornamentals

Our zinnia and marigolds got these white spots all over. At first, I suspected this was powdery mildew on both due to their close proximity and both symptoms appearing white. However, my trusty, knowledgeable editors commented while reviewing this post that the issue on the marigolds was likely feeding damage from insects, but we don’t know what insects.  As a reminder; you too can tap the knowledge of HGIC certified professional horticulturists via our free Ask an Expert service.  Send in your questions!

The powdery mildew hasn’t transferred to the vegetable crops around them, so we haven’t been too concerned about it. The HGIC article on powdery mildew mentions that overcrowding of plants can create good conditions for mildew to grow due to the limited airflow. Our beds are definitely overcrowded. We’ll be spacing things out next year, and likely putting our ornamental pollinator attractors in pots outside of the raised beds.

Tomato trimming

Overgrown tomato plants
Overgrown tomato plants

We have been really learning that tomatoes are a crop that needs quite a bit of attending to. I should have been pruning suckers maybe every other day. The vines kept growing and growing, covering other plants and laying on the ground. Interior vegetation started browning and maybe getting moldy due to lack of airflow. There were green tomatoes growing, but it took them a while to ripen and be ready. I suspect my lack of pruning allowed the plant to use its energy to grow more vines rather than developing tasty tomatoes.

A few tomatoes on our orange tomato plant were on the vine for a LONG time and developed odd bulging characteristics.

I went hard trimming both plants; cutting off a lot of branches that didn’t have fruit on them, or were growing on the ground. Fruit has seemed to come in faster and more plentiful since, but I need to keep pruning! This is easier and less traumatic for the plant (I would assume) if I just picked those little suckers early.

As the season wears on, more and more of our tomatoes are getting cracking, but the fruits are mostly good to eat. The HGIC page says that this could be caused by excessive fertilizer, but we haven’t added anything to the soil. It mentions irregular watering could do it, and I suspect that may be the culprit. My wife and I have been in a perpetual, “Hey, you’ve been watering the garden these last few days, right?” “Uh, no, I thought you were” cycle recently. We’ll need to keep vigilant with our chores!

Tomato cracking
Tomato cracking

The future of this garden

So what’s next? We’ll see how long our tomatoes keep producing. Krysten planted a couple kale seeds and winter squash seeds that are coming up. We don’t have a grand plan for these, but we’ll see how they do.

For the rest of the beds, we will likely pull the leftover ornamentals and the tomatoes once done, and plant crimson clover cover crop. Cover crops lessen soil erosion during the winter, add organic material when turned under in the spring, improve soil quality, and add valuable nutrients. In the spring, we just mow it (in our case, in the raised beds, we will string trim it) to kill it, then later turn it over into the soil.

View previous updates

Dan Adler
HGIC Web and Communications Manager

Semi-novice Gardener – Raised Bed Vegetable Garden Adventure (vol. 2)

I’m back with a big update on our raised bed vegetable garden efforts!  It’s been eventful: wildlife has eaten some of the plants, we built a whole new raised bed from scratch, and we’ve begun harvesting some of our first crops.

Tomatoes need support!

Our three tomato plants have been growing up well.  We procrastinated on adding support because I wanted a better solution than those flimsy conical wire doodads you can buy at the hardware store.  I eventually located some old lengths of wire fencing and just set them around each plant in a cylindrical shape and then attached them to a single metal garden stake to keep them steady.  I criss-crossed some twine back and forth which will give the tomatoes something more to grab onto and keep the support from bending outward.

Somebody is munching my plants!

Wildlife and insects have been having a feast on our garden, unfortunately. Continue reading

Tomato Tips 2020

Your tomato plants survived the spring’s extreme and variable weather and are now dark-green, vigorous, and full of promise. You may have even started picking a few ripe fruits of early-maturing cultivars, especially if you garden on the Eastern Shore or in Southern Maryland.

