Disease can devastate a tomato crop quickly. Here are some of the common ones and some of their controls.
Early BlightEarly blight, a fungal disease, is a common problem east of the Mississippi and in the Far West. The first signs of trouble appear on the lower leaves as small brown spots with concentric rings in their centers and yellow margins. Affected leaves eventually turn yellow and fall from the plant. Fruits may also be affected. Warm, humid weather favors the spread of this disease.
To help keep early blight in check, clean up all tomato plant remains at the end of the season -- disease-causing spores can survive over the winter on plant debris. Mulch plants to reduce splashing spore-carrying soil onto leaves during rains, avoid wetting the foliage when you water, and make sure there's good air circulation around plants by not crowding them.
Some chemical fungicide sprays can control early blight if applied regularly when weather conditions are favorable for the spread of the disease. Check with your local county Extension agent to find out what fungicides are recommended in your state. Be sure you read the label and follow all the directions carefully when using any pesticide.
Late BlightLate blight is another fungal disease that affects tomatoes in the same geographical areas as early blight. Leaves develop bluish gray spots, then turn brown and drop. Fruits develop dark brown, corky spots. Wet weather with warm days and cool nights sets the stage for this disease, which also infects potatoes.
To control late blight, avoid wetting the foliage when you water, use an approved fungicide regularly and clean up tomato plant debris in the garden at the end of the season.
Leaf SpotLeaf spot can be caused by several different kinds of fungi. It's often a problem in the southeastern states and some northern areas that have warm, moist weather. Septoria leaf spot is common in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and Central states; gray leaf spot is common in the Southeast. Septoria begins with many small brown spots with black specks in their centers; older leaves are affected first. Eventually infected leaves turn yellow and drop. Gray leaf spot is similar, except that the spots have gray centers.
The fungi that cause these diseases live on old tomato plant debris in the soil and nearby perennial weeds. Rotating crops from one spot to another in the garden each year is one way to keep this disease in check. Clean up the garden well at the end of the season, avoid overhead watering and apply an approved fungicide regularly.
The Wilt DiseasesVerticillium and fusarium wilts are two troublesome soilborne diseases for which there is no cure. Fusarium causes yellowing of the leaves, wilting and early death of the plant. Verticillium causes similar symptoms, but seldom kills tomato plants. Growth slows down, plants lose leaves and fruits may develop sunscald because of poor foliage cover. The best prevention is to grow verticillium- and fusarium-resistant varieties.
Notes on Disease PreventionRotate your crop of tomatoes each year to avoid soil-borne diseases. Some serious diseases can live in the soil for several years. Try to wait three years before planting tomatoes where they grew before. Also, avoid planting where potatoes, eggplants or peppers grew the previous season, because some diseases attack all these vegetables and live in the soil from year to year.
Plant resistant varieties. Many tomato varieties are resistant to Verticillium and Fusarium wilts, for instance. Most seed companies list resistance to these diseases by putting F (Fusarium) or V (Verticillium) after the variety name. N stands for resistance to nematodes, the tiny worms that plague many southern gardens, causing stunting of the plants and poor crops.
Don't smoke in the garden -- you can infect plants with tobacco mosaic virus, a disease that can really cut down on the harvest. Look for a T after the variety name for resistance to this disease. If you smoke, wash your hands with soap and water before handling tomato plants.
Clean up the garden well at the end of the season. Many disease-causing organisms spend the winter in plant debris in the soil. Destroy any obviously infected plant material rather than composting it.
Help is available if you need it. Your local county extension service can help you identify diseases and recommend remedies. Many offices publish pamphlets with pictures and descriptions of tomato plant problems you may encounter in your part of the country.
This article is a part of our Vegetable Gardening Guide for Tomatoes / Care.