Unpacking a Peck of Purple Genetically Engineered Tomatoes

Excitement spread across social media recently with the announcement that a genetically engineered tomato, creatively named “The Purple Tomato” is now available for home gardeners. Gardeners, plant scientists, and others rejoiced at the news that a purple tomato engineered with genes from a snapdragon to boost the plant pigment anthocyanin is now available for home gardeners to purchase. But why were people so excited? And what does this mean?

The Purple Tomato: What is it and why is it exciting and important?

The Purple Tomato was developed by a company called Norfolk Healthy Produce. The company was founded by Professor Cathie Martin (and other scientists) who is a professor at the University of East Anglia and a group leader at the John Innes Centre in the UK. On February 6, 2024 they announced that seeds were available to home gardeners in the US after clearing regulatory approval hurdles by the USDA, EPA, and FDA to assure that it is safe for human consumption, for growth in US without safety containment measures, and that it does meet its claims of added nutrients. Read more about the US regulatory process here.

For all the tomato aficionados out there, The Purple Tomato is an indeterminate cherry tomato. Indeterminate means that the plant doesn’t stop growing as long as it is healthy and will produce a “vine” that needs to be staked or trellised off the ground. Production of fruits continues throughout the season starting at the bottom of the plant and going up as long as it is healthy.  Of course, it is a cherry tomato so you’ll have hundreds or thousands of tiny fruits to pick through the season. Some gardeners love growing cherry tomatoes. Others hate it for that fact. So you win some, you lose some.

Read more on indeterminate vs. determinate here.

The tomato contains two genes from snapdragon flowers that boost anthocyanin production in the tomatoes. Anthocyanins are the plant pigments responsible for blue and blue-purple colors in plants. And they are shared across all plants with these blue and blue-purple colors, so the addition of purple pigments from a flower isn’t too out of the ordinary since tomatoes already contain similar pigments. (The reddish violet/crimson color of plants in the Amaranthaceae family (beets, amaranth, chard) are from betalin pigments, not anthocyanins, FYI.) Most plant pigments actually have the added bonus of also being highly beneficial for human health as most of them are antioxidants and have other health benefits. The incorporation of anthocyanins boost the nutrient quality of tomato since anthocyanins are considered strong antioxidants. Studies also implicate anthocyanins in reducing blood pressure and heart disease, preventing neurological disease, and slowing cancer growth due to the reduction of free radicals that can damage DNA.

Source: Overview of Plant Pigments, Springer

Now, anthocyanins in tomatoes are not new. Many hybrid and heirloom varieties of tomatoes contain anthocyanins. The tomatoes that already contain anthocyanins are the tomatoes that are often considered “purple” or “black” by seed companies and home gardeners. Like ‘Cherokee Purple’, ‘Black Beauty’, and ‘Black Krim’. However, the anthocyanins in these tomatoes are generally found in low quantities as they are only found in the skin and or the flesh just under the skin. What makes “The Purple Tomato” novel is that it is the only tomato that has the anthocyanin pigment in both the skin and throughout the tomato. Seeing pictures of the tomato, the vibrant purple color goes through the entire tomato and is striking. (It also doesn’t hurt that purple is my favorite color). Due to this purple color throughout the tomato, the fruits have a much higher concentration of anthocyanins than existing cultivars.

Another thing that excites me about The Purple Tomato is that the company claims that is an inbred/open pollinated variety. Meaning that home gardeners can save the seeds from year to year and the anthocyanin traits will continue to be present. This also signals a departure from normal genetically engineered seeds where the traits aren’t as persistent and seed saving isn’t allowed. The company does have some terms and conditions about not selling seeds (from the ones you buy or likely from any you save) and not using them to breed other varieties. But gardeners are free to save seeds and share fruits, plants, and seeds with your local community.

“GMOs” and home gardening

Despite what many people may think, until the release of this tomato there really weren’t any genetically engineered plants available to home gardeners. This marks the first time that a plant has received approval from the US government agencies that control the release of genetically engineered plant for sales directly to home gardeners. Most of the genetically engineered plants have been developed for and are available only to commodity crop (corn, soy, cotton, etc.) and select horticultural crop (papaya, some select squashes, and now Arctic apple) farmers. There’s a highly regulated process and contract procedure for farmers to obtain the seeds or plants that just isn’t practical or cost-effective for the plant developers to market to or make seeds for home gardeners.

Source: UC Davis Biotechnology Program

We’ve written several times about how, until now, there really hasn’t been genetically engineered seeds available to home gardeners, despite what some seed companies would have you believe (here and here). There has unfortunately been a lot of confusion for home gardeners thanks to misguided and/or deceptive marketing practices by certain (heirloom) seed companies that labeled their “Non-GMO certified” seeds and preached about the dangers of genetic engineering to sell more of their seeds even though there have not (until now) been any “GMO” seeds available for companies to even sell to home gardeners. Unfortunately that deceptive marketing created enough fear and fervor that most seed companies had to start labeling their seeds “Non-GMO” just to preserve their sales and cut down on harassment from folks on social media trying to “call them out” for selling GMO seeds.

Not until the release of “The Purple Tomato” has there been a home garden seed that could be labeled “GMO” and warrant companies needing to label something as non-GMO. But still it is only one plant, so is it really necessary? Or is it just a marketing tactic?

Purple Tomato Reception

In cruising through the comment section on articles discussing the new tomato, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see the positive response that it is receiving from the public. There are lots of comments excited about the prospect of a nutrient-dense genetically engineered crop, lots of excitement about buying the seed, and even excitement about the super purple color of the tomato. The few negative comments about GMOs being “bad” have gotten a lot of pushback. I don’t think this would have happened 5 or 10 years ago.

Of course, some of the pushback is a little misguided. Statements like “all plants are GMO” show a similar lack of understanding of what is actually happening, even though it is offered in good faith. Yes, humanity has guided and shaped the genetics of all of the plants we eat over the centuries and many plants have therefore been “genetically modified” by humans. But genetic engineering is a more rigorous and scientific process. This is also one of the reasons why scientists and government agencies prefer the term “genetically engineered” or “bioengineered” to GMO or genetically modified to clear up confusion.

It does seem like the tide has shifted on public acceptance of genetic engineering where until recently many people viewed the technology with skepticism and fear, thanks mainly to misunderstanding and marketing.

Much of the fear and distrust of genetically engineered plants have been around the addition of genes to make crops resistant to certain herbicides, to produce natural immunity to insects, and other traits to increase yields. Many have wrongly assumed or claimed that this has resulted in increased application of herbicides. While application of some herbicides like glyphosate has increased, it has been at the reduction of much more dangerous herbicides. These crops have often been developed and controlled by large chemical companies that, perhaps not totally incorrectly, the general public distrusts. Plus, unintended consequences like herbicide resistant weeds have caused issues.

But the new Purple Tomato goes beyond this and I think is applauded for many reasons. One – it was made solely to boost nutrition. While there have been previous (mostly unsuccessful) efforts to do this in crops (see the story of Golden Rice), this is really the first time it has been aimed at home gardeners. Two – it isn’t one of those “big scary corporations” doing it. It is a company started by academics to promote plant science and health. Three – while the plants are patented, there aren’t strict and secretive agreements against seed saving and sharing. And four – the express purpose of the plant is to increase the healthy qualities of the plant.

In conclusion

It seems like many people are excited about this new genetically engineered tomato on the market. I know that I am. It seems like the public at large is accepting and excited by this new health-boosted tomato and the technology used to make it.

I know I’ve ordered my seeds, and many others have as well. The seeds aren’t cheap, $20 for 10, but the process to make them isn’t cheap either. I’m looking forward to trying them out in my own garden.

Disclaimer: No payment or reward was received for this article promoting the Purple Tomato and I have no affiliation with the company. Norfolk Healthy Produce didn’t even know it was being written. They probably don’t even know who the Garden Professors are and they definitely don’t know who I am. That being said, if they want to reach out with some free seeds or swag, I wouldn’t be mad at them.

