How to deal with 2 bummer tomato maladies

It’s the time of year when I think every Italian farmer (and every tomato lover) does a little happy dance. It’s time to put the tomatoes in the ground.

It’s a beautiful thing, getting those spindly young plants in the soil and watching them grow — that is, unless 2 common maladies decide to rain on your tomato parade. One is an ugly and not-so-clever grub, and the other is a nasty little fungus that lurks under the surface. We’ll talk about how to deal with both of them, easily and organically.

Cutworms

Cutworms aren’t really worms. They are caterpillars — usually greyish in color, about an inch or so long, and fat. They curl up into a “C” and remain motionless in the soil, then emerge at night and start doing their damage to your precious tomato plants. Someday they will grow into beautiful moths — if you think the dull grey, mean and warty look is attractive.

Can you tell I really don’t like them?

It’s not their appearance, it’s their gameplan that I really don’t like. Instead of chewing a few leaves, they go for the gold on the very first bite. They chew all night, chopping down your tomato (or broccoli. cabbage, or whatever) and leaving its decapitated top lying prostrate on the ground. A really demoralizing sight for you in the morning.

Luckily, they are not well equipped to deal with an enraged gardener. If you dig all around the plant, somewhere within a 6-inch radius you’ll find the culprit. There’s 2 scientifically proven actions to take at this point — either you fling them as far as you can, or you squash them. Both have the desired effect. And if you have chickens, this grub is like prime rib for them.

How do you protect your plants? I always advocate the cheap but effective route, and in this case that means cutting up cardboard boxes — like cereal boxes, or pasta boxes or something like that — into 3-inch wide strips that are about 6-8 inches long. Wrap those strips around the plant, with the printed side facing out. The printed side is slightly slick and that helps defeat the clumsy cutworm. Bury the collar into the ground about an inch or 2. If you don’t have enough cardboard, feel free to go to the grocery store and buy something you can empty fast — like your favorite cookies or crackers. Then eat the contents rapidly and cut up the box. Remember, this is all in the name of organic farming, so it’s OK.

There’s the slightest chance that a cutworm is within the collar that you just created, but it’s a longshot.

Another method is buying diatomaceous earth, and sprinkling it around your plants. It acts like broken glass on the cutworm’s body. Nasty stuff if you are a worm. But it can be fairly expensive, and it prevents you from the legitimate need to go cookie shopping.

Early blight

This is a big bummer for tomato lovers. Pretty much everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains — and we’re pretty far east of them — has early blight in the soil. It’s nearly impossible to get rid of, but you can manage it.

Early blight, and its lethal sibling late blight (the cause of Ireland’s Great Famine of the 1840s that sparked the massive wave of immigration to this nation), will utterly wipe out your tomato crop. It starts as black or brownish spots on tomato leaves, with yellow usually surrounding the lesion. It spreads fast.

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A row of brandywine tomatoes that has anti-cutworm collars and grass clipping mulch.

 

 

Here’s the key to preventing it. It’s in the ground and usually gets transmitted to your plants by water splashing on the ground and spraying the undersides of leaves with infected soil. If you mulch the ground around your plants, it largely prevents the whole transmission from happening. If the infection gets ahold of your plants, go out and buy copper fungicide, a very effective spray that will stop the blight in its tracks.

Mulching is an excellent strategy for tomatoes in general, because it helps hold moisture around the roots and prevents problems like blossom end rot. I like to use grass clippings as a mulch, or horse manure. I’m a big fan of horse manure, as I’ve pointed out enthusiastically in a prior blog.

Oh and guess what? Cutworms have a hard time navigating over and through mulch, so there you go.

Where to get plants

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I sell an excellent variety of heirloom tomatoes (and other vegetables and herbs) at my farmstand. You’ll find some truly unusual and tasty varieties, at low prices. Stop on by and we’ll load you up with plants that will make you the tomato hero of the neighborhood.

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods farmstand on Kendricks Court, Amesbury Mass. The farmstand is open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.