tomato issues--Help

aeroflotJune 30, 2012

Hey everybody! I'm a first time gardener in Oklahoma and have been lurking since winter.

I made two novice errors this spring being:

1) getting my plants in a little too late (tomatoes went in the first week in May)

2) not noticing the spider mites until they had about destroyed my beans and had infested my tomatoes (we don't have near the pests in Idaho where I'm used to gardening :) ).

About the time I noticed the spider mites, I noticed small white dots all over the tomato leaves (especially on the Magic Mountain). I thought maybe it was powdery mildew but it doesn't rub off. Not sure if it has anything to do with the spider mites. I've enclosed a few photos.

After doing a little research, I decided to try and spray the mites off. It has worked ok. Still losing some foliage, but I have noticed that the Celebrities especially are losing a lot of foliage that is just yellowing and then turning brown and wilting off. It is spreading up one of them fairly quickly. It starts with the tips of the leaves turning yellow. As it takes over the whole leaf, it travels down that leaf's stem and slowly takes over all the leaves on that stem until that whole side branch is yellow and wilted off. I have some photos of the yellow/brown foliage that I have removed.

So, I'm not sure if it is doesn't look classic for early least to my eyes. Not sure if it is spider mites...haven't seen that many in celebrities. Could it be overwatering since we've been spraying the tomatoes down to get rid of the spider mites? The ground stays pretty moist since we've mulched it pretty good.

Just wondering if there's anything I can do to save my plants as they have a ton of unripened produce that I would probably already be enjoying had I got them in the ground a few weeks earlier. Anyway, let me know if you have any ideas.


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wilting foilage

    Bookmark   June 30, 2012 at 1:06PM
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last photo--sorry for the long post and thanks for the help.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2012 at 1:07PM
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Evan, this wont make you feel good, but your plants look better than mine.

I bought some Triple Action Plus ll to spray on my plants a month or more ago but did not use it because I had rather not use anything. I wish I had tried it, at least on a few plants. I am in the process of removing my tomatoes and think I will try the spray just to see what happens. I am not expecting much, but I dont have much to lose either.

I hope someone on here can give you some good info because I am watching also. I am afraid the spider mites will be on everything.


    Bookmark   June 30, 2012 at 7:00PM
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To me that looks like spider mite damage.

Look at the under sides of the leaves with a magnifying glass. Do you see any small webbing or white or red bodied insects?

I would spray with Malathion first and water your plants well and give them a good dose of water soluble fertilizer to help them recover.

A less toxic solution is to spray the plants with your water hose and then use an insecticidle soap.

Good luck curing your infestation.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2012 at 8:14AM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

The first two photos show spider mite damage. The second two photos also show something else along with it, likely a bacterial or fungal disease--and there are many that it could be. Early Blight isn't the only option when plant foliage is diseased.

First of all, anything you use to attempt to control spider mites is going to be most effective if you begin using it at the very first sign of an infestation. Once plants are heavily infested, as yours are, it is going to be difficult to win the war with the spider mites. I first started seeing spider mites the last week of March or the first week in April, and had limited success knocking back their population at that time. However, I've been gardening a long time and dealing with spider mites a long time and in a hot, dry summer, I know from experience they are very hard to control, especially if you prefer to garden organically, so I expected they'd kill my plants by the end of July, and that still is likely to happen. By then, I won't care, for various reasons.

If I was just walking into my garden and noticing spider mites today, many of the best solutions could not be used because the high temperatures at our house are above 90 degrees every day, and 90 degrees is the threshold at which many remedies will burn your tomato plant foliage and damage it, up to and including damage severe enough to kill the plants.

While it is possible to blast the spider mites off the back of the leaves with a sharp spray of water, that is a temporary fix at best. I have found they keep coming back. Sometimes spraying the leaves weekly with liquid seaweed seems to keep their population in check. Spraying with insecticidal soap or neem oil every 7-10 days while high temperatures are below 90 degrees seems to work fairly well. If you have a small number of plants, Take Down spray is fairly effective. Dusting them with sulphur helps up to a point, but less so in hot weather because sulphur combined with hot weather can damage the plants too.