Shoveling the Artificial CRAP: Navigating Gardening Un-Intelligence in the age of AI

Like it or not, the use of AI (Artificial Intelligence) has become a part of our daily lives. While you might not use AI directly (or you don’t know that you do) it is now a common part of society, especially in the online world. Many people, sites, can companies use it to create content. It is part of the “smart” gadgets that we use at home. Map software (like Google Maps), search engines, ride share apps, and even the spam filter on your email all use AI. You’re even more likely to encounter AI on social media and even standard media these days, with it being used to write articles and text, create ads, and images.

We know that there’s no getting around it these days. You’ve probably heard stories about how AI provides incorrect information, steals content, or might help the robots overthrow humanity today. While it seems to be the wild, wild west, there are a few (voluntary) safeguards in place now to prevent the overthrow of humanity (I hope).  Where the real damage is right now is the use of AI to mislead people outright. There’s also some danger from just lazy use of AI where whoever is using it to create content just copies and pastes it verbatim without checking what it actually says.

Gardening misinformation on the internet is nothing new. Gardening misinformation before the internet is nothing new either. But the risk that AI poses is the amplification and multiplication of that information. It is now easier than ever for someone to create online content at the click of a button. And the way that AI works is it scours the internet for existing information to learn how to respond. This new(ish) generation of AI is generative, meaning that it can actually put together information to form something new. Previously, if you did an internet search you would just get a list of websites to read for information. Now AI can use those sites as source material and write the information in a new way – however you prompt it to do. Search engines like Microsoft’s Bing (the much-loathed replacement for the archaic Internet “Exploder”) now have AI built in as a feature. AI is only as smart as what it can learn on the internet, and we all know that while there is good information on the web it is also full of a lot of manure.

Identifying Artificial Gardening Information

First, how can you tell if it is AI generated?  At first glance you might not be able to tell. It is just like any writing. There are tools you can use to try to figure it out, but you’ll often find that writing from AI doesn’t have personality. It is often very dry. You can tell it to add humor or any other style to its writing, but it often misses the mark. When I asked ChatGPT (one of the common AI platforms) to add humor to something it sounded like I was trying to be cutesy, like an employee at the famous park in the swamps of Orlando run by a mouse and not my usual wit, sarcasm, and cynicism. AI often fails to see context and answers are often very black and white. Which doesn’t work in dynamic systems like gardening and the environment. AI therefore sticks a lot with generalities and doesn’t often provide a lot of specific information unless you ask for it.

As an example, I prompted ChatGPT to write “three sentences about seed starting”. Here’s what it spit out:

1.Starting seeds is a crucial and exciting step in the gardening journey, allowing individuals to cultivate a diverse range of plants from the very beginning.
To initiate successful seed germination, it's essential to provide the right conditions, including proper soil moisture, adequate light, and appropriate temperatures tailored to the specific needs of each plant variety.
Patience is key when starting seeds, as the process requires careful monitoring and nurturing until the seedlings are strong and ready for transplantation into the garden or larger containers.

Nothing alarming there, but it is pretty dry and isn’t very informative. It isn’t what I would write. Now, I prompted it to rewrite those sentences, but to add “humor and wit”. This is what it vomited out:

Embarking on the seed-starting adventure is like launching a tiny plant spaceship into the garden galaxy – a small step for seeds, a giant leap for your green ambitions!
Think of starting seeds as playing matchmaker for your plants, introducing them to the perfect conditions for a successful germination romance – a cozy soil bed, a flirtation with sunlight, and a temperature that says, "I'm hot for you, seedlings!"
Growing plants from seeds is a bit like raising the green equivalent of toddlers – they demand attention, throw tantrums if the conditions aren't just right, and you'll find yourself wondering if they've developed personalities before you know it!

Vomit, indeed. Though still nothing too alarming. Definitely too cute and not enough snark.

Where AI generated text falls short is that it incorporates some of that incorrect manure from the web in answers. It doesn’t know that information on the web is incorrect. A few times it told me to put rocks in the bottom of pots for drainage (something we’ve fiercely disproven time and time again).

It told me to practice companion planting (another fallacy we’ve taken on) but it never gave me a lot of details about how to do it.

I did ask it directly about biodynamic gardening, which is the pinnacle of garden misinformation. It gave an amazingly nuanced and diplomatic response, which is much closer to what I’d actually say and much nicer than what GP founder Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott would say. (Don’t tell her I said that).

“Biodynamic gardening is a holistic approach that considers the interconnectedness of plants, animals, and the environment. While some gardeners find it beneficial for promoting sustainability and soil health, its importance depends on individual preferences and beliefs. Biodynamic practices often involve using lunar cycles and special preparations. If you value a holistic and spiritual approach to gardening, incorporating biodynamic principles might align with your preferences. However, it's not essential for every gardener, and many successful gardens thrive with conventional organic practices.”

So, nothing too earth shattering in text, but where I think the real risk lies is in AI generated images and videos. It is easier than ever to create images of things that aren’t possible or incorrect and pass them off as real. People often do this to drive traffic – by making wild claims that people must check out or by “rage baiting” people who just have to respond to tell people how wrong something is (it still drives engagement and earns money). 

Fake images are nothing new in the gardening world. I can’t tell you how many ads I’ve seen for magical rainbow-colored rose seeds, trees that grow 10 kinds of fruits, and more all before the advent of AI. But now it is easier than ever to create those images at the click of a button.

For an example, I turned to DALL-E, which is a common AI Image generator. I tried to think of things that wouldn’t be possible. My first prompt was “monarch butterfly on a snow-covered flower”. Something that isn’t possible, but that someone might create to make a social media post about something amazing or miraculous that people have to see to believe.

The results look realistic(is) enough, though improbable. But you’d have to know that to not believe it.

Image generated using DALL-E with prompt: monarch butterfly on a snow covered flower

The second test, not so much: “realistic looking tree that has 15 different types of fruits and veggies growing on it”. I had to add the “realistic” because the first results were cartoon-y. It didn’t help much. So, I guess my magical 15 fruit and veggie tree won’t be coming to an online scam shop any time soon.

Image generated using DALL-E with prompt: realistic looking tree that has 15 different types of fruits and veggies growing on it

So, I moved on and created “a grape vine covered with scary looking bugs”.

Image generated with DALL-E with prompt: a grape vine covered with scary looking bugs

At first glance, the result can look terrifying. But if you inspect it closely, you’ll see that those bugs have all kinds of legs coming from all over their bodies. Scary, yes, but realistic – no. But could someone do something like this to scare people about an invading insect? Absolutely!

Cutting through the Artificial CRAP

GP Founder Dr. Linda C-S has written about using the CRAP test to identify if a source of information is trustworthy. She used it to talk about Jerry Baker, the self-appointed “America’s Master Gardener” who peddled misinformation and garden snake-oil for decades through books and tv shows to earn big bucks. The same principles can be applied now to digital content created by AI to help figure out if the information is reliable. Here are the steps:

C = credibility. What are the credentials of the person or organization presenting the information? Are they actual experts? Or is it a random account that doesn’t have ties to a credible source? Does the source have academic training, or even practical knowledge?

R = relevant. Is the information relevant for home gardeners? Or does it try to use information other than home gardening, like production agriculture, to answer the questions. For AI, especially images, I could also say that R= realistic. Is it something that could actually be true, or is it a monarch butterfly covered in snow?

A = accuracy. This could lend itself to the realistic assertion, but I see this as more in accuracy of the source of information. Does it site sources, like journal articles, extension publications, USDA reports, etc.? And does the information follow along with trusted information from other sources?

P = purpose. Why is someone presenting this information? In the Jerry Baker example, he was raking in money with books, TV shows, and product promotions. But what benefit does someone get from posting incorrect info on the web? Also, money. Whether you give them a dime, most social media sites and websites generate income by the number of clicks or viewers they have. How do you think people get rich and famous from TikTok? People aren’t paying them to watch them, but they generate income from engagement and interaction. So, creating content that is fanciful to get people to check it out, or even wrong for people to interact with it to rail against it, creates income.

Is all AI bad?

