Don’t worry, it’s been a tough year for gardens

I am so frustrated this year! Our garden has been just one big disappointment. I don’t think we’ll get one tomato. The rest of the garden isn’t doing all that well either. I’ve even lost a zucchini plant — didn’t think anything could stop them!

What’s going on? Am I doing something wrong? Did you have some problems? What can I do? I would appreciate any help you could give me.

— Karen

If it’s any consolation, you’re not alone ...  not by a long shot! This year has been a disappointment for a lot of us.

It seems we’ve run into a vortex of disease problems. Early on, we had problems with bacterial canker (a relatively new and potentially worrisome disease for us here in western Colorado).

Then early blight moved in. We always have some of this fungal disease, but this has been a banner year for it.

As if that wasn’t enough, NOW we’re starting to see more and more virus diseases showing up. Seems a gardener just can’t catch a break

To be honest, at first we worried that maybe there was a problem with our plants. But as the season unfolded, we realized the issue is bigger and there is a general problem throughout the Grand Valley.

It seems no matter where plants came from, there are problems, whether it’s a homeowner with two plants germinated on a windowsill or a commercial produce grower working 30 acres, plants are dying.

Shoot, we even bought plants from other growers to fill in holes out at our produce farm and we’re losing lots of those plants, too.

As frustrating and unsatisfying as it is, this seems to be just one of those years. It’s normal for disease and insect problems to ebb and flow, and this seems to be a year that a lot of us would rather forget.

I talked to Bob Hammon at the CSU Extension, and he says it’s the worst he’s seen for some of these problems in the past 10 years or more.

The big question is what to do about it. Well, I’m afraid there’s not much this year. Once a plant has one of these diseases, it’s pretty much a goner. However, there are some things to plan for and do next year that may not eliminate these problems completely, but should cut way down on them.

The first thing is to consider planting some disease-resistant varieties. Resistance to particular diseases (especially viruses) can be spotty, but finding something that holds up well under our disease pressures is a great head start.

Frankly, there aren’t a lot of varieties out there that have proven their worth, but we try new varieties every year and work with our seed suppliers to find some that are more dependable.

Secondly, it seems to help to plant your tomatoes earlier rather than later. This can be tricky with how fickle the weather can be in the spring, but tomatoes started early seem to have fewer problems than those planted later. You’ll have to find a way to protect your plants from frosty temperatures early on, such as using Walls-O-Water or building a simple cold frame.

The third thing to do is really work at controlling weeds around the garden. (Yes, I can hear you groaning now. The fact is that our two common virus diseases harbor in common weeds and even native shrubs. Kochia and Russian thistle are common hosts for the viruses, as is four-winged saltbrush. Because the diseases spread from one plant to another, removing these potential bug havens could help make a difference in your garden.

Fourth, consider building a simple framework over your garden from which to hang some shadecloth. It seems that the insect vectors that spread these diseases prefer plants out in the full sun. Shading them isn’t a guarantee of success, but we’ve seen some marked differences in infection rates between plants that are shaded and those that are not.

You only need to shade over the top of your plants and be sure to make the framework tall enough for you to walk underneath and to give some room for air movement.

Lastly, you might think about putting row covers over your tomatoes. The insects that spread these diseases (a leafhopper and a thrip) have to feed on your tomato plant to pass along the virus. A row cover is a thin fabric that physically keeps them off your plants.

Typically, they’re put on the middle of May and kept in place as long as possible. Because you’re trying to keep every insect off your tomato, the fabric needs to drape down to the ground where it’s weighted down so it doesn’t blow off or provide an entry for one of these little monsters.

Don’t worry about your plants getting enough light, a row cover typically transmits 80–90 percent of the light that hits it, plenty to keep your tomatoes happy.

You probably won’t be able to keep the row cover on as the summer wears on. You’ll need to get under there to pick some of those tasty, red beauties that your plant will produce. In addition, the cover can trap heat as it warms up, which can damage the plant and prevent pollination of the flowers.

Learning these lessons is hard. I should know, I’ve been learning the hard way for the almost 35 years I’ve been at Bookcliff Gardens.

I guess hard lessons teach patience and how to step back and relax, things I’m still not very good at. I’m always trying to learn.

The funny thing is I’m always hopeful and ready to go come spring. After all, it’s bound to be better than this year.

Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, Send questions to Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road, Grand Junction 81506; or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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