Most gardening aficionados are well versed in how a plant disease known as late blight can devastate crops - most notably tomato and potato plants.
This summer, however, has been near catastrophic for local growers as it was in the 1850's when the same blight caused the Irish potato famine.
Late blight is a plant disease that attacks both potatoes and tomatoes. It is caused by a fungal pathogen that survives from one season to the next in infected tubers and the disease favors wet weather. This summer, however, has been near catastrophic for local growers as it was in the 1850's when the same blight caused the Irish potato famine.
The disease this year was carried north on the east coast and west to Ohio on plants that were shipped to large box stores from a warehouse in the south.
William and Sandra Murphy of Willsboro were especially hard hit. They have a hobby-sized green house and they start all of their plants from seed, using soil that they purchase from Griffin's Greenhouse. The Murphy's planted nearly 200 plants; to date they have lost 175 plants, with the disease now beginning to show itself on hanging baskets and cherry tomatoes. Their potatoes also got the disease, but by cutting back the leaves and consuming the potatoes when they are picked, the potato crop should be edible. The disease is very fast moving and within 48 hours of first noticing the disease, their crop was lost. It is especially sad as Murphy's give their plants to friends, who then "pay" them in dog food, or donations to the local SPCA.
Christine and Ed Coats, whose garden is located in Schuyler Falls, also have experienced the late blight first hand. Last year Christine learned how to can tomatoes and was excited to stock her larder again this year. In anticipation of that, they planted 50 tomato plants and have lost at least half of them. They also have potato plants that are beginning to show the blight, so they are prepared to pick and eat them before they are completely destroyed.
Amy Ivy of Clinton County Cooperative Extension said the disease is located in every county in the state and this is the first year it has manifested itself since 2000. It has caused huge problems for commercial growers, some losing 100 percent of their crop. Sweet corn and tomatoes tend to be the backbone of commercial farming, so the loss has been particularly devastating to them, according to Ivy. While it is on potatoes also, it is not as aggressive.
"Home gardeners should call this year a loss. I would encourage people to write off their tomato crop and to eat their potatoes," Ivy said.
Emily Selleck of Essex County Cooperative Extension stated that the disease has been spotted in Port Henry, Crown Point, Westport, Wilmington and Willsboro. There have not been many reports of commercial devastation reported to them. This year they know that the disease was carried in on the seeds.
There are a few things that you can do to control late blight. Use only certified seeds and while it is not a guarantee, the chances of survival are better. Ivy also encouraged using plant resistant varieties; Elba is currently the most resistant. If the growing season is particularly wet, as it is was year, late blight spores will be present and fungicides will be necessary, but they must be on the foliage before the spores land. Finally, Ivy said gardeners should scout plants carefully twice a week and more often during periods of wet weather. Those who find late blight should intensify fungal applications within label guidelines and if severe, destroy all diseased plants.
Ivy said the two pieces of good news are that the disease has not been around here since 2000 and it does not survive over the winter. For this year, Ivy recommended watching gardens carefully and treating plants accordingly.