When temperatures remain below 90 degrees, you can spray with a summerweight/superfine oil spray meant to be used in warm temperatures. This is the summertime equivalent of dormant oil, but while it is useful in warmer temperatures, I likely wouldn't attempt to use it when the high temps are exceeding 90 degrees. Even miticides and the few insecticides that may be effective on spider mites can damage tomato plant foliage if used at high temperatures or if sprayed excessively.

Be careful about using insecticides like Sevin and Malathion, as well as any other broad-spectrum pesticide, whether it is synthetic or organic in nature. Sevin is well-known to cause increases, not decreases, in the spider mite population. It does this in two ways. First, it kills off the beneficial insects, including predatory mites, that help you by controlling spider mites. Secondly, when exposed to Sevin, spider mites speed up their reproduction and produce more eggs, hence more mites. While Malathion is often recommended for spider mites, and some people report success with it, others report that it, like Sevin, seems to give them more spider mites, not less. Because I prefer to garden as organically as possible and avoid the spraying of broad-spectrum chemical pesticides at all costs, I'd never use Malathion nor would I recommend it to anyone else.(That doesn't mean I am saying the previous person gave you bad advice by recommending Malathion, just that it is a recommendation I wouldn't make. Different strokes for different folks.) One reason I raise vegetables is so we can have organic produce raised without the use of synthetic chemicals. That's just me though. Some folks use Malathion and it doesn't bother them to do so, and that's their choice. You should know that if you apply too much malathion to your plants at high temperatures, it can burn the foliage and kill the plants. If you choose to use it, read the label very carefully and follow all recommendations precisely.

One reason to avoid broad-spectrum pesticides is that they kill the beneficial insects that help you control the pest insects. I watched this first-hand when I was a child and my dad battle spider mites (unsuccessfully) every single summer of my life. The more he sprayed, the worse the mites got. His best friend had identical results. So, even though I was a kid, I understood that Kelthane and Sevin and Malation and other similar pesticides were not helpful in our garden in dealing with spider mites. Now that I am older, I understand that it is because they also killed the beneficial insects, and of course, now we have the research that shows the chemicals can sometimes make the spider mite population explode, and we didn't know that then. Later in his life, when he was in his 60s or 70s, my dad became almost totally organic and...guess what happened....he stopped losing his tomato plants to spider mites every summer. It was fairly amazing and he sure wished he'd given up the synthetic chemicals a few decades earlier.

Your garden is an ecosystem, and within it you will have good bugs and bad bugs. Most of the time, with most pest insects, you already have beneficial insects in your garden that help control them, assuming you haven't wiped out the beneficial insect population by spreading broad-spectrum insecticides. There are specific beneficial insects you can purchase and release to help control spider mites, but many of them need cooler air temperatures and higher humidity than what we have now. They are a great spring solution to knock down the population in April or May, and sometimes in early June, if June is cooler than average and wet. You shouldn't release beneficial insects, though, if you intend to use pesticides.

If you do not have pet cats, pyrethrums and permethrins may be effective on spider mites, but I won't use them because of their side effects on cats, and perhaps on people. Just because something is organic rather than synthetic in origin doesn't mean it is safe. Rotenone is another organic product I've never used and never will use because of its side effects.

Sulphur is often very effective on spider mite populations when sprayed early, as soon as they are seen, but it can damage plants in high temperatures.

If you find the infestation in a year when the weather is milder or if you'd observe it earlier in the year, there are various beneficial insects that you can buy and release to help you control spider mites. However, most of them need cooler temperatures and higher humidity than most of Oklahoma is experiencing now. They would have been a great possible solution in April or May.

How well you are able to battle spider mites will also depend on your weather and on your location. In a more urban environment where spider mite populations may be lower, they sometimes are easier to fight. When I lived in a 50-year-old neighborhood in Fort Worth, we had them pretty much every summer to some degree, but not to the huge extent that I see them here in rural southern Oklahoma. Even if there was a magic potion that I could spray that would kill every single one of the spider mites in my veggie garden, it would not be helpful because I am surrounded by thousands of acres of mixed pastureland/woodland heavily infested with them. I could kill a million of them in my garden, and a billion more would move in the next day.