Not necessarily. I mean, the technology is applied in so many ways to solve so many problems. Sure, there is a risk and people do misuse it. But AI can be a powerful and useful tool when used appropriately, when information is checked, and when it isn’t copied and pasted directly. For example. Over most of 2023 I wrote a series of GP articles about plant diseases. No, I didn’t have AI write the article. That would have been wrong. But I did ask my friend ChatGPT to create lists of common diseases for each type of disease to write about. Instead of me having to dig through social media to see what people were asking about, the platform searched to see what the most common diseases that people talked or asked about were, or which ones were most likely to show up on websites. But I took that list, added to it, subtracted from it, and then wrote the article myself. But the more unethical (and lazy) users of AI just copy what it says verbatim without even reading or editing for accuracy. Or even have automated systems that just crank out AI-generated content with no oversight.

In the end, AI isn’t going away. So as savvy gardeners we just have to know what to look for to “spot the bot”.  And always be ready with a shovel to scoop away the CRAP.

Plant Disease Primer Part 5: Malicious Misfits

Over the last several months, I’ve covered plant disease basics and discussed plant diseases caused by fungi, bacteria, and viruses. In this fifth and final installment, I’m going to talk about diseases caused by anything but those three different agents. There are a few diseases caused by pathogens that fall outside of those well-known classifications. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good start to show you just what is out there. Where applicable, I’ll be discussing signs and symptoms of the disease, potential control or prevention efforts, and dive a little deeper into describing the actual causal agent. 

First and foremost, some of the diseases I’m sharing might have already been covered in one of my previous installments. The reason for this is that for simplicity’s sake we often lump diseases caused by these “different” pathogens in with a causal agent that they’re similar or related to or evolved from.  It makes describing these things simpler to the general public. But in this chapter, it is my hope to describe and explore just how these things are different as a lesson in how marvelous, interesting, and varied the world is around us.

Phantom Phytoplasmas

Phytoplasmas are single-celled organisms often lumped in with bacteria, seeing as they are actually descended from bacteria. However, phytoplasmas have lost the cell wall that gives bacteria their shape. Phytoplasmas can therefore change shape in response to their environment and to fit in their surroundings better than bacteria which retain shapes like spherical (cocci), rod (bacilli), and spiral (spirilla).

Since they don’t have the protection of a cell wall, phytoplasmas cannot live outside of a host organism and are considered obligate symbiotes. In the case of a plant parasite, it is either the phloem cells of a plant or the gut of an insect vector. Bacteria, on the other hand, are free-living and can exist in the environment and can move between hosts without the aid of a vector insect.

The best known phytoplasma plant diseases are the yellows, with Aster Yellows being the best known. Yellows diseases get their names because plants or plant parts often turn yellow. They become stunted and can develop mis-formed or misshapen parts. Witches brooming, where many twigs, branches, or flowers develop from one point (which can look like a broom) is common. In aster yellows, misshapen and discolored flowers are common. It affects over 300 species, but coneflower, asters, zinnia, and marigolds are common sufferers. In Ash Yellows, ash trees develop unusual leaf growths and witches’ brooms throughout the tree.

Unusual floral growth as a result of aster yellows Source: Douglas/Sarpy Extension – Nebraska

Phytoplasmas require an insect vector, and in the case of yellows, like Aster Yellows, the culprit is a tiny leaf hopper. For Ash Yellows, spittlebugs may also be carriers in addition to leaf hoppers. Since there isn’t a treatment, infection by yellows phytoplasmas can be permanently effective or fatal. The stunting and yellowing will eventually cause a decline in tree health. For herbaceous perennials suffering from Aster Yellows there is no way to revert back to normal blooms. The only way to reduce the likelihood of spread to other plants is removal of whole plants and it can often be too-little-too-late as leafhoppers spread quickly from plant to plant and infection in other plants often occurs prior to noticeable symptoms in nearby origin plants.

Ash tree exhibiting overall decline and witches brooming from Ash Yellows. Source: Missouri Botanical Garden

Vicious Viroids

In part 4 of this series, we discussed plant viruses and how devastating they are to plants. Viroids are also very destructive disease-causing agents and, like viruses, cannot be cured. Viroids are non-living agents, just like viruses, and are even simpler. Where viruses are genetic material (DNA or RNA) surrounded by a protein coat, viroids are just simple strands of pathogenic RNA without a coat. These circular, single-stranded RNA molecules do not encode any proteins and rely on the host cells for replication.

Viroid symptoms include stunting, misshapen growth, leaf abnormalities, and reduced yield. It is possible for some plants to be asymptomatic while being infected and providing a source of viroids to infect other nearby plants.

Viroids can spread to plants in similar ways to viruses, through transmission on dirty tools, propagation from infected plant materials, on seeds, through touch. There is some evidence that viroids can spread through insect vectors like aphids, which is not common for viral diseases. Prevention relies on good sanitation like cleaning tools, planting disease-free and certified cuttings and seeds, and quarantine of new plants that could be infected.

Common viroid diseases include:

Potato Spindle Tuber Disease (PSTVd)

Common Symptoms: stunted growth, deformed potato tubers, yield reduction

Deformed potato tubers with PSTVd. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Chrysanthemum Stunt Viroid (CSVd)

Common Symptoms: stunting, spotted leaves, poor rooting, flower color change, disruption of photoperiod response for flower initiation. It is one of the biggest threats to the chrysanthemum production industry.

Effects of CSVd on florist chrysanthemum. Source: invasive.org

Oafish Oomycetes

While many still lump oomycetes in with fungi, many scientists consider them to be a distinct group because they have a number of differences. One common name for this group is “water mold” because of their preference for wet environments and their mold-like appearance. While they do absorb nutrients and produce mycelia like fungi, there are differences in their composition, genetics, and reproduction. The biggest difference is the production of oospores, which are thick-walled reproductive spores that can rest, or hibernate, for extended periods of time in unfavorable conditions and “germinate” when conditions are favorable for the organism to grow and reproduce. Another difference is the composition of its cell walls. Fungi cell walls are composed of chitin, which is the same chemical that gives hardness to the exoskeleton of insects. Oomycete cell walls are composed of cellulose and beta glucans (polysaccharides that make soluble fibers).

While late blight of potatoes Phytophthora infestans is often called a fungus (and I discussed it in the fungus installment), it is technically an oomycete. The same with downy mildews of various species (Plasmopara) and blights caused by Pythium spp.. One of the more devastating oomycete diseases is Sudden Oak Death Phytophthora ramorum, which as it sounds, is responsible for the sudden death of plants. But many are now calling it Ramorum blight because it effects way more plants than just oak (Rhododendron, Viburnum, Camellia, Azalea, blueberries, Douglas fir, lilacs, and mountain laurel to name a few). Early symptoms of Sudden Oak Death include foliage dieback, leaf discoloration and water-soaked lesions, shoot and twig dieback. As the disease progresses, trees develop cankers that ooze or bleed dark colored sap and eventually decline and die. There is no treatment or cure for sudden oak death and prevention relies on good sanitation and abiding by quarantine regulations.

Oozing oak canker from Ramorum Blight/Sudden Oak Death. Source: Ohio State University Extension
Water soaked lesion on Rhododendron caused by Ramorum Blight. Source: UMD Extension

Wrapping it up

Just like diseases caused by the familiar fungi, bacteria, and viruses, these plant diseases can be devastating and difficult to prevent or manage. As always, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (which is really true when there isn’t a cure). The best way to deal with these diseases, as with any disease, it to practice integrated pest management with good sanitation, procuring plants from trusted sources, and being vigilant for signs of disease so that infected plants can be removed quickly to reduce the chance of spread.

Knowing some of the common diseases and their signs and symptoms is key in early detection and decision making. Hopefully, some of the info I’ve shared in this series can help you keep an eye out for diseases. As always, when in doubt contact your local extension office for help with diagnosis, verification, and to discuss possible treatment or prevention options.

Sources

Plant Disease Primer- Part 4: Going Viral

Previously in this series I started with some plant disease basics and then covered some common fungal diseases and then bacterial diseases. Now let’s turn our attention to viruses. Just like with fungi and bacteria before, in this installment I’m going to talk about some of the most common viral plant diseases with some suggestions for treatment and prevention. This by no means will be an exhaustive list of diseases (there are so many!), but I hope to cover some of the most common ones that trouble gardeners.

