Water: Garden Friend….and Foe? – Water, Relative Humidity, and Plant Diseases

We all know that water is essential for life and that we have to ensure our landscapes, gardens, and houseplants all have a sufficient supply of the stuff.  Forget to water your garden during a hot, dry spell and it could mean disaster for your plants.  But water can also create issues for plants, usually when it is in an overabundance – water helps spread and develop diseases on foliage and excess soil moisture can damage roots, creating opportunities for root rots and other diseases.  How do you meet the water needs of the plant while also avoiding issues associated water?  Understanding how water affects disease organisms will help, along with some tried and true Integrated Pest Management Strategies.

Water and Pathogenic Microbes

Both bacteria and fungi require water to grow and reproduce.  Most do not have a mechanism to actively take up and manage water, so they uptake water mainly through osmosis.  This means there must be some form of water present for those microbes that are actively growing and especially for processes like reproduction which use not only a lot of energy but might also be required to carry spores in order to spread.

File:Septoria lycopersici malagutii leaf spot on tomato leaf.jpg -  Wikimedia Commons
Septoria leaf spot, a common fungal disease of tomato that requires water for initiation and development.

Both pathogenic microbes and beneficial (or neutral) microbes require water to thrive.  It is one side of what we refer to as the disease triangle.  Water (along with temperature) are major components of the “favorable environment” side of the triangle, with the other sides being a plant capable of being infected and a population of pathogens capable of infecting.  Those last two sides meaning you have to have a population of the pathogen big enough to initiate or sustain an infection and a plant that can actually be infected by that pathogen.  For example – one disease spore may or may not be enough to start an infection (depending on the pathogen), but several hundreds or thousands definitely can.  And the pathogen has to be one that can actually infect the plant – it doesn’t matter if you have a million spores of Alternaria solani (one of two closely related fungi that cause early blight in tomatoes) on your cucumber plants, they likely won’t get a disease.  But if there are spores of A. cucumerina, a different species, you’ll likely get leaf spot on those cucumbers.  But it doesn’t matter if you have both a susceptible plant and a pathogen, there has to be a favorable environment (water and temperature) for there to be a disease infection. 

As this paper points out, water in the form of liquid (rain, ground water, dew, etc) and vapor (air humidity, fog) can provide the environment for microbe development in the soil and on foliage.  Microbes in the soil are ubiquitous as water is typically available in most soils (except in droughty or arid areas) , but excess soil moisture can create booms in populations for both the “good” microbes and the “bad” ones.  Microbes that live on foliage (sometimes referred to as epiphytic since they rely on moisture from the atmosphere) are much more likely to be water stressed since they are exposed to the atmosphere.  When there isn’t water available on the surface of leaves (from rain, fog, etc.) microbes tend to colonize around areas where water leaves the plant – stomata and to a lesser extent around tricomes and hairs. 

The paper also points out high atmospheric humidity is positively correlated with the number of fungi on a leaf surface. It’s also a requirement for diseases microbe spores to germinate, for filamentous fungi to break dormancy, for pathogen survival, for microbe movement on the leaf surface, and for disease infections to be sustained.  It is also shown that heavy precipitation increases water availability to these microbes thus hastening their growth.  Precipitation also dislodges and disperses pathogen spores and cells to adjacent plant tissues, and to leaves of nearby plants.  High humidity also makes leaf cuticles more permeable and promotes opening of the stomata, which can serve as an entry point for pathogenic infection.

Once inside the plant, microbes such as fungi and bacteria can thrive on the aqueous environment inside a plant, moving easily between cells or into the vascular tissue (depending on disease).  Pathogens that thrive in wet conditions, however, may initiate water soaked lesions on the plant to develop conditions favorable to their growth. 

Water, water everywhere – so is there anything you can do?