Despite the challenges of diseases (plant and human), climate change, racism, and loved ones who don’t quite get our “tomato devotion,” we are ever hopeful about the upcoming harvest season. Here are some tips to help you navigate the challenges and pick loads of delicious fruits:

First, don’t sweat the small stuff. Tomato plants will be in the ground for 4-5 months. Even when plants are quite healthy and productive you will likely see some insect feeding, leaf spots and discoloration, dead lower leaves, pinched and torn foliage, broken stems, fruit drop, and some blossom-end rot. This can be alarming, but they can tolerate these minor, temporary issues when their basic needs are being met.

Catfaced tomato
Catfaced fruits should be removed while small and green (“small stuff”).

Container tomatoes have no weeds and fewer pest problems but require closer monitoring. Your plants are relying on a relatively small amount of growing media and you to supply the necessary water, nutrients, support, and protection. You may need to water daily and fertilize every two to three weeks. Open any drainage holes that get clogged with roots and growing media. If possible, move containers from very hot, sunny locations (especially if on hardscape) to a cooler spot that receives late afternoon and early evening shade. Full-sized cultivars need at least 5-gallons of growing mix to grow well.

Water and nutrients go together like tomato and basil. Soil water contains the plant-available nutrients taken up by plant roots. If you have fertile soil with a high organic matter content (>5% as measured by a soil testing lab) you may not need to fertilize. Commercial growers and many gardeners apply a high-nitrogen fertilizer when the first fruits start to form. Applying a dry fertilizer around established plants is called “side-dressing.” Pull mulch back, sprinkle the fertilizer evenly in an 8-inch diameter circle around the plant base, replace the mulch, and water in the fertilizer. Side-dressing example: apply ¼ – 1/3 cup of cottonseed meal fertilizer (6-2-1) per plant when green fruits appear. Follow soil test report recommendations and fertilizer label directions. See last month’s blog post on this subject.

Fruiting plants need more water. Plan to give each plant 1-2 gallons once or twice per week depending on rainfall, temperature, soil texture, mulch, and plant size. The root zone should be moist at all times so that plants can take up all the water they need. Water around the base of each plant.

water breaker nozzle with a wand
A water breaker nozzle with a wand is a good investment.

Regular, deep watering will help prevent blossom-end rot and cracking. Tomato skins thicken and harden as they enlarge and ripen. They crack easily (see below) with rapid and large changes in fruit temperature and water availability. Excess nitrogen is another contributing factor. Significant cracking can occur after heavy downpours. Fruits with poor leaf coverage are especially susceptible to cracking.

Mulching plants will help minimize weeds, conserve soil moisture, and maintain a stable soil temperature. Cover black plastic or landscape fabric with grass clippings if high soil and air temperatures begin to stress plants causing blossom drop and wilting.

Grass clippings
Grass clippings (no lawn herbicides) can be spread 4-inches deep. They recycle nutrients and feed the soil food web as they decompose.

A strong support system will keep your vines from crashing down due to storms and heavy fruit loads. Continue to secure vines to your support structure as the plants get taller. Remove suckers from vigorous stems to reduce crowding and improve air circulation around foliage. You can also lop the tops off vigorous stems to make them easier to support and manage.

Bent tomato cages
These three commercial cages were twisted and flattened in a storm. They aren’t designed to support large plants loaded with fruit.

You probably have a support system in place. If not, check out these options:

"Stake and weave" system
The “stake and weave” support system holds tomato stems upright between pairs of parallel runs of string. Newspaper sections covered with straw makes a reliable organic mulch.

T-post, wire, trellis system
Simple trellis system using 7-ft. T-posts, connected by five strands of #17 electric fence wire. Plant stems are tied to the horizontal wires.

bamboo trellis
Strong but labor-intensive bamboo structure. Uprights must be buried 15-18 inches in the soil.

Foliar diseases of tomato thrive during warm, wet, humid summers (just like tomato plants!) Early blight and Septoria leaf spot are the two main diseases that can defoliate plants and reduce yields in Maryland.

lesions on tomato leaves
Irregular lesions with a yellow halo and target pattern are classic early blight symptoms.

Septoria leaf spot
Septoria leaf spot appears as small distinct lesions with dark borders and tan centers.