Unlike fungi and bacteria and just like human viruses like the common cold, there typically aren’t treatments that you can use to “cure” or treat a viral infection. Therefore prevention is the only way to limit viral disease spread in plants. Also unlike fungi and bacteria, viruses are not living organisms.  They don’t have cellular “machinery” and are typically a snippet of genetic material (DNA or RNA) encased in a protein coat or similar structure. Since they aren’t living, they don’t reproduce outside of a host organism and don’t typically have the ability to spread themselves around the environment, instead relying on hosts to carry them. For plant viral diseases this usually involves manual movement on humans, tools, or possibly animals or inside of a secondary host organism like an insect’s digestive tract. Aphids are a common vector, as they consume and secrete infected sap. Viruses can often spread through infected seed or vegetative propagules like seed potatoes or cuttings. And since they aren’t living entities and are microscopic there are no signs (visible presence of causal agent) of disease, only symptoms.

Mosaic Viruses

I’m lumping mosaic viruses together because there are lots and lots of them, each affecting a different range of host plants but with similar symptoms. Many viruses affect a specific species or genus of plants while others have a broad host range. Common symptoms include: yellowing, mottling, mosaic patterns on leaves, curling, stunted growth, reduced fruit quality and size, and necrosis.

Tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) is the most persistent and infectious virus and has a very wide host range, including tobacco and other members of the Solanaceae family like tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers, other vegetables, and ornamental plants. The host range is estimated to be up to 350 species.

Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV) on Tobacco, Source: UK Extension

TMV is spread through sap and infected seeds. Virus transmission through sap can be a result of physical contact (brushing against plants when moving through a field/garden), dirty tools, aphid feeding, or even from tobacco use. TMV is so pervasive and persistent that many nursery and greenhouse businesses have strict tobacco policies for employees and for employees who do use tobacco there is usually a hand sanitation requirement.

Tomato Mosaic Virus (ToMV) on Tomato, Source: UF IFAS

Other mosaic viruses include Tomato Mosaic Virus (ToMV), Cucumber Mosaic Virus (CMV), Zucchini Yellow Mosaic Virus (ZYMV), Cauliflower Mosaic Virus (CaMV), Squash Mosaic Virus (SqMV), Bean Common Mosaic Virus (BCMV), and Rose Mosaic Virus (RMV).

Zucchini Yellow Mosaic Virus (ZYMV), Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tomato Yellow Leaf Curl Virus (TYLCV)

  • Common symptoms: Yellowing and curling of leaves, stunted growth
  • Host Plants: Tomatoes, Peppers
  • Insect Vectors: Whitefly
Source: LSU AgCenter

Tomato Ringspot Virus (ToRSV)

  • Common symptoms: yellow rings on leaves, mottling, distortion, mosaic, rings on fruits, necrosis
  • Host Plants: Tomatoes, other Solanaceous crops, wide range of others
  • Vector: Nematodes
Source: Wisconsin Pest Bulletin

Potato Virus Y (PVY)

  • Common symptoms: Leaf discoloration, mosaic patterns, tuber deformation
  • Host Plants: Potatoes, Tomatoes, Peppers
  • Insect vector: aphids
Source: University of Maine

Hosta Virus X (HVX)

  • Common Symptoms: irregular yellow or light green streaks, mottling, leaf distortion, feathering pattern (looks like colors painted on by brush), stunting, and reduced vigor
  • Host Plants: Hosta
  • Insect Vectors: None/unknown

Rose Rosette Disease (RRD)

  • Common symptoms: Rapid growth, witches brooming, excessive red coloration (in terminal bracts), deformed leaves, excessive thorns
  • Host Plants: Roses
  • Insect Vectors: Eriophyid mites
Source: NC Extension

Plum Pox Virus (PPV)

  • Symptoms: Leaf distortion, fruit deformities
  • Host Plants: Plum, peach, apricot
  • Insect Vectors: Aphids
Source: USDA APHIS

Control and Prevention

Unfortunately, since there is no treatment for viruses and plants don’t have immune responses that eliminate them like humans and animals do, the only “control” for viruses in the garden is by removal of infected plants. There is no way to “cure” an infected plant, but removal from the landscape or garden can reduce the viral load available to vectors in the garden and can help slow or eliminate the spread to other plants. Since symptoms may not appear right away, it is possible that viruses can spread to multiple plants before detection. 

Since viral infection typically means a death-sentence for the plant, prevention through Integrated Pest Management is of utmost importance.  Here are some common and effective IMP practices that can help reduce the spread of viruses in the garden.

  1. Purchase certified disease-free seeds or plant cuttings. Unfortunately, viruses can spread easily through untested seeds and cuttings so take caution in sharing at places like plant and seed swaps.
  2. Practice good sanitation: remove and destroy infected leaves and plants ASAP
  3. Clean tools regularly: viruses spread through sap transfer, so cleaning and disinfecting tools is a must. Sometimes in high-value or susceptible plants, disinfection should be done between using tools on individual plants, especially pruners. Use a dilute 10% bleach solution, rubbing alcohol, or horticultural sanitizer for best results.
  4. Quarantine new plants: If a plant appears suspicious, keep it potted in an out of the way place until you can determine possible infection. This is especially important for plants from discount retailers, plant swaps, etc but can hold true for plants from any source.
  5. Purchase disease-resistant cultivars when possible.
  6. Control vector insects, especially aphids.
  7. Wash hands before gardening, ESPECIALLY if you are a tobacco user.
  8. Do not use tobacco products while gardening.

Wrapping it up

There are lots of bacterial diseases that can damage or kill plants in our gardens or landscapes. Prevention is key, as treatments only help slow the spread of disease. In the next (and final) installment, we’ll talk about diseases that are caused by things that aren’t fungi, bacteria, or viruses.

Plant Disease Primer -Part 3: Fight Bac(teria)

Previously in this series I started with some plant disease basics and then covered some common fungal plant diseases. Now let’s turn our attention to bacteria.  Just like with fungi before, this installment of the series, I’m going to talk about some of the most common bacterial plant diseases with some suggestions for treatment and prevention. This by no means will be an exhaustive list of diseases (there are so many!), but I hope to cover some of the most common ones that trouble gardeners. Most diseases have similar control and treatment options which will be shared in a section at the end, but special cases are noted in the list of diseases.

Fireblight (Erwinia amylovora)

  • Signs & Symptoms: Wilting and blackened young shoots with “shepherds crook” bend, brown/burnt blossoms
  • Host plants: Apple, pear, quince, and relatives
  • Treatment notes for Fire Blight: The bacteria is spread through pollen during bloom. Most common treatment is pruning out affected branches. Some application of the antibiotic streptomycin may help, but it must be applied to flowers and care must be taken to avoid potential side effects for pollinators. Use of copper fungicides in the dormant season may limit spread.
Classic fire blight looks like the ends of branches have been burned

Bacterial Leaf Spot (Xanthomonas spp.)

  • Signs & Symptoms: Small, water-soaked lesions on leaves; dark lesions with yellow halos, premature leaf drop and reduced plant vigor
  • Host plants: Various, including tomato, pepper, and crucifers

Bacterial wilts (Ralstonia solacearum, solanaceous crops; Erwinia tracheiphila; cucurbits; others)

  • Signs & Symptoms: wilting of leaves, usually rapidly and whole branches at a time; yellowing and browning of leaves; vascular tissue discoloration; rapid death
  • Host plants: solanaceous crops, cucurbits, many others

Crown Gall (Agrobacterium tumefaciens)

  • Signs & Symptoms: tumor-like growths/galls on stems, roots, and crowns; stunted growth and reduced yield
  • Host plants: many
  • Fun fact: A. tumefaciens transmits a small bit of DNA to the host plant, a circular plasmid, that causes the tumor-like growth. This was used as one of the first methods (and is still used) to genetically engineer plants by introducing new DNA.