Of course, water is naturally occurring and in most places falls from the sky in some form or another.  In some places very little precipitation falls, in others there’s a lot. And don’t forget about the humidity, dew, and fog (which are often more common in places that get more rain, but provide moisture even in dry climates).  There are a few places where the atmospheric moisture levels are in that “just right” zone to support plant growth but not pathogen growth, which makes agricultural production of certain crops easier.  You could consider these areas the “Goldilocks” zone for crop production.  For example, a lot of seed crops are produced in the Midwest and arid north West, potatoes in Idaho, apples in Washington, etc.  The conditions there mean that, at least when those crops were getting established (before the advent of modern pesticides) in those regions, disease pressure was low. 

You can’t stop the rain, of course, if you’re in a place both blessed and cursed with abundant rainfall or atmospheric humidity.  But there are some things that you can do reduce the likelihood of diseases spread or supported by that water and humidity.

  • Evidence shows that there is a positive correlation between the density of planting and disease incidence.  Therefore, proper plant spacing and pruning can do at least three major things.  First, having space between plants, especially in the vegetable garden, can reduce the splashing of pathogens from one plant to the next during a precipitation event.  Second, it increases air flow through the plant, which can reduce the likelihood of pathogen spores that might float in and land on foliage.  Third, it reduces humidity in the immediate microclimate around the plant. The increased air flow in addition to the reduced amount of foliage that is releasing water through transpiration can have a significant effect on the humidity, which can have a big effect on the germination, establishment, and survival.  
  • Utilize diverse planting plans in the vegetable garden and the landscape.  Research shows that while having a variety of plants increases the diversity of disease organisms, it actually reduces the infection rate possibly because pathogens splashing from plant to plant are less likely to find a host plant if they are surrounded by non-host plants.  This practice is promoted in intensive vegetable plantings such as square foot gardening. 
  • As stated earlier, precipitation can drastically increase the population of microbes on foliage.  This also includes water from overhead irrigation.  For example, this study found that overhead watering of cabbage led to significantly higher and faster rates of spread of the black rot fungus as compared to drip irrigation.  Therefore, reducing or avoiding overhead watering can reduce the likelihood of disease incidence. 
  • Timing of watering may also contribute to disease development.  The dew point, which usually happens during the night time hours, is when the air is totally saturated at 100% relative humidity and therefore cannot hold any more water.  This is the point where excess moisture is deposited as dew on surfaces (another source of water on the foliage) and little to no evaporation of water already on surfaces happens (learn more at weather.gov).  As shared in this book chapter review, lower temperatures resulting in reaching the dew point can extend the time leaves are exposed to high moisture and result in higher disease incidence. 
  • As our own GP Linda Chalker-Scott points out in this review, mulching not only retains soil moisture, reduces erosion and more but also reduces the incidence of disease in plants by reducing the splashing of soil or spores from rain or irrigation onto the plant.  This drastically reduces disease spread from pathogens found in the soil or on plant debris.  The organic matter from organic mulches also has the benefit of increasing the population of beneficial microbes, which out-compete the pathogenic microbes. 
Mulching and drip irrigation can both significantly reduce disease incidence in gardens.
  • Crop rotation, where crops are not grown in the same soil or plot for a number of years, also reduces disease incidence by reducing pathogen loads in the soil or from crop residues left in the garden.  This study shows significantly reduced disease incidence on potato and onion when a crop rotation plan of four years is utilized (meaning that either onions or potatoes are not planted in the plot for a minimum of four years, with other crops planted between those years). 
  • If root rots and pathogens are a problem, try improving drainage around the garden. Adding organic matter can help with water permeability of the soil over time. Raised beds can also drain faster than in-ground gardens.
  • Of course, if you’re having lots of problems with certain diseases on your plants, these cultural controls may not be enough.  Finding resistant varieties may be a necessary step in breaking the disease cycle in your garden.

Overview

While water is required for plant growth, it can cause issues with plant diseases if there is too much or if it lingers on the wrong parts of the plant for too long.  Water from rainfall, irrigation, high humidity, fog, and dew can all lead to the initiation, development, and longevity of plant fungal or bacterial diseases.  Reducing the amount, persistence of water or humidity on or around foliage can significantly reduce the likelihood of plant disease incidence.  Methods such as reducing overhead irrigation, timing of irrigation, mulching, and crop rotation are key cultural methods in reducing diseases spread by water. 

