Late blight in central Maine

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We had hog heart paste tomatoes planted again this year. The lady selling seedlings at the farmers’ market assured me in 2014 that once I tried hog heart, I’d never want anything else. She was right. So right, in fact, that we had four full flats of them planted in our main garden.

The Mister set in the seedlings all nice and neat in a long row along the south end of the garden, and worked hard to set up cattle panels with metal T-posts to support them as they grew. Later, he fussed over mulch and trimming, and used hay rope to painstakingly tie them to the cattle panel.

Our biggest issue was pests, though. It always is, but it seems like the garden pests this year were more numerous and voracious and determined than ever, including a bumper crop of tomato hornworms. We patrolled the tomatoes and peppers daily, rarely finding fewer than two or three of the evil little varmints. I found a tomato hornworm one day the size of a cigar.

I was not home at the time when The Mister discovered that late blight had hit the hog hearts. I suspect that a flurry of language that would belie his Christian faith must have at least run through his thoughts, whether or not any unsavory words actually escaped his lips.

After a season of buying, planting, tending, trimming, weeding, mulching, and de-hornworming, the entire crop of paste tomatoes were wiped out practically overnight.

Late blight is a fungus. It travels on the wind and is quite contagious. Once symptoms appear, there is no treatment and no cure.  I am given to understand that the tomatoes on an afflicted plant are safe to eat, but not safe to can. Late blight alters the pH of the fruit, and canning safety is all about pH.

There are ways to try and prevent it, but they somehow didn’t happen at our place this year. We could have checked and tended them more diligently after the recent rounds of deluge. We could have made sure the leaves closest to the ground were clipped off, and there was no standing water on the mulch below. We could have proactively sprayed them with copper the minute the rains subsided.

We didn’t, though. We never have enough time to get everything done around here, especially in August. And we were admittedly overly complacent about it this year, having been free of late blight for the previous three seasons.

The next morning, I mixed up a couple of gallons of copper solution in a desperate last-ditch effort to save the other bed of tomatoes.   We have another dozen tomato plants in a raised bed on the opposite side of the yard from the main garden, a miscellaneous collection of cultivars I like to call the “eating tomatoes.”   These are our Sungolds, our cherry and grape tomatoes, and our heirloom Brandywines.

After eagerly watching the prolific green fruits take shape all summer, we’ve finally been able to enjoy ripe tomatoes these past few weeks. I like to grab a handful for snacking as I pass by on my way to the barn or other gardens, and carry in a particularly perfect specimen for lunch.   Meals lately have included broiled tomatoes with goat cheese, and sautéed cherry tomatoes, and grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches, and plain ol’ sliced ripe tomatoes with salt and pepper.

Alas, despite the satisfaction I got from spraying hornworms in the face with copper solution, it appears we are losing that battle too. The leaves are browning and the plants are dying. We are resolved to pick all the ripe ones, eat all we are able, give away the rest before they go bad, and be done with tomatoes for the year.

Except, this is Maine. This is the place where everyone raises tomatoes, and everyone understands the heartbreak of losing a crop, and people are generous.

“Let me know when you get your peaches all put up,” my sister told me. “I’ll bring you over a couple bushels of tomatoes out of my garden.”

They won’t be hog heart, but that’s all right.   They’ll be home-canned tomatoes and sauce, enough to tide me over until next year. You can bet that next year, we will be more diligent about watching out for late blight. And with any luck, we’ll have such an abundant crop of hog heart paste tomatoes that we’ll be have enough to share with others.

In the end, one thing is true. It takes more than a little late blight to keep us Maine gardeners down.



Kathy Bernier

About Kathy Bernier

Backyard farming since 2007--raising our own, saving up for hard times, rejecting consumerism, and hugging the land.