Some thoughts on late blight


Check out Dan Barber’s op-ed You
Say Tomato, I Say Agricultural Disaster

 A depressing quote from it:

Here’s the unhappy twist: the explosion of home
gardeners — the very people most conscious of buying local food and opting out
of the conventional food chain — has paradoxically set the stage for the worst
local tomato harvest in memory.

Does Barber have answers? Somewhat. More diverse
plantings, working with cooperative extensions, looking at tomatoes bred for
resistance. There’s no question that the incredibly wet weather the Northeast
has been under for months now isn’t helping. We have had hurricane-level rain accumulation in Western New York for the last couple days. I don't grow many vegetables (just a couple heirloom cherry tomato plants) but my friends who do are not happy. I have not yet checked in on our local farmers. But the sun is coming this week!

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I’ve had late blight in my garden soil here (in CT) for at least 15 years. I’ve adapted by growing tomatoes in containers, using lots of hay mulch to dampen the splash-back from the soil to the rain & using a weak bleach solution to clean the containers after every season, but it’s ever present. Usually I can get a decent crop before the plants fail in late August, but this year it’s been so much earlier due to the weather conditions, so my harvest is pretty poor. It’s interesting to read about the transmission vectors discussed in the article. I had thought it was already so much more widespread as I’ve met many other local gardeners with it (local meaning in the northeast, not my neighbors, none of whom have it), but I guess it had not been that endemic until now.

  2. Disease is the reason I grow hybrid tomatoes. Since my yard evidently was once a tobacco field only the newest and most resistant will survive or produce a crop. The clerk at my favorite garden center was so happy to hear me say it out loud last weekend when another customer was going on and on about only growing heirlooms. Disease resistance is a good thing. All gardens are not created equal.

    I think the story above makes a few large leaps in logic – isolated backyard gardens will only play a tiny role in a fungal disease spreading compared to acres and acres of monoculture. A sizeable number of backyard gardeners start their own seeds and tomatoes are easy from seed. A large number of store bought vegetable starts never ever make it to the garden.

  3. John, did you read Barber’s full essay? Because he talks about seed starts and large monocultures as well. I did not run the whole thing–it is substantial.

  4. I really liked Barber’s essay, especially the tips he gave to young gardeners that made the “Agricultural Disaster” not feel quite so doom-and-gloom. (Though it is horrific to think that an entire regions tomato crop can be wiped out in a few days.) I listed his points here:

  5. I thought there was some barely suppressed rage in Barber’s essay. He seems to be blaming us amateurs for spreading this virus.

  6. For more information about the late blight and it’s origins check out my blog The Blogging Nurseryman, where we have been covering this issue for the last month, or so. It is a warning about what happens when our vegetable starts are bought at the box and chain stores who are supplied by only one vegetable plant grower. Another reason to shop at locally owned garden centers.

  7. No problems so far in Texas, but I’ll be monitoring it just in case. Thanks for the heads up.

    It seems like it’s more the weather than the home gardeners to me though. Logically, Texas has the same Walmart distributed tomato plants, “tightly coupled” and all that. The fact that we don’t have blight means it’s probably a local factor, weather would be my guess. Weather in the north-east U.S.A. has been a recipe for blight.

    But I am not so sure of myself that I won’t be monitoring either 🙂

    Let me also say that the extension offices here are great as-is. Please don’t mess with them!

    It might be worth some of the organic madness crowd rethinking their position. This is a case where entire crops could be lost because of their hesitation to spray fungicide.

    Happy gardening guys!

  8. The Northeast’s late blight is one good reason to think about local food security. But, like the article mentions, diversification of crops can alleviate the pain of losses of certain crops. Don’t put all the eggs in that one proverbial basket, a diversified farm will have better luck over time.

    That said, last year by mid August my tomatoes were brown 2/3 up the plant. This year, its only just beginning to yellow at the base.

    There’s a lot of variables out there.

  9. Elizabeth, I think you missed the condescending tone here–we little gardeners need to learn not to be so trusting and stupid, or it costs him big-time.

  10. I’m with Michele…Although there are many sources/reasons given for the problem, it really felt like the home gardener was being blamed for the brunt of it.( Of course this was in the Opinion section.)

    I would like to see an in-depth look at the source of the infected plants; it sounded like growers and suppliers really have a lot to answer for here. And what about a deeper look at the box stores that continued to supply the starts even when advised there was a serious problem with them? It felt like a lot of finger pointing, granted with some solutions, but it still rubbed me the wrong way.

