Q&A: Beat the Tomato pest of the south

Question: I live in the Fort Myers, Fla., area (southwest Florida). I have lived in this area in three different houses for many years. I continue in all the gardens to have the same problem. When I grow tomatoes, It doesn’t matter what kind, they grow well for a while, start to produce fruit, and then the leaves start to brown and wither from the bottom up. The plant stops producing and eventually dies an early death. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fall garden or a spring garden and it doesn’t matter how many letters are after the name (vfntt)—they all seem to do it. This is an area that produces a lot of tomatoes commercially, so I must be doing something wrong—a deficiency or something.

Second question—at this new location I seem to have a lot of root-knot nematodes. Is there anything I can do to get rid of them?—M.S., Fort Myers, FL

Answer: It seems as though your first and second question may be interlinked, as the root-knot nematode is extremely troublesome in the south—and to the health of tomatoes.

It is very well possible that it has claimed the lives of your tomatoes, despite moving from house to house. This microscopic worm lays its eggs within the roots, leaving swellings that are visible. Overall, their presence deteriorates the general health of the tomato, which could explain all of the symptoms you mentioned above. As the infestation increases (a females can lay up to 2,000 eggs), so does the amount of damage to the plant (eventually killing it), according to the Entomology & Nematology Department at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida.

Unfortunately, nematode management is a pre-plant consideration, requiring action before next year’s growing season. Commercial growers in the area with a nematode problem surely take precautions to ensure a healthy crop. Battling the root-knot nematode may involve chemical control that can better be explained by your County Extension Office for your area. Crop rotation and fallowing the planting area are cultural recommendations by the University of Florida.

I’ve also read in “American Tomato: The Complete Guide to Growing and Using Tomatoes” that African Marigolds planted near the tomatoes will help repel the pests a year after planting with a substance from their roots. Sugar also is said to kill nematodes. Wild or mock cucumbers or the water that asparagus is cooked in are also said to repel nematodes when placed around the tomato plants or poured over the soil.

Or, if you have yet to try, there are nematode-resistant varieties of tomatoes on the market. Best of luck battling these pests, as nothing should stand between you and a plump, juicy tomato.

Strange growth, no blooms or are you wondering the best way to transplant? Just ask, and the Horticulture editorial team will take a stab at answering your ailment or query. E-mail edit@hortmag.com

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