Bacterial Soft Rot (Pectobacterium and Dickeya spp., others)

  • Signs & Symptoms: water-soaked, mushy, and foul-smelling lesions on plant parts, especially fruits and tubers (the classic “rotten potato” smell); rapid decay, slimy
  • Host Plants: potatoes, others

Angular Leaf Spot (Pseudomonas syringae)

  • Signs & Symptoms: angular, water-soaked lesions on leaves; lesions are often limited by leaf veins; premature leaf drop and reduced vigor
  • Host Plants: cucurbits, most commonly cucumber
The flow of bacterial cellular streaming is impeded, or limited, by leaf veins, resulting in “angular” spots

Bacterial Canker (multiple)

  • Signs & Symptoms: Canker-like lesions on stems and other plant parts; lesions may or may not ooze bacterial exudate; for citrus canker, lesions are common on fruits as well
  • Host Plants: many, usually pathogen specific

Bacterial Ring Rot (Clavibacter michiganensis)

  • Signs & Symptoms: brown ring/rot inside tubers; foliage yellowing and death
  • Host Plants: Potato, sometimes tomato

Treating Bacterial Diseases

Just like I discussed with fungi last month, it is difficult to eliminate bacterial diseases once present. Treatment focus should be on slowing down the spread of the disease to the remaining plant. Treatment is important for annual plants, which may be killed entirely by pathogens, and in woody perennials where symptoms include cankers or rots that affect perennial plant parts such as stems or trunks. Bacterial diseases that affect only foliage on perennial plants are less of a threat and often the damage is limited to aesthetics.

For the most part, removal of the diseased plant parts is an important first step in treating the disease. Bacteria stream, or ooze, through plant parts (this is why signs and symptoms are sometimes limited by plant structures, like angular leaf spot lesions being stopped by leaf veins). Therefore the organism may be present a distance away from the visible sign or symptom. For cankers and other stem infections, removal should include “healthy” tissue below (between the callus and main plant).

Sometimes this may require removal of large parts of plants, at which point decisions should be made about removal of the entire plant. Cankers occurring on main stems or trunks are especially devastating.

Once affected plant parts are removed, a treatment with a copper-based product may reduce spread. While often used as a fungicide, copper does have some effect on bacteria. Except for in the case of fire blight (usually in commercial orchards), treatment with an antibiotic is not practical or possible. Often repeated treatments through the season are needed once the disease is established in the nearby environment. Care should be taken to not overuse copper sulfate, as it will not break down in the environment and can build up in the soil, causing damage to populations to good fungi and bacteria in the soil. 

Bacterial Prevention through IPM

Just as in fungal diseases, there are several Integrated Pest Management strategies that can be used to reduce the likelihood of bacterial infection in your garden or landscape. Below are some strategies that can be used for general fungal prevention:

  • Use mulch to limit splashing of soil onto plants
  • Eliminate overhead watering to reduce foliar moisture
  • If overhead watering is necessary, water early in the day so plants dry out before the dew point drops in the evening
  • When possible, plant disease resistant cultivars
  • Reduce nearby weeds to eliminate potential secondary hosts
  • Practice good hygiene in the garden by cleaning up any fallen or diseased leaves, fruits, etc.

Wrapping it up

There are lots of bacterial diseases that can damage or kill plants in our gardens or landscapes. Prevention is key, as treatments only help slow the spread of disease. In the next installment, we’ll talk about viruses and virus-like pathogens. Stay tuned!

Plant Disease Primer-Part 2: Fungus Among Us

In my last post, I talked about the factors leading to the development of plant diseases and some common signs and symptoms of fungal, bacterial, and viral diseases. In this installment of the series, I’m going to talk about some of the most common fungal plant diseases with some suggestions for treatment and prevention. This by no means will be an exhaustive list of diseases (there are so many!), but I hope to cover some of the most common ones that we see come into the extension office for diagnosis.

Common Fungal Diseases

  • Powdery Mildew
    • Symptoms: White powdery spots on leaves and stems
    • Common hosts: a wide range of plants, but peonies, lilacs, squashes, cucumbers, and roses are what we see most often
Powdery Mildew on Peony
  • Downy Mildew
    • Symptoms: yellowish or whitish spots on the tops of leaves with gray-ish fuzzy growth underneath
    • Common hosts: downy mildew affects many plants, but basil, impatiens, cucurbits, and verbena constitute the most common questions.
  • Rusts
    • Most rust lifecycles require two host plants: a primary and alternate host
    • Common rusts:
      • Cedar-apple rust (Junipers– primary, Apple/pear – alternate)
      • White pine blister rust (white pine – primary, gooseberry/currant – alternate)
      • Hollyhock rust (no alternate host)
    • Symptoms: rust colored (orange/yellow/red) pustules or blotches on leaves, stems, and fruit; may appear as gummy structures on primary host
  • Leaf Blights
    • The most common blights we see are often for tomatoes and their relatives. There are many leaf spots and blights that affect these plants, but early blight seems to be one of the most common.
    • Common leaf blights
      • Early Blight of tomato: irregularly shaped lesions on leaves, often with concentric rings and yellow halos. Eventual leaf curling, necrosis, or dropping. Severe cases can end up with lesions on stems and fruits.
      • Late Blight of Tomato and Potato: Starting as small water-soaked lesions and turning into large, purple-brown, oily looking blotches. Blotches appear on leaves, stems, and eventually fruit.
Early blight of tomato, Source: UMN Extension
  • Anthracnose (multiple species and target species)
    • Anthracnose affects a wide range of plants, but we often see shade trees such as oak and sycamore, dogwoods, beans, peppers, and cucurbits as commonly affected plants.
    • Symptoms: dark, sunken ulcer-like lesions on leaves, stems, fruits, and flowers.
Anthracnose on watermelon, Source: UMN Extension
  • Cankers
    • Common cankers:
      • Cytospera – spruce, pine, poplar, willow
      • Phomopsis – juniper, Russian olive, Douglas-fir, arborvitae
      • Nectria – honey locust, oak, maple
    • Symptoms: sunken necrotic lesions (cankers) on twigs, stems, and trunks of trees. Often leading to death of the plant beyond the canker location. This is especially problematic for trunk cankers which often lead to the death of the whole plant.
Nectria canker on young maple trunk Source: Missouri Botanic Garden
  • Root Rots
    • Common rots:
      • Phytopthora – affects many species to cause root rot
      • Armaillaria – especially problematic for trees
Armillaria root rot (fruiting bodies), Source: UC ANR
  • Fruit rots
    • Common rots:
      • Black rot – many species, but often apple and pear
      • Brown rot – peaches, plums, cherries, and related species
Brown rot on peach, Source: Rutgers

Fungus Treatment

Once a plant is infected with a fungus, it is difficult to eliminate the disease and treatment focus should be on slowing down the spread of the disease to the remaining plant. Treatment is important for annual plants, which may be killed entirely by fungal pathogens, and in woody perennials where symptoms include cankers or rots that affect perennial plant parts such as stems or trunks. Fungal diseases that affect only foliage on perennial plants are less of a threat and often the damage is limited to aesthetics.

For the most part, removal of the diseased plant parts is an important first step in treating the disease. This removes a great deal of the fungal organism from the plant that is likely still producing spores or hyphae to spread through the plant. Removal of affected foliage for foliar diseases is key.

In cankers, removal of whole branches or twigs starting at least a few inches below the canker location is necessary. Sometimes this may require removal of large parts of plants, at which point decisions should be made about removal of the entire plant. Cankers occurring on main stems or trunks are especially devastating.

Once affected plant parts are removed, a treatment with fungicides may be necessary to reduce spread of the disease further. Often repeated treatments through the season are needed once the disease is established in the nearby environment. Copper sulfate is a common organic option for treatment of fungal pathogens, but may not be effective for every disease. Care should be taken to not overuse copper sulfate, as it will not break down in the environment and can build up in the soil, causing damage to populations to good fungi and bacteria in the soil.  Chlorothalonil is a widely used conventional fungicide and will help control many, but not all, fungal diseases.  For specific fungicide recommendations for your area, contact your local extension expert.