  11. I have to agree with Michele as well. This article really irritated me. In a year where vegetable gardening has really taken off with your average homeowner, why discourage them?

  12. I did not notice any undue rage in the article. On the contrary, while he points out that the rise in household gardens likely helped to spread the disease, the real culprit is the distance the seedlings travel.

    He is totally right in pointing ou that a seedling that traveled 2000 miles is not much different than a tomato that did the same, and that a small local nursery will not only have the varieties best suited for each climate, but can more easily weed out the diseased plants.

    He is also correct in pointing out that retailers have a burden to remove infected plants which they fail to do, but the ultimate onus as always, rests with the consumer. The gardener.

  13. Food for thought. I read the whole article and didn’t notice any suppressed rage or condescending tone. I think the reference to home gardening was more a comment on the ethics or disorganization of large-scale producers or retailers ready to cash in on the growing home market, without watching what they’re doing.

    But it’s a multifaceted problem, and clearly what’s been most to blame this past summer in the Northeast (and I count Toronto in that) has been the weather… a case when “the perfect storm” has been less metaphor than wet, fungusy reality.

  14. I don’t see the basis or logic in leaping to blame the home gardener either — but I do see this claiming spreading like wlidfire across the social-media-scape 🙁 It is squarely on the breeder and retailers who sold to consumers who have the right to expect disease-free products for their hard-earned bucks.

  15. The ironic thing is that many people who bought their plants at the big box stores, do not have the blight, because they bought common hybrids that are disease resistant. Yet those of us who either started our own heirloom seeds or bought unique varieties from local nurseries have it. ugh.

  16. I am currently afflicted with an emotional blight and don’t really care that the tomato crop isn’t as good as last years. I will say I have been less than pleased with the heirloom ‘Purple Cherokee’ and won’t grow it again. They are horribly misshapen. Maybe it’s blight maybe not. If I cared I might try to determine the cause.

  17. Luckily we haven’t been hit by this where we live in Northern California however due to a weird summer here our tomatoes are just going to start being ready in the next week or so 🙁

    This is terrible as we started them and were moving them inside and outside while we had a LATE snow this year too… we really couldn’t have started them any earlier.

    Cold June weather is to blame and a mild early July 🙁

  18. Shira: The blight was caused by heirloom plants grown by Bonnie Plants and sold to box stores throughout the northeast.
    Christoper C NC: get ready I agree with you!! My Chreokee Purples, started from seed died to the blight.

    My garden column this week in the newspapers talks about the false sense of security about growing heirlooms only.

    There is no blame to be given to home gardeners for this whatsoever.

    Trey, The Blogging Nurseryman, is absolutely correct, grow local,buy local.

    If there was any ever evidence for how vulnerable our food supply is this year was it.

    The TROLL

  19. Our CSA here in northeast Illinois confirmed they mave have the first case of blight in IL. Her newlsetter reports they’ve already destroyed 600 plants and the U of I extension service is coming up to look.

  20. At first I sensed the crankiness with the home gardeners in the article. But then it dissipated. There aren’t that many new veg gardens. In other words, 5 years ago conditions could have been the exactly the same. There were still plenty of veg starts being shipped around.

    There is in the article the subscript in support of farmers over home growers (leave it to the professionals please). But I think the complaint is largely about the rhetoric. Its the chatter and talk about growing at home instead of on the farm that may irritate Mr. Barber more than the reality of home growers posing a serious challenge to the farmer. I think most of NYC’s 8 million or so can agree, we want, need, and love our regional farmers.

  21. Christopher C NC- Cherokee Purples are quite an ugly tomato. I don’t think I’ve never *not* seen a misshaped one!

    What they lack in looks, they make up in flavor, IMO!

  22. The wrong quote was lifted from the opinion piece. Here’s the key quote:

    “Large retailers like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart bought starter plants from industrial breeding operations in the South and distributed them throughout the Northeast.”

    He suggests that these trucked-in plants could be carrying the blight.

    He recommends that gardeners buy local plants from local sources or grow from seed.

    So he’s not necessarily blaming us, but offering us a solution.

    Much like the “burn local” efforts to combat the ash borer, we may be undertaking a “grow local” effort to combat tomato and potato blight.

  23. I agree with those of you who believe that he is blaming the big-box stores and not the home gardeners. I do think that he feels that new gardeners were victimized, and if they bought infected starts from Walmart then he is correct!

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