Sources:

Aung, K., Jiang, Y., & He, S. Y. (2018). The role of water in plant–microbe interactions. The Plant Journal, 93(4), 771-780.

Burdon, J., & Chilvers, G. A. (1982). Host density as a factor in plant disease ecology. Annual review of phytopathology, 20(1), 143-166.

Café-Filho, A. C., Lopes, C. A., & Rossato, M. (2019). Management of plant disease epidemics with irrigation practices. Irrigation in Agroecosystems, 123.

Chalker-Scott, L. (2007). Impact of mulches on landscape plants and the environment—a review. Journal of Environmental Horticulture25(4), 239-249.

Krauthausen, H. J., Laun, N., & Wohanka, W. (2011). Methods to reduce the spread of the black rot pathogen, Xanthomonas campestris pv. campestris, in brassica transplants. Journal of Plant Diseases and Protection, 118(1), 7-16.

Rottstock, T., Joshi, J., Kummer, V., & Fischer, M. (2014). Higher plant diversity promotes higher diversity of fungal pathogens, while it decreases pathogen infection per plant. Ecology95(7), 1907-1917.

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 onion. New Zealand Journal of Crop and Horticultural Science, 45(1), 29-54.

Understanding mysteries of plant diseases

(Post 1 of 3 in this blog series)

Gardeners, especially those new to gardening may find they have a “black thumb.” Plants die for no reason! “Oh well chuck it in the greenwaste recycling can and start again.” Or… “Oh I can’t grow cyclamens!… They always die in my garden for some reason.” For many gardeners it is mysterious why some plants fail to thrive or die suddenly. Plant disease processes are complicated, and it requires some knowledge of botany (anatomy and physiology), genetics, and microbiology to really understand what is happening. Also, since microbes are microscopic and most pathogens are microbial we can’t always see them at work, especially before symptoms develop. Symptoms are plant responses to the action of a disease agent. In this post I will try to describe the different kinds of diseases, and where they come from.

There are two broad categories …
of plant disease possible in gardens: biotic  diseases and abiotic diseases. Biotic diseases have a disease agent called a pathogen. The pathogen can be microbial, or a nematode or a virus, or a parasitic seed plant. Bacteria and fungi are the most common microbes. It is debatable whether viral particles are living, so also debatable whether or not they are considered microbes. Of the biotic pathogens, fungi cause  most diseases in gardens.  Many pathogens rely on environmental conditions to favor their lifestyle, this is particularly true of bacteria which like moist, warm environments.

The other category of disease is the abiotic category. Abiotic diseases have no pathogen. An environmental condition such as an excess or lack of an environmental condition causes physiological changes in plants that develop symptoms. Extremes of temperature, light, humidity, soil or water chemistry, soil physical conditions, air quality, and pesticide residue can all lead to abiotic diseases. Since there is no pathogen there is no epidemic, and abiotic diseases are not infectious. So spread, occurrence and movement of abiotic diseases are usually different than biotic disorders

So how does disease happen?
I have heard many gardeners make sweeping statements like “overwatering killed my plant” or “It just died of neglect” or “insects killed it”. Plant pathologists describe the disease process with a cartoon called the disease tetrahedron. It describes the interaction of four things: the pathogen, the environment, the host and time. Of course it is only a triangle for abiotic diseases since there is no pathogen.

For disease to occur there must be an active pathogen present that is virulent (has genes to cause disease). The pathogen must have enough inoculum present to begin the disease process. A single spore rarely leads to a successful disease (although it can in some systems).  Most importantly the pathogen must have the right genetics to recognize its host.