Fungus Prevention through IPM

There are several Integrated Pest Management strategies that can be used to reduce the likelihood of fungal infection in your garden or landscape. Below are some strategies that can be used for general fungal prevention:

  • Use correct plant spacing and pruning to ensure airflow around plants. This can reduce humidity within the plant structure and moving air can reduce the number of fungal spores that land on the plant.
  • Use mulch to limit splashing of soil onto plants
  • Eliminate overhead watering to reduce foliar moisture
  • If overhead watering is necessary, water early in the day so plants dry out before the dew point drops in the evening
  • When possible, plant disease resistant cultivars
  • Reduce nearby weeds to eliminate potential secondary hosts
  • Remove rust alternate hosts (not always possible), such as junipers if you’re growing apples (or vice versa)
  • Utilize biofungicides as a preventative measure. Products containing different types of Bacillus bacteria can be competitive with disease-causing organisms and limit their ability to form on leaves.
  • Practice good hygiene in the garden by cleaning up any fallen or diseased leaves, fruits, etc.

Wrapping it up

There are lots of fungal diseases that can damage or kill plants in our gardens or landscapes. Prevention is key, as treatments only help slow the spread of disease. In the next installment, we’ll talk about bacterial diseases. Stay tuned!

Plant Disease Primer: Part 1 – Shaping up the causes, signs, and symptoms of disease

Throughout the garden season, extension professionals all across the country get to play detective when trying to diagnose plant diseases and recommend specific controls or preventative measures.  We often have to put on our Sherlock Holmes-esque thinking caps and our standard issue detective’s magnifying glass (or microscope) to diagnose plant maladies.

Having a basic understanding of diseases, how they function, and what they look like is key. Gardeners who bring samples or pictures into our office often get exasperated when we play twenty questions trying to figure out if it is a fungus, bacteria, or virus (or something else) causing the issue. Knowing about placement, environment, planting, etc. can all be keys in discovering what might be causing the issue.  Sometimes we can’t identify an exact disease at a glance and have to send things to the diagnostic lab on campus, but by looking at signs and symptoms and identifying factors about the plant we can often figure out the type of pathogen causing the issue, or whether it might be environmental, abiotic, or insect related. 

What leads to plant diseases?

Of course, the thing that causes the disease is a pathogen or a causal agent such as a fungus, bacteria, or virus (or a few other odds and ends like phytoplasmas). But there are other factors at play to get a disease infection started and sustained. You need all of the factors in place for infection. This is often represented as a triangle, where a causal agent (pathogen) must be present with the right environmental conditions and a host plant that can actually be infected by the pathogen. I’ve also seen a plant disease “pyramid” where time is added as another factor (as in, the correct conditions must be present at the same time and for a long enough period for infection to start).  And still yet in researching this article I found the PLANT DISEASE TETRAHEDRON, which adds human activity as another factor.  What’s next, the plant disease fractal? 

But I digress. When a sample comes in to our office, we play twenty questions with the gardener asking about these different factors. Like is it irrigated (many diseases need water to be spread or to develop), does it get shade or full sun, have you seen any insect activity, when do you usually work in the garden, etc.  These questions can help us identify parts of the disease triangle/pyramid/tetrahedron that could inform the diagnosis. 

Keeping these factors in mind can also help gardeners reduce the likelihood of disease through IPM.  For example, viruses require a vector – usually an insect, animal, or human to spread the disease. Many viruses are spread through leafhoppers, bacterial wilt in cucurbits is spread through cucumber beetles, and mosaic viruses like tobacco mosaic virus has many vectors including humans and garden tools (which is why many green industry businesses have strict sanitation rules, including rules for tobacco users and hand sanitation). Knowing that fungi and bacteria can be airborne with spores or splashed by “wind splashed rain” or irrigation water can lead to improved practices like mulching, pruning for good air flow, and plant spacing. 

How can you tell which diseases are which?

Let’s face it, many plant diseases look very similar. There are usually what we call spots and rots that can be very similar.  But there are some identifying characteristics that help us at least determine what type of pathogen or causal agent is causing the issue.

The first thing to keep in mind is that plant diseases have both signs and symptoms.  Signs are the presence of the actual disease causing organism, visible to the eye.  Fungal diseases often have mycelia, or fungal threads, and reproductive structures like pycnidia present. You may also see the causal agent itself, such as leaf rust or powdery mildew. Bacteria will often have exudates that ooze out of plant parts, water soaked lesions, and bacteria that stream out of cut stems parts. You can actually diagnose some bacterial infections by suspending a cut stem in water and watching bacteria stream/ooze out of the cut.  Viruses are not visible to the human eye, therefore do not have signs.

Powdery mildew on peony Source: Douglas/Sarpy Extension – Nebraska

Symptoms, on the other hand, are the effects of the pathogen on the plant. Common symptoms of fungal infections are leaf spots, spots or rots of fruits, chlorosis, and damping off in new seedlings. Bacterial symptoms include leaf spots (often with a yellow halo around them), crown gall, stem/trunk cankers, wilting, shepherd’s crook (like fire blight), and fruit rots. And since bacteria usually depend on streaming through liquids, they often leave definitive patterns for leaf spots that align with vein structures. For example, leaf spots will often be angular because they are “trapped” in between veins on the leaf. The most common symptom of viruses is a mosaic pattern on leaves and fruit, but also crinkling and yellowing of leaves, necrosis, and stunting.

Angular leaf spot on cucumber – the symptom pattern falls within veins, giving the angular appearance. Source: UMN Extension

Special mention- phytoplasma: Phytoplasmas are single-celled organisms that aren’t really bacteria, but are descended from them. They don’t have cell walls and are transmitted to plants through an insect vector like leaf hoppers.  The most common type of phytoplasma diseases is called yellows (aster yellows, ash yellows, etc.) because plants often turn yellow. The symptoms are often interesting. Witches brooming, which is irregular growth that makes branches look like brooms is common. Aster yellows is a common disease affecting many plants in the aster family. Most commonly, flowers of these plants look distorted and may grow leafy structures instead of flower structures. 

Unusual floral growth as a result of aster yellows Source: Douglas/Sarpy Extension – Nebraska

To wrap it up

It can be difficult to figure out what diseases are affecting plants, if it is a disease at all.  Getting help in determining what disease might be affecting plants can help you treat or prevent the problem in the future.  In my next installment of this series, I’ll talk about common diseases, their signs and symptoms, and treatments and preventative measures. 

Sources:

https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/signs_and_symptoms_of_plant_disease_is_it_fungal_viral_or_bacterial

https://lms.su.edu.pk/lesson/1660/elements-of-an-epidemic

¡Escandalo! Seedy mixup results in #Jalapeñogate drama across the US

There’s a scandal simmering all across the United States that brings to mind a switched at birth storyline on a steamy soap opera or telenovela.  This scandal, though, isn’t about babies, its about….peppers!  Jalapeño peppers, to be exact. 

The issue, dubbed #Jalapeñogate online, has many home gardeners scratching their heads as to the identity or the issue with the peppers that they planted. You see, instead of those glossy dark green peppers that many are used to putting in their salsas and other favorite spicy dishes, the plants are producing bright yellow peppers.  Some of them are the same shape as jalapeños and some look more like banana peppers. 

A local gardener allowed me to stop by and let me check out their mysterious peppers.

The phenomenon has gardeners, farmers, and officials in multiple states scratching their heads. It turns out there are no stolen tapes with evidence of the problem. Instead, I was first alerted to the problem when some of the garden Facebook groups in Nebraska were abuzz with posts about the mystery peppers.  I’ve since seen news I’ve seen the issue mentioned in news articles from Oklahoma, Kansas, and California and have seen posts on social media sites such as Reddit and TikTok. I scoured many of these sources (TikTok was surprisingly the most informative) and confirmed it with info from friends in the seed industry.

So what happened?  It turns out that the seed trade is global and multi-tiered and sometimes mix ups occur.  It just so happened that this year there were a lot of them.  One US seed company that supplies a lot of seeds to nurseries and other seed companies, called Seeds by Design, imported some of its seeds for the current season.  The company supplies many interesting and niche seeds, many of which it develops or breeds (they are responsible for the award winning Chef’s Choice tomato series and several other vegetable cultivars that you’d recognize on the seed rack). But it also purchases or imports seeds often for more common varieties.  Seeds by Design supplies seeds to many nurseries, growers, and even seed companies around the country. And that’s where the trouble starts. 

