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.

Don’t let your leaves leave your yard

It’s late fall here and the leaves are mostly off the trees, scattered across lawns and piled up against fences and walls.

Most people are raking them up, putting them in those big brown paper bags, and leaving them at the curb for the Department of Public Works to pick up and cart off.  That’s the routine that we’ve all be trained to follow — make the yard neat and cart all the leaves off to somewhere else.

It’s a bad idea. You and carting off one of the best fertilizers you can get for your garden and your lawn. And whoever invented those badly-designed bags is making a fortune off you. You can find better things to spend that money on.

Nature has its own clever way of dealing with leaves, but you can do a few things to make it work even better.  All you need is a little help from your lawnmower, and maybe your rototiller if you have one.

Why leave the leaves in your yard? Think about the last time you were in the woods. Every fall it’s blanketed with fallen leaves, pine needles and plant debris. They provide two essential assets to the forest — a protective ground cover and a fertilizer base. That blanket of leaves protects plant roots from the dehydrating effect of cold. They also gradually break down into an excellent source of compost for trees and plants. Pound for pound, leaves are actually more nutritional to your plants than manure. They contain not only the three essential compounds — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — but also a host of other minerals that should get back into your soil.

Chop them up

The natural process of leaf decomposition is very slow. It takes months, and in some cases, years. You can speed it up and make it far more efficient with your lawnmower. You may want to start by raking your leaves onto your lawn, then start mowing from the outer edges, constantly directing the leaves inward. Go over them slowly, you’ll want the mower to  really chop them up good. Go over them a few times.img_1217

You’ll be astonished by what’s left. That huge pile of leaves is now reduced down to a mere shadow of its former self. What remains will be about 1/10th to 1/16th the size of the initial pile that you started with, and most of the tiny shreds are now implanted into your lawn. You can use a rake to evenly spread around the tiny pile that remains. This may look a little unsightly compared to the guy next door with the cleanly-raked lawn, but those leaf fragments will be gone by the time the grass starts thriving in the spring. Earthworms and other natural processes will chew them up and convert them into fertilizer.

And next spring, when the guy next door is paying $50 to $150 for chemical fertilizers and sweating profusely while he’s spreading them on his lawn, you’ll be swinging in your hammock with a great-looking lawn underneath you.

Garden application

The other thing you may want to do with your leaves is transfer them into your garden, chop them up and then rototill them in.  This is an ideal fertilizer that will get your soil in top shape for the spring. You’ll want to apply some lime as well, as the leaves are acidic. One 50lb bag per 1,000 square feet of garden space is ample. A bag of lime should cost you about $5.

My usual thing is to rake the leaves onto the lawn, then mow them with my riding tractor. This also cuts the lawn and introduces grass clippings into the mix, which are very high in nitrogen — they’re like gasoline for your composting fire. Then I put the lawn sweeper to work. These sweepers are definitely worth the money if you have a lawn large enough to merit using a lawn tractor. They cost about $150 to $350 depending on size and quality, and the better ones have a great dumptruck-like feature that allows you to dump the load without having to dismount from the tractor and jigger around with the sweeper.  They are a fantastic labor saver, well worth the money. Be sure to get a good one, don’t cheap out, because they take a beating.

I attach the sweeper to the tractor and run over the lawn, picking up the chopped up leaves and grass clippings. Then I dump them on the garden, spread the piles out, and rototill them in. Sounds like a lot of work? It kind of is. But it’s worth it to use those leaves as your fall fertilizer.

John Macone operates a small organic farmstand in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Like his Facebook page at Farmer John’s Homegrown Foods.

 

The scoop on (horse) poop

I thought about headlining this blog “Look what I’ve dung,” or maybe “The plop thickens,” but you get the point. This is about fall fertilizing, and why you should use horse manure.

We’re just a few days away from our killing frost, so things are quiet in the garden… with the exception of the nearly 2 tons of horse poop that’s flying all over the place. That’s right, I’m up to my knees in it, slinging it this way and that.  My wife loves seeing me come in the door after a day of horse manuring.  OK, she doesn’t. But I love the stuff, and here’s why:

1 – It’s cheap aimg_1198nd so am I.

Most people go out and buy cow manure and pay a lot of money for it. And man does that stuff stink. Hardly anybody uses horse manure in their garden.  That means horse farms end up with enormous piles of it, and they are more than happy to give it to you… for free. Some of them will gladly use their front end loader to dump it into your truck, saving you the hassle of shoveling it. Or if you don’t have a truck, they’ll guide you to the pile and let you fill your totes at your leisure.  On the other hand, you’ll probably pay $5 for a 50lb bag of composted cow manure, and you’ll have to haul it yourself. And like I said, that stuff really stinks.

So free vs. $5 per 50 lbs. Easy choice. For fall manuring, I’d say you’re looking for about 1 pound per square foot of garden space. For the amount of manure I use, I’d be paying $400 to the cow guy.

2 – It’s better than you think

Horse manure suffers from bad publicity — fears that it contains tons of weed seeds (because cows have stomach after stomach to shred up every last seed, while horses don’t), and fears that it contains lots of nasty pathogens. Both of those issues are overrated. You may get a few odd weeds from it, but not enough to notice. And every manure has pathogens. Use gloves and don’t get too intimate with it, and you’ll be fine.

Rodales, the authority on organic growing, reports that horse manure is actually slightly higher than cow manure in the 3 essential nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium). So it’s a better source of nutrients for plants.

Here’s the manure nutrient breakdown, according to Rodales. (the three numbers represent percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.)

Chicken: 1.1–0.8–0.5
Cow: 0.6–0.2–0.5
Duck: 0.6–1.4–0.5
Horse: 0.7–0.3–0.6
Pig: 0.5–0.3– .5
Rabbit: 2.4–1.4–0.6
Sheep: 0.7–0.3–0.9
Steer: 0.7–0.3–0.4

3 — It looks like expensive mulch

It’s true. If it’s been composted for awhile it looks just like that yard mulch that people pay $25 to $35 a yard for. It takes on a nice, rich brown color, like hemlock mulch or that spray-painted brown stuff they call mulch. And some kinds of mulch can be very bad for your pets, especially dogs.  Horse manure is far better for your plants than mulch, and it actually has a nice aroma if it has rotted for a few months. Your neighbors will think you are richer and smarter than you actually are.

4 — It’s easy to handle

Horse manure is typically mixed with shavings, which makes it lightweight and very easy to spread. You can fill your wheelbarrow with it and you’ll look like the Incredible Hulk when you easily push it around the yard. However, the only green part of you is your thumb.

Where do I get it?

If you live in the suburbs, chances are there’s a horse farm near you. There’s about a dozen within 5 miles of me, maybe more. Sometimes they advertise “free manure” on Craigslist, but that’s not the norm. If you don’t know of any horse farms nearby, it’s easy to look them up on Google maps and then call them or stop by. I find that every horse farm I’ve ever made the “do you have any extra poop” inquiry at has lots of manure and they are glad to have you take it off their hands. The place I go to has over 5,000 yards of it, all well rotted, and they happily load it into my truck for me. What a deal!

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Homegrown Foods.