All right. I’ve got my ale and my cheese curds. I’m clean and, at last, spore-free. A few more calming breaths, and I’ll be ready to tell you about Late Blight.
It came so quickly into the garden. The West Madison Agricultural Research Garden, where I’m helping out. I heard tell of one tomato farmer who recently destroyed 400 tomato plants. It is a fungus, Phytophthora infestans, that is more usually seen attacking potatoes. It is greatly feared, for it caused the Irish potato famine. It can cause great damage overnight. Tell-tale brownish rings appear on the tomatoes as they die. It can spread as a person picks up the spores on her clothing and moves to the next bed. As we destroyed tomato beds all day we hoped the blight had not infected the plants up the hill. But by the end of the day we learned that it had.
We destroyed tomato beds all day. Most of the tomatoes seemed perfectly fine, the plants lush and sturdy, difficult to pull out of the ground, heavy to lift. So many fine tomatoes laid on the ground. It was obscene. But we knew the blight could spread. A lot of people come through the garden, and then they go back to their own gardens. Who knows where the air could take the spores? Just the other day we were wondering what those curious rings on some tomatoes were. A few plants were totally dead.
The plants were so bountiful that when we picked the fruit each week for the food bank, it seemed like we were getting nowhere, like we were lost in a fertile tomato jungle.
The plants that had died smelled rotten. We cleared all the beds of tomato-matter, even the tiny cherry tomatoes, and hauled the lot to a compost bin a mile away. Men with loaders had dug a hole in the compost, which is mostly manure, for the still-green tomato plants. Steam rose from the hot compost the digging exposed. That was the point. At 160 degrees the fungus would be killed. The smell wafted all the way over to the garden, and everyone hoped these measures would suffice.