I mentioned #Jalapeñogate on our TV show Backyard Farmer, which fanned the fiery (and not so fiery) pepper flames in Nebraska.

The company imported seeds from an international grower that turned out to be mislabeled.  Up to five different cultivars were accidentally swapped and resulted in pepper pandemonium across the country.  It turns out that more than jalapeños were affected, so we should really change it to just #Peppergate. Here’s what was switched:

What was supposed to be Turned out to be…
Jalapeño (green cultivar) Jalapeño ‘Caloro’ (yellow cultivar)
Jalapeño ‘Tam’ (mild green) Sweet banana pepper
Hungarian Sweet Wax Bell Pepper ‘Diamond’
Bell Pepper ‘Chocolate Beauty’Sweet Pepper ‘Red Cherry’
Bell Pepper ‘Purple Beauty’ Hungarian Hot Wax

Gardeners could have bought these at local garden centers or nurseries as transplants.  I know of at least two local/regional garden centers that sold the affected plants.  I’ve also seen that gardeners who bought seeds from some suppliers (I’ve only seen Ferry-Morse so far) may have received at least switched bell peppers.

Nebraska gardeners (at least 90 of them) were quick to share their #Peppergate story with me.

What does this say about our seed and food supply?

Our food system and our seed system are global.  We live in a global economy and companies buy and trade with each other all the time.  Given the scale of this trade, mistakes can and do happen.  I’ve seen some people try to drag Seeds by Design because they purchased seeds from a foreign company that just happens to be in China. But the company doesn’t deserve that. They had no knowledge of the mix up until the peppers were in the hands of growers and peppers didn’t look right. Can you tell the difference between pepper cultivars by seed?

And others have tried to make an issue about trading with China with some comments that hint at outright racism. While there are some security concerns about trading with countries like China, especially in the tech world, trading simple commodities like Jalapeño seeds is standard practice. I’ve also seen comments that importing ag products from other countries means that we can’t support ourselves. But it turns out that we sell a whole lot more agricultural goods to China than we buy.  US producers sold a record-breaking $200 billion (with a b) worth of agricultural products to China in 2022 while we imported $9.5 billion from them.

Given the need to feed so many people economically, we often import from countries that have better capacity to grow what we need due to climate, land, and labor differences.  We also have to take into account seasonal differences.  Even US based seed production companies and breeders will grow in other countries to take advantage of multiple growing seasons. Given our reliance on horticultural imports, we have a robust inspection system to make sure the foods, plants, and seeds we receive from countries like China are indeed safe. 

To wrap this mystery up –

While there’s not much you can do now that you have these mystery seeds, enjoy the fun of trying something unexpected. If you ended up with a pepper that you don’t like or can’t eat (like the Hot Wax for Purple Bell switch), share with friends or donate to a local food pantry. After all, you can’t tell that the jalapeño isn’t green when it’s turned into a jalapeño popper.

Sources

https://www.fas.usda.gov/data/record-us-fy-2022-agricultural-exports-china

Don’t get hosed: exploring the efficiencies of garden and landscape irrigation systems

As many parts of the US face drought or dryer than normal conditions and issues about water availability especially in the western states, many gardeners are reassessing their relationships with plants and irrigation.  Many gardeners, especially in the west, are replacing their lawns and landscape plants with more drought and dry-weather tolerant options.  But there still are times when irrigation might still be necessary, e.g., growing vegetables and fruits, establishing new plants, and more.  Using water efficiently and effectively is key in these situations even when water is available and drought conditions aren’t as prevalent. Efficient water use and good irrigation can also mean a savings on the water bill AND a reduction in plant diseases spread by water application on the leaves. Paired with mulching, efficient irrigation can drastically reduce the amount of water used in gardens and landscapes.

 In order to make the best choices for your garden, I’m going to talk through some of the most and least efficient irrigation methods for your gardens and landscapes. I’ll be starting with the most efficient methods and working my way to the least. 

Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation is considered one of the most efficient methods of irrigation because it applies water directly to the soil at the base of the plant and therefore typically uses the smallest volume of water. Research shows that drip irrigations have around a 90% efficiency rate. . Most systems sit above the ground and apply water to the soil surface, but some sub-soil systems are available. The system usually involves a filter and pressure regulator to keep the emitters functioning and applying water at the proper volume.

This drip tubing has pre-installed emitters along the tube and drips small volumes of water directly on the soil near the plant.

The efficiency of drip irrigation comes with a caveat though. When applied to sandy or rocky soils, water from drip irrigation has a much smaller spread laterally in the soil due to less capillary action and higher gravitational pull due to the large pore spaces. This means that there isn’t as much coverage of water in the root zone. In order to combat this drip emitters must be closer together or have a high flow rate, both of which increase water usage and reduce the effectiveness of drip irrigation in sandy soils. Read more here

There are typically two types of application methods: tubes or tape that have pre-made emitter holes at set distances that disperse a set amount of water per hour or emitters that are inserted into the end of solid tubes (that may or may not have an adjustable flow rate).  The tubes and tapes that have holes pre-made are typically used in vegetable gardens, row crops, or in beds where plants are uniformly planted.  Systems with the inserted emitters are often used in landscape settings where it makes sense to water individual plants, such as trees, shrubs, or large perennials. 

Given the low volume of water disbursed by the system, water pressure is regulated in a way that ensures even distribution as long as it isn’t modified than from the manufacturer or factory specs.

For information on installation and maintenance, check out these resources:

Drip Irrigation for Home Gardens – Colorado State Univ. Extension

Irrigation Video Series – Oklahoma State Extension

Microsprinklers

Microsprinklers function on the same type of system as drip irrigation and can sometimes even be combined with drip systems.  Instead of small openings that drip water on a small area on the soil, microsprinklers spray a small volume of water over a set radius.  The sprinkler heads are typically only a few inches above the soil and therefore apply the water at the base of the plants. Some systems allow you to switch out sprinkler heads that spray in different patterns and distances.  One such system that I’ve used has sprinkler heads for patterns from 90 to 360 degrees and from one foot to ten feet in diameter. 

This microsprinkler has an adjustable head to apply water in a 1 to 5 foot diameter.

While not as efficient as drip, microsprinklers are more efficient than other systems due to low water volume and consistent pressure throughout the system.  They can be more flexible than drip irrigation in settings like landscape beds and around trees and shrubs since one emitter can water a larger area with less tubing and fewer parts. 

Soaker hoses

Soaker hoses are popular because they are plug-and-play.  You can just attach them to your faucet and don’t have to worry about cutting and assembling tubing and parts. Water is released through the surface of the entire hose, making water application much less precise that drip and microsprinklers as well. Keep in mind that soaker hoses don’t have pressure regulation like drip and microsprinkler systems do so you’ll often find inconsistent watering when you use them.  More water leaves the soaker hose at the end closest to the faucet and less (or none) at the far end.  The result is usually excess water in some parts of the garden and not enough in others. 

Soaker hoses also release a much higher volume of water than drip and microsprinkler systems, which can result in overwatering and water waste. I learned this from experience when I accidentally left a soaker hose running for about three days.  The garden was nicely flooded and the water and sewer bill topped out at over $500 that month. 

Sprinklers

Sprinklers are probably the most common irrigation system used because of their simplicity.  Home gardeners might use the hose-end individual sprinklers purchased at the garden shop which can quickly water a large area.  And many homeowners, especially in areas where there isn’t rainfall sufficient to support grass growth, have sprinkler systems installed in their lawns.  However, sprinkler systems are only around 65-75% efficient. Spraying water in to the air, especially on hot and dry days, reduces efficiency through evaporative loss.  Sprinklers are also less precise in where you can aim and apply water. There’s also the added issue that overhead application of water can lead to or worsen plant disease issues by making conditions favorable for the spread and growth of fungi and bacteria. If possible, use sprinklers only on a temporary basis like establishing new plants or make sure they are calibrated effectively.

Hand watering

While hand watering probably uses a smaller volume of water than sprinklers and you can direct water more precisely, there are still issues with evaporation and overhead watering.  In addition, hand watering is usually less effective than other methods because humans are impatient and actually don’t water long enough.  Most plants will benefit from a long, deep watering but many gardeners will only give a pass or two with a water hose and will underwater plants.  This can cause roots to accumulate in the upper layer of the soil and increase long-term water needs of the plant.  Rely on hand watering for temporary needs like plant establishment or container plants (though you can use drip and microsprinklers in containers as well) and use a more efficient strategy long term. 