Next the environment must be conducive to the pathogen and its development and/or  harmful or stressful to the host. The environment can cause the host stress while favoring the pathogen.  An example would be oxygen starvation in flooded roots. The environment must favor the pathogen’s build up and dispersal of its inoculum (infective propagules such as spores, cells or seeds). Often splashing rain during the warming spring period is important for their spores to reach a susceptible host.

Finally for disease to happen, the host must be susceptible to the pathogen and possibly predisposed in some way to its attack.  Pathogens also have phenotypic synchronicity, that is the ability to produce inoculum at the same time as the host is producing susceptible plant tissues (leaves, buds or stems).

The final facet of the tetrahedron is time. Diseases do not occur instantaneously (even though we may only notice them instantly) – it takes time for them to develop.  Disease life cycles or life histories describe how pathogens survive, reproduce and disseminate themselves through the environment over time. The tetrahedron can be used to understand the factors that lead to disease but also can be used as a way to stop or control diseases (more on that in another post).

So where do diseases come from and where are they going?
Abiotic diseases are caused by environmental extremes.  Another way to look at them is that they occur when there is a violation of the adaptations of the host.  In this regard when we grow plants not well adapted to our climate or environment they can be harmed. A good example is my papaya tree. Right now it has been harmed by low temperatures. Growing a papaya in Ojai, CA is a violation of its adaptations.

Jim’s papaya tree is intolerant of Ojai winter temperatures–a violation of its adpatatons

If abiotic factors don’t cause actual symptoms, sometimes they are able to weaken the host so that a pathogen can enter, and begin disease formation.  So abiotic conditions are often predisposing factors for the development of biotic pathogens. Many of the root rot pathogens such as Phytophthora or Armillaria

Wet soils and fine texture (clay) predispose trees to root rot. Note the “root snorkels’ did not prevent the problem

require a predisposing abiotic factor such as drought, saturated soils, high salinity or compaction to facilitate disease development.

Many canker diseases such as those caused by Botryosphaeria are predisposed by drought conditions

So where do pathogens come from?

I like the hospital analogy. Where do you go to get sick? A hospital! They certainly have a difficult time controlling the spread of disease there because that is where sick people go. So where do sick plants come from? Often a nursery!  Nurseries import plants from wholesale sources, propagate from their own stock, sometimes reuse their container media, and grow many hosts in a concentrated place over time. There is no better place for diseases to occur than in nurseries.

This is especially true of root diseases because roots are inside the container and often not observed at the time of purchase

Inspect nursery stock for healthy roots before purchase

(but you always should inspect roots of all purchased plants from six packs of garden flowers to boxed trees). Also, some nurseries suppress diseases with fungicides that do not eradicate the pathogen, so when fungicides wear off (after you purchase your plant), disease can develop from now unsuppressed pathogens. Nurserymen relax! I’m not saying that all nurseries sell diseased plants (at least knowingly), but consumers should take extra care when selecting plants and when bringing new plants to their property.

While landscape mulches don’t likely spread viable pathogens they can change soil moisture status enhancing collar rots if irrigation is not adjusted. This tree was also planted deeply, another predisposing factor for disease

Once pathogens establish in the landscape, they may continue to harm new plants. Some pathogenic spores blow in on wind or inoculum moves in water courses along streams or other water paths. Animals, people and equipment can move infested soil onto a property.   Once diseases have run their course, pathogens often survive as saprophytes in the diseased tissues. They overwinter or over-summer in debris on the ground. So sanitation is critical in disease control (more on this in another post). Fruiting bodies can be moved in the greenwaste stream but there is very little research showing that disease is initiated by contaminated greenwaste, even though some pathogens may survive there. We do know that when greenwaste is chipped, it dramatically reduces pathogen and insect survival. Stockpiling wastes for as little as seven days will reduce chances pathogen survival by an order of magnitude. Certainly our favored arborist chips are very unlikely to have viable pathogens especially when sourced locally.

Understanding that diseases are not usually caused by gardening practices but by a pathogen or an environmental factor is the first step in diagnosis and control. In my next post I will talk about disease diagnosis and detection…