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Western Pennsylvania crops fall prey to mildew, fungus

| Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Gardner Shawn O'Mahony, project manager at Penn Hills CDC, looks for signs of blight along a vine of tomatoes at Penn Hills Community Garden on Tuesday. When it rains, blight splashes up from the ground and gets on the tomatoes, says O'Mahony. Because of the heavy rains this summer, it was a rough year for tomatoes at the garden. Only two plots of the over 100 that the garden boasts had a successful tomato crop sans blight, he said.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Withered, browned leaves and trails of scars across tomatoes like this one at Penn Hills Community Garden are signs of blight. When it rains, blight splashes up from the ground and gets on the tomatoes, says gardner Shawn O'Mahony, project manager at Penn Hills CDC. Because of the heavy rains this summer, it was a rough year for tomatoes at the garden. Only two plots of the over 100 that the garden boasts had a successful tomato crop sans blight, he said.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Gardner Shawn O'Mahony, project manager at Penn Hills CDC, shows his fingerling potatoes stunted by blight at Penn Hills Community Garden on Tuesday. When it rains, blight splashes up from the ground and gets on the tomatoes, says O'Mahony. 'Blight can be transferred from plant to plant when you touch one plant to another, as well,' said O'Mahony, so if the wind blows and brushes the leaves of your blighted tomatoes against your potato plant, you can end up with stunted growth like these, he said.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
A scarecrow stands among the hundreds of plots at Penn Hills Community Garden on Tuesday.

It was not a good summer for tomatoes at the Penn Hills Community Garden on Jefferson Road.

The seemingly constant rain splashed blight-infected dirt onto the leaves, turning them brown and stunting the development of fruit.

“Probably two out of 104 plots had good tomatoes,” said Shawn O'Mahony, a garden manager at the community garden.

Lettuce, on the other hand, flourished at the garden.

“We had some that was two to three feet tall,” O'Mahony said. “We had too much.”

Western Pennsylvania experienced more rain this summer than last, according to the National Weather Service in Moon. Total rainfall from June to the end of August topped the same period in 2012 by more than an inch. It rained 20 days in June, 18 days in July and 13 days by the end of August.

The relative humidity routinely jumped into the upper 80s and 90s during those months.

The Penn Hills garden harvested and donated to food banks about 200 pounds less produce this year than last, O'Mahony said.

Fungus, mildew and blight wreaked havoc on some tomatoes, cucumbers and squash, said Linda Hyatt, horticulture assistant at the Westmoreland County extension service of Penn State University. Rain and humidity caused ideal conditions for fungus and mildew to grow and destroy plant leaves.

Squashes and cucumbers fell prey to downy and powdery mildew. Some tomatoes did not develop because of blight or fungus.

“Fungus needs three things to get going,” Hyatt said. “A susceptible plant, the pathogen and the right conditions. And this year we had athree.”

This was the first year for a community garden in Aspinwall, where people didn't start talking about planting at 31 Fifth St. until March, said Heth Turnquist, one of the garden's founders. Once plants went into the ground, the growing season went well.

“Given it was kind of weird weather and a late start, I think everyone was pretty happy with the outcomes,” said Turnquist.

Though tomatoes there produced well, as did green beans, broccoli did not. Turnquist chalked that up to the garden's location: not enough light hit plants.

Early in the season, it looked like the squash crop would be excellent. Then powdery mildew struck.

“They went crazy. It was beautiful vines. And then you show up one day and they're pretty powdery looking,” Turnquist said of the squash.

Powdery mildew attacks a plant's leaves. It will slow or stop photosynthesis and eventually kill the plant and the developing squash, Hyatt said.

As gardeners prepare for next year, they should keep a few tips in mind, Hyatt said.

Rotating crops, especially tomatoes, can reduce the risk of blight and other diseases. Gardeners can plant strains of plants resistant to the mildews that target squash and cucumbers. It is important to clean up the garden before winter. Ridding it of leaves or rotten fruits can prevent diseases.

Most of all, do not be discouraged, Hyatt said.

“Every year is different, and definitely try again. Don't give up.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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