Wrapping it up

There are a number of ways you can manage the water needs of your landscape, from renovating your landscape with more water efficient plants to making more efficient use of water through effective and efficient irrigation systems. As more and more cities and states across the US place restrictions on water use having several irrigation tools in your toolbox will be helpful.  Always remember that the best strategy is to grow plants suited to your environment to reduce water use in the garden. And in places where there isn’t sufficient water for grass to consider removing lawn and replacing with native vegetation and xeriscaping.  Irrigation systems can help in areas with unexpected drought or weather issues but for long-term sustainability gardeners in drier climates should adapt their properties where they live.

Other Sources

Crop rotation makes the garden go ’round

You might have heard of the concept of crop rotation, or even have had someone tell you that you should be practicing it in your home garden. But does this practice developed for use on large-scale farm fields work for small-scale home gardening or backyard farming?  And if so how do you even do it? Let’s take a quick look at the practice and learn how you might implement it in your own garden, no matter the size, if it is practical to do so. 

The Benefits of Crop Rotation

The benefits of crop rotation touted to home gardens for annual fruit and vegetable plants focus mainly on Integrated Pest Management. Keeping certain crops in one spot in the garden year after year can lead to a build up of plant disease microorganisms and insect pests in that area. These findings are largely based on large-scale production systems, like where whole fields that are hundreds of acres are grown as the same crop and switched from year to year. But there still is some benefit for the small-scale gardener, especially with disease build up from soil-borne diseases or debris left in the garden.

The benefits are less clear for insect pests.  Sure, there might be fewer insects that move from spot-to-spot or bed-to-bed in your home garden, but we must remember that insects can fly and a journey of a few feet from one raised bed to the next might not be much of a barrier.  It is sort of like when people ask us if using grub control in the lawn will control Japanese Beetles in their garden. There will likely be a small reduction in the population, but we remind folks that Japanese Beetles can fly pretty good distances, so control will be minimal. 

Crops in rows and beds can be easy to rotate.

Benefits of crop rotation lay below the soil. Different plants use different ratios of nutrients and some even add nutrients to the soil. Legumes have nitrifying rhizobia bacteria that colonize their roots in a symbiotic relationship and there is a net nitrogen increase in the soil after legumes such as beans, peas, alfalfa, or clover have been grown. That’s why one of the major crops added to crop rotations in the “corn belt” is soybeans (or just “beans” if you’re from around these parts). The soybeans contribute nitrogen to the soil, which helps in the production system because corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder. This is especially true if the roots are left behind or if the legume is incorporated like a cover crop.

Given that crops uptake nutrients in different ratios and that some input nutrients into the soil, by planting the same crop year-after-year in the same spot you can end up with nutrient imbalances, especially in raised beds or small plot areas. Using cover crops and incorporating them into the soil is another facet of crop rotation that can build soil organic matter and address nutrient issues. Fertility can also be adjusted with fertilizer and compost, but using rotation will help with overall management.

Rotating in root crops like carrots, radishes, and turnips can also allow for some good soil aeration, especially in no or low till garden situations. 

There’s also research that shows that different plants exude different compounds, like sugars, etc. that attract and feed different microorganisms and rotations which help increase the diversity of the microbiome in the soil. This will not only improve the soil ecology in your garden, but a healthy microbiome can compete with some disease-causing microorganisms to reduce the likelihood of soil-borne disease. Most of us have been told that eating cultured yogurt increases good microbes in the gut and can reduce the likelihood of some illnesses- its kind of like that, but for plants.

How to rotate crops (especially in small gardens)

While crop rotation might not solve all the world’s problems or your garden insect issues, there are still definite benefits to the practice if you can manage it.  For some people garden space is too limited. How do you rotate crops when all you grow is a few tomatoes in the corner of a flower bed?  Other than putting them somewhere else every year, there isn’t much you can do. 

If you have a large garden and especially if you have one that’s a larger tilled-up spot (don’t get me started on tillage), you should definitely be implementing rotation. While I typically garden in raised beds, that usually makes it easy. Crop rotation usually occurs by plant family, so plant families rotate to a new bed each year (more on plant families in a bit). 

In general, a crop rotation plan should mean that plants from the same family aren’t grown in the same place in the garden for at least four years if possible.  If I plant tomatoes in “Bed A” in my garden this year, then I shouldn’t plant them in “Bed A” again for at least four years if possible.  If you’re not growing in beds, then should rotate by rows or by areas of the garden.

Is this practical for every gardener?  No. So I say do what you can. If you have a small space and only grow a few things and want to rotate crops, you can do so by time rotation – growing different crops each year.  Or adding some container gardening to the mix and rotating crops into containers in different years. As a side note, using containers can be an effective way to rotate crops because you don’t necessarily need to rotate the plants if you can rotate (replace) the soil from year to year (or at least replace the top layers). 

Crop rotation can also aid in succession planting.  For example, I don’t follow my beans with corn, I follow them with garlic, which is also a heavy nitrogen feeder and works right into the garden schedule to be planted in October after the beans are done. I’ll often do lettuce or leafy greens in a bed in early spring, then thin them out to plant in tomatoes or peppers when the time comes. Incorporating intercropping where you plant different sized plants around each other, like my lettuce and tomatoes, can also be an effective addition to crop rotation.

For a good crop rotation, you’ll want to plan.  This would involve sketching/mapping out your garden or at least labeling different beds or spaces. Then creating a chart for each space where you list what crops will be grown there for the next several years will help you plan out to make sure you are giving ample time for the rotation process.

Keeping it in the family

Family members share lots of things and plant families are no different. Not only do some crops look similar but they can often share the same diseases. Keeping families in mind planning crop rotations is one of the easiest methods to keep track of which crops to include in a rotation.  For small gardens it might make sense to keep members of the family together. For example if I only have four beds, I would want all the family members together so that I can have a true four year rotation. In larger gardens, realizing that crops are in the same family will help plan out for rotation of multiple crops. 

Also keep in mind that some crops will overwinter (depending on where you are) so a fall crop might also be a spring crop in the same bed the following year.  Some crops are also biennial depending on your local climate.  For example unless you live in an area with winters cold enough to kill them, swiss chard, onions, and other crops will survive the winter and grow the following spring. I typically leave most perennial vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb, as well as perennial herbs like oregano and chives, out of rotations and put them in their own specific place in the garden (or elsewhere) since they don’t need to be replanted every year.

I’ve put together a list of common annual crops by family, as well as an example crop rotation plan for single garden bed/area. As an example, if I had four raised beds I would use this plan for each bed, starting in a different year for each bed so that I grow all the same crops each year, just in different beds.

Common crops by family. Developed from UF/IFAS Extension
A crop rotation plan I might use in my own garden. If I had four beds, Year 2 crops would be Year 1 crops for bed B and so on.

In conclusion…

Crop rotation isn’t an end-all, be-all garden practice.  If you can institute some sort of rotation in your garden you’ll likely see long-term rewards.  However, if it isn’t possible or seems like too much work just remember don’t plant things in the same place year after year if you can help it.  Any rotation, even if it is hit or miss, will be beneficial. 

Sources

Benincasa, P., Tosti, G., Guiducci, M., Farneselli, M., & Tei, F. (2017). Crop rotation as a system approach for soil fertility management in vegetablesAdvances in research on fertilization management of vegetable crops, 115-148.

Sasse, J., Martinoia, E., & Northen, T. (2018). Feed your friends: do plant exudates shape the root microbiome?Trends in plant science23(1), 25-41.

Wright, P. J., Falloon, R. E., & Hedderley, D. (2017). A long-term vegetable crop rotation study to determine effects on soil microbial communities and soilborne diseases of potato and onionNew Zealand Journal of Crop and Horticultural Science45(1), 29-54.

Yasalonis, A. (2019) A must do in gardening: Vegetable crop rotation (UF/IFAS Extension). UF/IFAS Extension (blog)