Frowning at my tomato plants browning

Andy Hallman
Andy Hallman

This was going to be the year.

For much of the summer, I thought it was. I was giddy at the prospect of having six big and healthy tomato plants that would supply us with enough fruit to feed the town.

You see, my tomato garden was in rough shape. My wife and I had tremendous success with our very first garden at a rental house in town, but when we moved into our current home in 2017, there was no garden. I created one in the corner of our lot, digging up a patch of grass about 6 x 8 feet in dimension.

It wasn’t the same. First of all, we didn’t have a working outdoor faucet like we did at the rental house. The faucet on the south side of the house had been severed by the previous owner, probably to keep it from freezing in the winter. Repairing it would have meant tearing through several walls in the basement, which my wife and I were not keen on doing.

For the first two years we lived in the house, I lugged pales of water from the bathtub to the garden. This was the only way to water the vegetables.

The first year in 2017, I grew six tomato plants, since those were the plants I knew best. My dad is an avid gardener and usually grows peas, cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes. Lots and lots of tomatoes. He and my mom can them every August, something I helped with a time or two in my youth. We did it just before the first day of school, so for some reason I never looked forward to canning day.

That first year in the new house produced a subpar tomato crop. With the same number of plants as the year before, my wife and I gave away our tomatoes freely because we had more than we could eat. But in 2017 we guarded each one with our life.

The following year, I opted to branch out into other vegetables and grew four tomatoes, two peppers, and a cantaloupe. I didn’t know this when I bought it, but evidently the best way to grow cantaloupe is to plant it at the top of a hill and let its vines grow down the slope. I naively thought it could be coached into growing up a stake like the tomatoes.

The cantaloupe vines went all through the garden and up the fence. It produced two small fruits just large enough to be called a “snack.” The peppers were a little better, giving me four pieces of fruit each. There again I didn’t do my research and picked a few before they were ripe, not realizing I needed to wait until they changed color from green to red.

The tomato plants were OK, giving us a steady stream to eat but not many leftover to share with others.

Earlier this year, we did some plumbing work on the house and decided that we might as well ask the plumber to fix the outdoor faucet while he was on site. Instead of repairing the old one, he installed a new faucet which happened to be closer to the garden. No more hauling buckets of water from the bathroom!

I was very excited to plant tomatoes this year. I decided to go back to planting six tomatoes, which could finally get the proper amount of water and not just the amount I had time or energy to carry from the bathtub.

As you may recall, May was a soggy month, the wettest I can remember in a long time. I bought my tomato plants at the farmers market and then waited for a good day to plant them. And waited. And waited some more. But the rain never stopped. I could wait no longer, and dug up the garden in preparation to plant. It probably took twice as long as in a normal year because the mud stuck to my shovel, and I was constantly pausing to clean it.

The great irony was that I barely needed my new faucet and hose for the first several weeks the tomatoes were in the ground because Mother Nature fed them for me.

The soil in our yard has a lot of clay in it, and I knew that was going to be a problem. I dug holes for the tomatoes and filled them with top-notch soil from the store. They were doing so well for the first two months that I thought I had finally done everything right. The stars were aligning and we were on our way to harvesting a gangbuster crop like we had three years earlier.

In mid-July, I gave the tomatoes some fertilizer and I added a ring of mulch around each one. I figured it was a smart idea since it was so hot that, even though I was regularly watering them, it was best to retain as much moisture in the soil as possible.

To my great surprise, one of the tomatoes began to wither. Then another. And then a third. Before I knew it, three of the tomatoes had turned brown. I gave them extra water, thinking that perhaps they were wilting from the heat. But the water didn’t reverse their fortune. Was I over-watering them? Did I put too much fertilizer on them? Was something in the mulch killing them?

My parents came to visit us in late August, and I was eager to show the problem to my dad, thinking that he could give me a diagnosis. He suspected it was tomato blight, a disease caused by a fungus-like organism that spreads through tomato foliage during wet weather. He pointed out that, since I wasn’t rotating my plants but rather putting them in the same location year after year, the problem was likely to remain.

I think all six of the plants now have the blight to some degree. Two of them are going strong and still producing green tomatoes as we speak, but they don’t look long for this world. I guess I should look on the bright side. I won’t have to worry about getting canker sores from eating too many tomatoes!