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Treating Common Tomato Problems with Organic Solutions
Basic Organic Cures for Disease:
Healthy microbes are the first line of defense against pathogens. Soil that is rich in healthy bacteria will crowd out unwanted germs. Bacteria in the soil perform a wide variety of useful tasks – from aerating the earth and breaking down dead material into nutrients to converting atmospheric nitrogen into fertilizer and even breaking down toxic chemicals.
In addition to plant extracts and essential oils, organic gardening often incorporates these beneficial bacteria and fungi to treat pests and diseases. Bacteria in the soil help plants get more “oomph” from the existing nutrients, and some bacteria will also kill off unwanted insects. For more information on microbial pesticides, check out the ATTRA page on Integrated Pest Management.
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One way to introduce healthy microbes into the soil is to use compost as a fertilizer. Compost contains dozens of different kinds of bacteria, and they will replicate and spread in the right conditions. Another way to introduce helpful bacteria is to spray compost tea over the lawn or garden. Spraying before sunrise is best, because UV light can kill helpful bacteria before they soak into the soil. Compost tea can be used as preventative “medicine”, or it can be used once a problem shows up.
Other organic cures include sodium bicarbonate, hydrogen peroxide, and foliar fertilizers. These natural treatments are effective, inexpensive, and, unlike inorganic chemicals, they leave very few residual traces. Hydrogen peroxide is particularly effective against leaf blight – dilute hydrogen peroxide with water, spray over the leaves, and the blight will go away. There are many other organic fertilizers and organic pest control products.
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There are several organic treatments available for harmful fungal infections. Many incorporate copper and sulfur to disrupt fungal spores without harming plants. Copper-based products are particularly effective for early blight, late blight, bacterial spot, septoria leaf mold, septoria leaf spot, anthracnose, and gray leaf mold. Sulfur works best on powedery mildew, early and light blight, and Psyllids. It’s important to avoid applying either sulfur or copper sprays in full sunlight, because this can “burn” the leaves.
Treatments without copper or sulfur are also effective. For example, the potassium phosphate in milk is a powerful natural fungicide. Skim milk works better than whole milk, because it is less likely to clump or clog a sprayer. Certain ground up mineral deposits also work very well – potassium bicarbonate deposits are naturally occurring and can stop the spread of fungus when used as a foliar spray. When in doubt about how to treat your tomatoes, ask the experts. The Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service (CSREES) has many helpful people who can recommend organic solutions to any tomato issue.
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Organic cures for moisture problems:
Tomatoes are very sensitive to moisture. Too much moisture or too little water can cause fungal and bacterial problems. If the soil moisture is irregular in your garden, drip irrigation may be the key to keeping your leaves dry and protecting roots from rot. Drip irrigation systems are also much more water efficient than sprinkler systems.
Mulch is a key tool for preventing water problems. Mulch acts like a sponge, holding water right by the roots of plants. It also moderates temperature swings, keeping the ground cooler during the day and warmer at night (also, warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer). Mulch also has the fringe benefit of suppressing weeds and will eventually break down into fertilizer. Mulch can also help pull moisture out of the air by collecting dew and providing a habitat for helpful mycorrhizal fungi.
If your tomatoes are suffering from malnutrition or heat sensitivity, adding mycorrhizal fungi to the soil can help without any additional fertilizer or watering. Unlike other types of fungus, mycorrhizal fungi are good neighbors for plants. They form a symbiotic relationship with more than 95% of plant species. These helpful fungi live in the soil and help store water and extract nutrients from the dirt. Colonies of endomycorrhizae extend the reach and efficiency of roots; they act like a secondary root systems and they funnel extra nutrients and water to plants.
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