Symptoms of these leaf spot diseases are first seen on lower leaves. The infection moves up the plant, spreading rapidly during humid, wet weather. They often co-occur and are managed the same way:

  1. Provide adequate spacing to increase air circulation and remove all suckers that emerge from the plant base.
  2. Keep plants well mulched to minimize soil splashing.
  3. Water plants at their base. Avoid wetting the foliage.
  4. Prune off the lowest 3-5 leaf branches once plants are well established and starting to develop fruits. This increases air circulation and slows down infections.
  5. Remove infected leaves during the growing season and remove all infected plant parts at the end of the season.
  6. Apply a synthetic fungicide or an organic fungicide (fixed copper) according to label directions, early in the season, when symptoms appear to slow the spread of the disease. This may be helpful where the disease causes severe blighting each year leading to reduced yields.
  7. Diseased plant parts can be composted if hot composting” techniques are used (pile temperatures should exceed 120° F throughout and piles should be turned two to three times).

Sunscald on tomato fruit
Sunscald is caused by a loss of leaves, usually due to foliar diseases.

Insects pests: several caterpillars such as tomato fruitworm and tobacco/tomato hornworm are common fruit pests, but the damage is seldom severe. By the time signs of the problem are seen it’s too late to anything but compost the infested fruits. Search for and dispose of caterpillars found on foliage and fruit.

Scraping and tunneling damage caused by a yellow-striped armyworm larva.
Scraping and tunneling damage caused by a yellow-striped armyworm larva.

Several different stinkbug species feed on tomatoes. They feed using piercing-sucking mouthparts and leave behind white to yellow corky spots. Stinkbugs are widespread and difficult to handpick and control. Minor damage can be cut out with a sharp knife.

Minor stink bug injury
Minor stink bug injury (left), Southern green stink bug (right)

Pick fruits when they first begin to change color (“breaker stage”) from green. This allows you to get your fruits off the vine before problems strike, greatly increasing the number of usable fruits. Ripen them indoors on a counter (never refrigerate!) I think you’ll find they taste just as good, and have the same desirable texture, as fruits that fully ripen on the vine.

Fruit color over time
Fruit picked when first turning color (left) Four days later (right)

Tomatos with cracks
Concentric cracking (eft) Longitudinal cracking (center) Cuticle cracking (rain checking) (right)

Anthracnose on tomato
Anthracnose (one of several fruit diseases of ripening tomatoes)

Years ago, when I grew tomatoes commercially I sold “seconds” and “thirds” (fruits with splits, nicks, soft spots, and stink bug stings) at greatly reduced prices for canning. Think about what you can quickly do with your “seconds” and “thirds”- salsa, gazpacho, cooked or cold tomato sauce, tomato juice, etc. Above all, share the harvest this summer and pass on your gardening knowledge.

By Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist. Read more by Jon.

The green tomato dilemma; or, will this fruit get any riper?

I was reminded on social media this morning of an article published back in June by John Porter on the Garden Professors blog. It’s about which fruits (some of which are vegetables in a culinary sense) continue to ripen after being harvested, and which don’t. Using more scientific words, which are climacteric and which are non-climacteric. There’s a useful list — bookmark it!

Unripe Siberian kiwis in May

I referred to that list this summer to confirm that kiwis are among the fruits that will continue to ripen once picked. I have three Siberian kiwi plants (Actinidia kolomikta), two female and one male, and the females have been producing their tiny little fruits fairly bountifully. The problem with these kiwis, though, is that they don’t all ripen at once, and when they do ripen, the fruits tend to go from hard to soft quickly and then fall off. I’ve taken to checking the relative softness whenever I pass under the arbor during fruiting season, plucking off the ripe ones and popping them into my mouth.

So I thought, hm, what if I pick all the fruits once some have started ripening, and let them finish indoors? And, as indicated by kiwi’s climacteric status, it worked. Sort of. I have to say that the indoor-ripened fruits just weren’t as tasty. They’d be okay for jam, though, so perhaps next year that’s what I’ll do.

So what does this have to do with the tomatoes in the title? Continue reading