Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN


May 23, 2014

PLATEAU GARDENING: Prevent plant diseases in your vegetable plot

CROSSVILLE — You may have noticed last week’s step-by-step run down on planting tomatoes contained various suggestions to help home gardeners avoid fungal diseases. That is a result of my early tomato-growing experiences when we moved south in 1994. I had always included tomatoes in my vegetable gardens but found keeping the vines healthy when first growing tomatoes in this state impossible. The warm-humid climate in Tennessee is an environment that seems to promote fungal diseases. Whether fighting diseases caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi, steps taken to prevent plant maladies are important if you want the best yard and garden greenery.

Whenever advising those new to growing tomatoes (or new to raising them in Tennessee), I share lessons learned from the then University of Tennessee Extension Agent at the Crossville/Cumberland County office, Roger Thackston. He said the secret to success with home-grown tomatoes is preventing fungal diseases. Treat healthy transplants with a fungicide soon after they are placed in the garden. Spray again prior to each rainstorm. At that time Chlorothalonil was the ingredient we were told to look for on the label to find an affective product to fight early blight and/or late blight. There were also copper-based fungicides for this purpose, but I don’t recall brand names.  

Fungal diseases are spread by microscopic spores. Wind, splashing water droplets from rain or irrigation, insects, animals and people can all spread these disease-causing agents (known as pathogens) from an infected plant to a healthy one. Infected garden litter has disease spores and spores can be present in soil from prior years. Those are other sources of infection. Disease develops when/if spores end up on a susceptible plant species and environmental conditions are right. Modern tomato varieties have been bred for resistance to many common tomato problems but seedlings from hybrids do not maintain the resistance characteristics of the parent plant. Heirloom varieties are especially vulnerable to disease.

Special care is needed to prevent disease problems in your vegetable garden when growing older varieties and when transplants are grown with seed saved from open-pollinated plants. Water on leaves favors fungal infections. The exception is powdery mildew which grows when air is highly humid but doesn’t require visible water on plant surfaces. Some strains of fungi find cool wet conditions optimal other types of fungi favor warm wet conditions. This spring we have had both situations.

As a fungal disease develops it attacks plant tissues. Diseased plant parts turn an unnatural color, dry up and die. Signs of infection seen on infected plant surfaces are usually spots or patches that range in color from black to brownish-grey or white. Blight usually affects lower leaves first then works up the plant. Spores from infected plant parts can spread the disease to healthy tissues on that same plant or healthy plants growing nearby. No treatment restores health to leaves and stems with fungal problems. Infected plant parts should be removed to limit the source of infection. Infected cuttings or fallen leaves left on the ground can contaminate the soil. Destroy diseased plant materials by burning or bag and remove from the garden. Do not compost diseased plants. Mold spores can survive on infected tissues, in soil or in compost made using diseased plants. Spores will not be killed by winter cold.

Pairing good sanitation with the right foliar spray will help keep fruits and vegetables in your garden disease-free. When purchasing fungicides, check the label to be sure the product targets the particular problem and is safe for use on the sick plant. The UT publication “PB1215 Disease Control in the Home Vegetable Garden” lists tomato diseases and products to combat them on pages 15 and 16. Download this free booklet from

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Plateau Gardening written by Master Gardeners for gardeners in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland Region. Contact UT Extension Cumberland County at P.O. Box 483, Crossville, TN 38557 (931-484-6743) answers to horticulture questions, free publications and to learn about the Master Gardener program. Send email comments or yard and garden inquiries to Master Gardener Rae ( 

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