Dreaded curly-top virus puts crimp on crop

These rolled leaves on a Roma tomato plant are the first sign of curly-top virus, which has no remedy except removal of the plants to avoid further infection.

Hindsight is always 20-20 in gardening. I should have spaced my plants farther apart.

I should have remembered how monstrous zucchini plants grow and how prolific they are.

I should have put weed barrier where all those poky goatheads are sprawling now.

I should have been checking for squash bugs every day.

Should. It’s one of those words that makes you shake your head, tsk-tsking with an internal monologue chiding you for not doing something days, weeks, months ago.

My latest gardening “should have” has resulted in roughly half my tomatoes meeting their demise.

Yes, I should have covered my tomato plants. Let this be a cautionary tale to all.

See, there’s this teeny tiny little insect that transmits the curly-top virus, causing major damage in tomato plants. And instead of paying attention, I went on vacation.

I blame that horrid little insect. Enemy No. 1: the beet leafhopper.

But they’re so tiny (I mean, even difficult to identify with a magnifying glass) that most people don’t even know they’re around. The most I’ve seen them is when I walk through a field of kochia and all these miniscule bugs come boinging out of the weeds.

Kochia is the weed that most people recognize as a tumbleweed later on when they grow to the size of small Christmas trees and dry out. It is just one of the weeds the beet leafhopper likes to hang out on before it moves on to our gardens. This is a good reason to keep weeds out of your garden and the surrounding area.

So, it’s too late now, but I should have protected my tomato plants from these teensy little jerks. According to Colorado State University Extension Service, symptoms of curly-top virus show up as early as a week after the leafhopper infects the plant. CSU Entomologist Bob Hammon’s research from 2012 indicates that peak leafhopper activity in our area is in late June.

Because I didn’t cover the plants to prevent the leafhopper from jumping all over them, biting the plants and infecting them with the virus, I have problems.

Smart gardeners who plan ahead and know leafhoppers use what’s called “row cover,” a light fabric, to shroud their plants and keep the insects from raining down from above. But putting it on now is like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted.

Now, it’s a matter of cutting my losses and hoping the disease doesn’t spread any further.

Curly-top virus looks exactly like it sounds. The tomato plant leaves start curling up, twisting into themselves. At this point, I hope the plant is just too hot and is wilting in the afternoon sun. Maybe it’s just stressed out.

But no, as the disease progresses its clearly curly-top virus — the leaves’ veins turn purplish and then the rest of the leaves turn yellow. The plant’s growth is stunted and the blossoms don’t seem to develop into fruit. It’s over.

At this point, it’s all about damage control. There’s no hope for the infected plants. The best thing to do is remove them from the garden — there are gaping holes where I thought I was going to grow a bounty of tomatoes — trying not to touch any healthy plants with the diseased ones in the process.

As I yank yet another tomato plant from the garden, I try to keep it all in perspective. I should just enjoy the process of gardening and stop looking backward, and accept that 2014 is not my year of the tomato.

Until next year!

Erin McIntyre is an advanced master gardener, writer and Grand Valley native. Please email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) with story ideas or feedback.


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