Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tomato Patch: Lemon or Lemonade?

Curled & blistered Virginia Sweets leaf

“When life gives you a lemon,” the optimist says, “make lemonade.”

In a previous Tomato Patch posting, I described how super-hot weather in early June, new transplants with poorly developed root systems, and fumes from petroleum-based driveway sealant combined to damage many of my young tomato plants. Older leaves curled and blistered under metallic-looking shine. Newer leaves and yellow blossoms shriveled.

I coddled the damaged plants for two weeks, hoping they would show signs of recovery. I sent updates and photos to the University of Maryland Extension. Three Super Marzano plants showed definite signs of new growth. Several Juliet and Sungold plants showed positive signs, but several didn’t. Two Defiant and a Virginia Sweets looked, well, terminal.

On Friday morning Jon Traunfeld, a specialist at the Extension, came to check out my mini-disaster. He examined plants, took photographs, and measured distances. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” he said.

Shriveled Defiant leaf
And then I made a metaphorical pitcher of lemonade out of three of my “lemons,” three of the most severely damaged tomato plants. I gave them to Jon to take back to the nearby Extension for examination and study by plant pathologists and diagnosticians. I also said I’d let one of the most damaged plants continue to grow, if that’s the word, and periodically report on its status.

Jon later sent a note of thanks and commented, “You made a contribution to our knowledge of tomato growing in this modern world—although unwittingly.” Ah, isn’t that sweet lemonade?

After Jon left, I looked at the empty cages in my Tomato Patch and hopped into my pickup truck and went to nearby retailers that I thought might still have a tomato plant or two left. I didn’t find anything I wanted at the veggie-plant sections of a fine, local nursery and the neighborhood hardware store. A local farm that grows tens of thousands of veggie transplants every spring closed its greenhouses two weeks earlier.

But at Sun Nurseries in nearby Woodbine I found a table of overgrown, tangled, but basically healthy-looking tomato plants on close-out special--99¢ each. “I’ll help you find what you want and untangle them,” a helpful clerk said.

As pathetic as Charlie Brown's Christmas tree?
Soon I was headed home with two Celebrity and two Juliet tomato plants that were 28” tall and root-bound in 2.5” pots. Hey, beggars can’t be choosey—at least gardeners who are looking for tomato plants nearly a month after most other gardeners have stopped shopping.

As another customer exclaimed as I was checking out, “What are they—tomato plants?” Yes, they were a remarkable sight, the tomato equivalent of Charlie Brown’s pathetic Christmas tree.

Friday evening I did something I’d never done before—planted four tomatoes in my Tomato Patch in cages and through mulch to replace damaged plants that I’d pulled.

But maybe that’s one of the great attractions of gardening—that we gardeners always are meeting new challenges and learning about something we’ve never encountered before. That gives meaning to the old saying, “As the Garden Grows, So Shall the Gardener.”


  1. Bob,
    Disturbingly, I'm encountering the same issues on some of my tomatoes. My Marglobe is showing the same sort of curled and blistered leaves as your Virginia Sweets and several of my Romas have, in the last 3 days, started producing small shriveled leaves similar to your Defiant. I had no idea that garden pathogens could be transferred through blogs!!

    Please keep us posted on any explanations you get from the folks at the extension.

  2. Hi, Don. Some varieties tend to curl in hot weather--so that may be your Marglobe problem. Another gardener gave me one Big Mama, and it is severely curled but continues to grow and develop fruit. The other gardener says his Big Mamas are curled too--and he is far from asphalt fumes and uses plastic mulch and drip irrigation--so he's chalking it up to "variety." I'll let you know if the Extension comes up with a comprehensive explanation. As for the blisters, there can be many causes, such as edema (too much water for the plant to process) and some viruses, which are beyond me. I suggest you root around at diagnostics/veggies to get an idea of possibilities and then give them a call.