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Managing Tomatoes Pests and Disease Without Using Heavy Chemicals

Tomatoes fight their fair share of pests and diseases and this can seriously affect the amount of fruit they produce. Climatic conditions play a large role in whether the pest or disease is going to become a problem. The best way to manage pest and disease build-up is to practice Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and crop rotation. By using these two methods, you don’t need to rely on heavy chemicals. IPM uses physical/mechanical, biological and chemical controls to manage pests and diseases. Crop rotation falls into the physical/mechanical group, as each season you plant the tomatoes in a different bed.

Viruses, bacteria and fungal diseases can enter the plant through wounds such as broken stems or through the roots, or be carried by sap-sucking insects such as aphids, whiteflies, mites and mealybugs. Pathogens can also be spread by wind and water.

Tomatoes are summer/warm climate crops and are susceptible to fungal diseases that require moist conditions to thrive. The main fungal diseases are wilt and powdery mildew. These diseases are propagated by spores. Ideal conditions are: warm temperatures, moist air and a host plant such as tomato. Spores can also survive in soil, dead plant material and weeds growing nearby.

Illnesses

Signs of wilting are the lower leaves turning brown and papery, drying and drooping, while the top growth still looks healthy. The lower leaves look like they need water. But the disease interferes with the ability of the roots to absorb moisture. Watering actually makes the problem worse.

There are two types of fungus – downy mildew and powdery mildew. Downy mildew is characterized by white spots or patches on the top and bottom of the leaf. The characteristics of powdery mildew are that the fungal spores start as small white dots that gradually spread over the entire leaf. It also affects buds, stems and fruits.

Pest and Disease Control Measures:

  • Buy healthy seeds and seedlings
  • Practice crop rotation
  • Pick up any leaves on the ground and destroy them, do not compost them
  • In winter, spray the soil with Lime Sulfur – it kills fungal spores
  • Do not water from above as this can spread fungal spores
  • Water at ground level
  • Plant grafted tomatoes as they are more resistant to pests and diseases
  • Make sure there is plenty of sunlight
  • Make sure air can circulate around the plants
  • Do not keep feeding plants with nitrogen, it creates soft and tepid leaf growth that is prone to blight
  • Make your own fungicide. See the recipe below.
  • Apply fungicides early in the morning

Fungicide Recipe:Mix one teaspoon of baking soda in one liter of water. Add a quart of skim milk and a pinch of Condy’s Crystals which you can get from a produce agent (someone who supplies horse owners). Shake well and spray over the leaves. It only lasts in the bottle for about 1-2 days.

Blossom-End Rot is a physiological disease caused by a lack of calcium or an excess of nitrogen. As for calcium deficiency, it does not mean that the soil lacks calcium. Calcium may be present in the soil, but the pH may be wrong, preventing the plant from accessing it. Tomatoes like a soil with a pH between 5-7. If your soil pH is acidic and below 5, then the plant may not be able to absorb the calcium. To overcome this problem, application of garden lime is recommended. This will raise the pH of the soil and allow the plant to access the calcium present in the soil. When preparing the soil to plant your tomatoes, a good handful of lime per plant will help.

Parasites

Tomatoes also attract their share of pests such as whitefly, aphids, mealybugs and mites. These are sap-sucking insects and some have the ability to reproduce asexually. This means that the female can produce multiple clones without the male. It is important to control these pests because they can carry viruses and bacterial diseases.

I recommend using a low toxicity spray like Long Life Pyrethrin or garlic or chili spray. These types of sprays are called contact sprays and are easily washed off after rain or watering. They are not absorbed into the plant’s vascular system like systemic sprays such as Confidor. If you read my article Pests and Diseases of Vegetables you will find recipes to make your own pesticides. A sign that your tomato is under attack from sap-sucking insects is that the leaves curl or blister or turn silvery. When applying a contact spray it is important to spray it on the pests so I suggest you look under the leaves as this is where many pests live.

Some cultural tips for growing healthy tomatoes

  • Put the plant in the sun
  • Check the soil pH and amend accordingly if needed
  • Do not over-plant the garden bed
  • Prepare the soil properly before planting with compost, blood and bones, potash and animal manure
  • Put up a shade cloth if the day is going to be extremely hot
  • Water in the morning

The good thing about growing your own tomatoes is that you control the pesticides you apply to them. If you decide to use heavy chemicals then it is vital that you follow the instructions with the holding period. The shelf life is the number of days you have to wait until you can harvest the product.

Growing your own tomatoes is very rewarding, but you have to manage pests and diseases or you will find that your efforts are wasted. Observing and understanding what tomatoes require is the secret to growing healthy tomatoes. Integrated pest management and crop rotation are very valuable tools that, if put into practice, will reward you with delicious tomatoes without using nasty heavy chemicals.

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