Tomato Lessons: Powdery Mildew, Aphids, and Why You Should Ignore Instagram

How to deal with powdery mildew on tomatoes
one of my few shots of beautiful slicing tomatoes, which made it despite the powdery mildew

We’re pulling the tomatoes today.  What’s left of them, I should say.

A full three weeks earlier than planned, the stalks are coming up, already leafless and succumbed to powdery mildew, and it feels like a failure.

All season I’ve been avoiding Instagram photos of gorgeous tomatoes, unable to look at them without a pang of jealousy.  Tomatoes are my favorite crop to grow—despite their finickiness and their long list of potential diseases. Tomatoes have a way of working into me, sending out invisible suckers to grow around my limbs and pull me back for taste after taste, a siren song that keeps my mouth wanting more long after my stomach is puckered with acidity.  

But I didn’t get lost in a jungle of tomatoes this summer.  

First, it was the unexpected freeze in early April that wiped out our early round of tomato plants.  Next, it was aphids in the greenhouse that attacked the plants we’d saved and were nursing along.  After that, it was the powdery mildew that came in on plants we’d bought to replace the ones we lost.

We pruned hard every week to keep the mildew at bay, but it wasn’t enough.  Eventually, white splotches of spores covered the stalks, and we succumbed, too.

My mom always told me there are no mistakes in life, just learning experiences.  I could list here the mistakes we made, but that wouldn’t do much good. Instead, I can tell you what I learned:

How to really control powdery mildew (turns out, pruning hard isn’t enough).  

Spraying a fungicide on a weekly schedule will kill the mildew spores and help keep it from spreading to uninfected leaves.  Also, don’t compost the leaves, as powdery mildew can be spread on the wind, and exposed infected leaves in a compost pile can continue to infect your garden or field.  

Powdery mildew can affect weeds, too, (we found it on a few dandelions that had sprouted up in the pathways), so keep the beds and surrounding areas well-weeded.  

Cornell University goes into detail on powdery mildew and tomatoes on their blog.  Arbico Organics suggests specific steps to take for prevention and control.

Beneficial insects are the best way to control for aphids.

We were caught by surprise this spring when aphids showed up in droves inside the greenhouse.  It’s our third year with the greenhouse, but first with pest pressure so early on. If you have a nice protected space all winter long, it’s only a matter of time before aphids start overwintering.  

At first we sprayed neem oil, but we didn’t want to continually spray.  Even though it’s an organic option, neem oil can burn the plants if used too heavily.  We prefer preventative treatments, so we turned to beneficial insects that could control the aphids already present, and keep them in check in the future.

We talked to the folks at Arbico Organics, and ended up purchasing three rounds of green lacewings, both eggs and larvae.  In the future, we’ll also order ladybugs early in the spring to prevent aphid infestation in the first place.

When you lose a crop, you’re not the only one.  And you’re not a failure.

Instagram can make it seem like everyone else in the world has the most beautiful tomato crop.  It’s likely not true. Last week we hosted a soil workshop for farmers, and learned that everyone who bought in plants this year ended up with powdery mildew.  Along with that, we aren’t the only ones who lost an early round of tomatoes to freezing temperatures.

Sometimes, the best emotional remedy to a lost crop is to find others to lament with.  Don’t assume pretty pictures tell the whole story—you’re not a failure (we’re not failures!) just because a crop has a bad year.  

Reach out to fellow farmers and gardeners who will understand the pain of pulling tomatoes 3 weeks early.  “There goes $4,000,” one farmer lamented when we were talking tomatoes. I can’t tell you how relieving it was to hear this—not relieving to lose that much revenue, of course, but relieving to be in a crowd who understood.  Ask questions, give condolences, let yourself be condoled.

And when in doubt, just ignore those perfect instagram photos of tomatoes and spend some time in the field instead.  Rows of carrots and lettuce are much better comfort than a tiny screen of tomato photos.

Get perspective.

Organic heirloom tomatoes: how to deal with powdery mildew and aphids
heirloom tomatoes that made it through the powdery mildew

Last week a CSA Member told me she’s loved all the tomatoes in the share(!)

“Do you feel like there’s been enough?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” she said, “I haven’t noticed a lack of tomatoes at all.”

Sometimes we just need some perspective.  I’m so used to being inundated with tomatoes that I didn’t see we still had enough.  Which leads me to asking the question: Am I showing up and seeing the result? Or am I getting lost in the challenge and missing the harvest right in front of me?

Getting lost is inevitable, but asking yourself if you’re showing up in the midst of it all will help see you through.  

We’re pulling the tomatoes, but that means we’re making space for spinach and kale, greens that will feel like gold come February and March.  

Growing food is a long game.  Even the fastest crops take a month or more to go from seed to harvest.  When something doesn’t work, pull it up and plant something new. See it as a sunk cost and move forward.  Yes, it will take months, but that space you clear now will make new growth and bounty possible.  

What comes from challenge and crop loss?  

What comes when we’re willing to look at it up close?  To work with it, clipping mildewed leaves until the decision must be made?  

There’s no hiding from challenge in the greenhouse and vegetable fields.  The only way is to get close, soil stained on your hands, the scent of tomatoes burned in your nose.  Maybe mildew will bloom, maybe flowers will. The only promise is that something will grow—be it tomatoes or yourself, or both.

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