The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

Growing your own tomatoes and coping with blight

tomato seedlingsEach year we marvel when the first tomato seedlings appear. It’s hard to believe that they should grow into sturdy plants almost as tall as me and provide us with pounds and pounds of fruit.

Out of 80 potential finalists, only forty will make it to the next round. Usually we end up with around thirty plants. These make up the cast of our grand tomato opera. A few divas and supporting roles and at least twenty less showy plants that make up the chorus. The main cast bask against the sunny side of the cottage and the rest are in the sunniest parts of the kitchen garden. The ones in the front garden do the best, with the combination of the warmth of the old cottage walls and sun all afternoon. Last year, all the understudies that were waiting in the greenhouse came into their own as some of our plants succumbed to blight.

We managed to keep tomato blight at bay without using any chemicals. This was a painstaking task and we probably harvested just 30% of our expected yield. We eventually lost six complete plants until I twigged that if I removed leaves and secondary stems that were affected (including flowering ones) I could keep the blight at bay. There were several prolonged rainy stretches with conditions that farmers refer to as ‘Smith’ periods. This is when the minimum temp is 10º C or higher and at least 11 hours each day when relative humidity is more than 90%. Forecasts are available here (the same blight hits tomatoes and potatoes). This organic site has loads of facts on blight.

During these ‘Smith’ periods, I peered miserably out of the cottage windows at the continuous rain, hoping that our plants would not keel over and succumb to the dreaded blight.

Blight appears to happen overnight to the uninitiated. In fact there are subtle signs for quite some time before. Blackish brownish spots appear on the leaves and branches before moving to the main stems. Infected leaves and side shoots need to be removed at the first sign of infestation. Once the main stems are affected you are in trouble. It’s worth boning up on the signs early in the season to avoid the devastation of losing your entire crop

Last summer many people contributed comments to our tomato blight post. It became a mini forum for a while and the comments section is packed with interesting tips and tricks from using chemicals to a solution of Bordeaux Mixture that is acceptable in an organic environment. Quite a few people returned to report their progress with a range of cures. Many people found the post when they had lost their crop and were searching for the reasons why.

Looking at our vulnerable seedlings, I hope that this summer will be long and hot with just enough rain to give each plant what it needs in terms of sunshine and showers. We do water and feed our operatic cast as well.

If we had had a long cold winter I would be feeling more relaxed. Hard continuous frost kills the blight spores. A mild winter means that the spores are alive and will become active as soon as the right conditions happen. Blight spores are airborne and can travel for miles.

So I’m looking into prevention rather than a cure this year. I am tempted to treat our tomato beds and eventually our plants with a weak solution of Bordeaux Mixture. I am also going to raise some in large pots in the greenhouse (my neighbour had great success with his last year). I always spray the inside of the greenhouse with Citrox (environmentally friendly) in the spring to kill any bugs.

This year we are growing:

  • Ailsa Craig (they put up a stalwart fight against the blight and produced a good crop last year.
  • Sungold, a sweet, small, orange delight – packed with flavour. We missed them last year.
  • Sweet Olive (Rolls Royce price at £2.99 for 10 seeds). We haven’t tasted these before but they looked tempting I didn’t check the amount of seeds that were in the pack until I had ripped open the fairy light, airtight pack inside. They had better be good as they are replacing Gardener’s Delight.
  • Finally we have tried a beefsteak tomato, Legend. We grew this last year and it survived the blight.

We are way behind in the garden this year but things always seem to catch up! If this happens a heated propagator really comes in handy. Ours is a cheap, basic one but our tomato seeds germinated in 3 days. Now aubergine seeds have filled the next slot. By Sunday, sweet peas will be next in a long line of seeds that could do with a helping hand.

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  1. we just got blight on our tomatoes on our allotment all 22 plants -so depressing just had to pull them up and bag the damned things to destroy them.what with the pigeons eating the cabbages we would so love to find a blight resistant crop-as once 1 person gets it we all get it – a bit like a summer cold really.Bloody english summers !!

  2. Fiona Nevile

    Hello Michelle

    Discard any that are black or look bruised (I’d burn these so as not to spread the fungal infection). Any that look OK are fine to eat.

  3. Michelle Gottler

    After some research on the internet Ive worked out my tomatoes have blight.Is it safe to eat the fruit?

  4. Jenny

    I have a couple of spare sungold plants. I am in Warwickshire, if thats close enough for you to collect them. Also have spare Ferline, Shirley and brandywine

  5. Fiona Nevile

    Hello Kate(uk)

    Great advice. Thank you so much for adding to the site!

  6. Kate(uk)

    Check your local Horticultural/Gardening/Allotment Society, many have plant sales at this time of year and you could find some sungold plants there if you can’t find seeds-also, give Chiltern Seeds a try ( they have a website).

  7. Fiona Nevile

    Hello David

    Unfortunately I don’t grow vegetables commercially so can’t help you out. The seed tend to sell out very quickly in the garden centres so you need to be looking for them Jan/Feb next year to grow your own.

    It might be worth ringing round the garden centres in your area. They might have grown some for sale and still have plants available.

    Good luck with your search!

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