When Bad Things Happen to Good Gardens: A Recipe to Cure Garden Angst.

True confession time: I've got a disease.

There. I've said it.

Before my family begins to worry, let me clarify: I have a soil disease. In the garden.

Yes, once again, I'm battling wilt.

Isn't it ironic? I write about the importance of good soil. I preach about good hygiene in the garden. I encourage gardeners to build compost rich, organic beds and to grow plants from reputable seed sources.

Yet, for the second time--I'm battling diseased soil.

We built the raised beds two years ago because of soil troubles. I watched in anguish as my carefully nurtured heirloom babies swiftly succumbed to wilt, and later panicked as the few survivors lost the battle against blight. Once those diseases are in the soil, it can take up to five years before tomatoes or any plant in the Solanaceae family can safely reside in the same spot.

I convinced Peter that the only way to combat the diseases was to build raised beds, where I could carefully monitor and control the soil.


Instead, the soil seems to mock me. "You think you can control me, human? Let's add a little bacterial wilt to your carefully constructed blend of perlite, compost, and peat moss and see how good of a gardener you are! HAHAHA!"

The worst part is...this time, I may have spread the wilt.

Because of the high humidity in South Carolina, as well as the lack of morning sun in the garden, I prune the suckers off the tomato vines to encourage better air flow and to help prevent disease.


However, this year I was extra busy. I took shortcuts. Instead of cleaning my clippers between plant prunings, I forged on, determined to finish my task while I still had a bit of daylight.

Seriously? I know better. I tell gardeners not to play Russian roulette with plant health.

So, the Gods of Humility decided to pay a visit to the garden.

The next day, every tomato plant in bed 4 looked droopy. Do you know the look? The plant appears that it hasn't been watered in two weeks. To add to the fun, there are three diseases that can cause this sight: bacterial wilt, fusarium wilt, or the lovely southern stem blight.

With bacterial wilt, you don't see yellowing of the leaves as you do with fusarium wilt. Instead, the pith of the stem of a plant infected with bacterial wilt will be reddish brown several inches above the soil line. Fusarium wilt shows up on one side of the plant, turning the leaves yellow and affecting older leaves first. The vascular tissues inside the affected branches are yellow or reddish brown. With southern stem blight, a white, moldy growth appears on the main stem at the soil line.

Regardless of which of these three diseases shows up on the tomato plant, the plant is on death row.

I hope you never see a droopy tomato plant in your garden.

Still feeling stupidly hopeful, I felt the soil, sticking my finger an inch down at the roots. It was moist. Not overly wet, definitely not dry. Maybe they just had a little shock from the pruning, I tried to convince myself.

The next day, every plant in the bed showed signs of imminent demise.

Now, I panicked. I didn't want insects to spread the disease to the other tomato beds, so it was time for drastic measures.

With trash bag in my disposable-rubber-gloved hands, I carefully yanked each diseased plant out of bed 4, making sure they didn't touch any other plants, and put them immediately into the plastic bag. Once you have diseased plants, you definitely don't want them infecting your compost pile.

The lovely thing is--not only can the disease linger in the soil, it can also cling to your tomato supports. Time to remove those as well. It's also time to disinfect anything that came into contact with those diseased plants--clippers, garden gloves, plant markers, trowels...everything.

Then, it was time for Plan B.

I went shopping.

I'd decided to try an experiment. While I'm an heirloom afficionado, I'm also a realist. I can't imagine a summer without homegrown tomatoes. Because I also no longer know how to start only enough tomatoes for a home garden and not a nursery, I had plenty of heirloom plants still in trays by the greenhouse. I bought bagged organic garden soil with the intention to plant them in Grow Bags and every large container I could find at home.

And then I purchased several hybrid Bonnie Plants.

I'd met several Bonnie Plants folks at P. Allen Smith's Garden2Blog event, and Allen's organic garden is filled with Bonnie Plants.

For anyone who needs clarification: hybrid does NOT equal GMO. Hybrids are simply the cross of two parents, which can happen in the wild. GMOs are an entirely different story. If you'd like more information, you can read it here.

I love heirlooms. I do. I adore their weird, crazy colors and wacky shapes. I crave their flavors. I'm still determined to eat heirloom tomatoes all summer.

I filled ten Grow Bags with soil and planted some of the remaining heirloom tomato plants I started from seed in the spring. Granted, they're leggy from their home in the trays, but I planted them deeply to encourage root growth along the stems. I'll stake them this week. I've also tucked some additional heirlooms into the front perennial beds, as well as planted some more in containers with herbs--away from the back kitchen garden.

But, in case the garden gods decide to keep testing my fortitude, I've also planted a bed of Bonnie Plants hybrids known for their disease resistance. And, as a real test, I planted two extra Bonnie Plants hybrids in the bed with the diseased soil. It seems a little unfair to those poor plants, but I really want to see how much a hybrid can tolerate regarding soil borne disease.

Now, we wait.

In the meantime, thank goodness for farmers' markets.

While tomatoes still haven't appeared in our CSA share or at the market, the South Carolina peaches are divine. After the depressing task of ripping out the diseased plants I nurtured from seeds, I decided to drown my garden angst in peach sangria.

A very good decision.

South Carolina Peach Sangria

2 (750 ml) bottles white wine. (I chose fruity Moscato, because I liked the bit of crispness it provides.)
3/4 cup triple sec
3/4 cup peach-flavored vodka
1 tbsp. sugar
6 large ripe peaches
20+ grapes
20 or so strawberries (I used strawberries frozen from our garden this spring, which chilled it nicely without diluting the wine.)

  1. Peel and slice peaches into 1/3-inch segments. Place in bowl and sprinkle with sugar.
  2. Pour triple sec and vodka over peaches. Allow to soak for 10 minutes.
  3. Pour bowl of peaches and liquor into 2 gallon pitcher.
  4. Add remaining fruit and wine. Stir well.
  5. For best flavor, allow sangria to sit in refrigerator for 8 hours. However, if you've had an angst-filled day in the garden, immediate consumption is recommended. Trust me. It will make you happy.

I hope your garden is lush and lovely, but if you're experiencing any garden woes, pull up a chair and pour yourself a glass of sangria, and we can cheer each other.