Sometimes you have to pick your battles, and with spider mites, the earlier you discover them and choose to battle them, the higher the rate of success. Once the high temps are over 90 degrees, the available arsenal of weapons decreases and the mites reproductive ability increases. They can reproduce about three times as fast in hot weather as in cooler weather. In weather as hot as it is now, I choose to do nothing about them. Nothing is going to be effective enough in the weather we're having now, and even if it was, the other tomato pests like stink bugs and blister beetles are showing up and doing enough damage that it almost makes the spider mites irrelevant.

I grow tons of tomatoes every year and I love, love, love them. However, I choose what pests and diseases are worth fighting at various times (based on degree of success, safety and other pests found at the same time), and for me, fighting spider mites in July is a battle I don't fight because of the heat and other pests. I just keep picking tomatoes for as long as I'm getting them, and I put in new plants for fall.

Fall tomato plants usually can fight off the spider mites. By the time the fall plants go into the ground, the spider mite population usually has peaked and is beginning to decrease. At least that is what I have observed here. Also, new fresh plants have increased vigor because of their youth and will overcome issues that are devastating to older, stressed plants.

I staggered my tomato plants this year. The first container plantings were done the third week in February. The first in-ground plants went into the ground on March 12th-13th. The last tomato plants went into the ground and containers the last week in April or first week in May. In my garden, the older the plant right now, the worse it looks. The younger plants are fighting the diseaes and pests much better than the plants that are older. So, as I finish harvseting the bulk of the crop, I'll pull out the older plants. Eventually they'll all be gone, but by then I'll have fall tomatoes.

As for disease symptoms, often they appear at the same time you're battling pests, which can make a precise disease diagnosis difficult. If your leaves turned a bright yellow in patches or splotches before turning brown and drying out, it could be one of the two kinds of powdery mildew we have here. It generally does not produce white fungal growth that is as obvious as the other form of PM. This year I had a lot of it develop in latest May/earliest June when rain was falling. The yellow patches on the leaves were larger than the ones you'll see in the link, and I didn't see a lot of white sporulation, likely because we got too hot very quickly for it to thrive after the rain stopped falling. See the link below. I didn't spray for it, and it killed some plants. Others, though, put out new growth and are rebounding nicely.


Here is a link that might be useful: TAMU Tomato Problem Solver

    Bookmark   July 1, 2012 at 1:12PM
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Thanks for your help. I had read your previous posts on spider mites and looked at the tomato problem solver. Sounds like we're going to have to cross our fingers and hope for the best. On a positive note, one of the celebrity's tomatoes started turning hopefully that is only a precedent for what is to come before the plants die.

I guess if worse comes to worst, we'll plant fall tomatoes. And we'll have learned something about planting timing for next year.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2012 at 7:58PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

You're welcome, Evan.

Spider mites are the bane of my existence as a gardener.

If I could make a living raising spider mites, I'd be a billionaire.

The timing of tomato transplanting in Oklahoma is always going to be tricky due to the erratic nature of our weather. I have planted as early as March 7th or 8th (in the last year that our weather was similar to this year, so maybe 2006 or 2007) and have put my plants in the ground two to four weeks after my average last frost date of March 29th only to have them get hit by late frosts or freezes the first week of May (in 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008). It is enough to make a person crazy.

Still, whatever you can do to put the plants into the ground early will pay off, as long as the ground is warm enough for the roots and as long as you can protect the plants from late frosts or freezes. For some of us (not me because I have sloping ground so WOWs fall over and roll downhill), that involves the use of Wall of Water plant protectors. Some of us use freezer-blanket weight floating row covers to cover up early plantings on cold nights. I've had really good success with that the last couple of years. My heaviest floating row cover gives about 8 degrees of frost protection. I am hoping Santa Claus will bring me DeWitt's Ultimate 3.0 oz. frost blanket that gives 10 degrees of frost protection. With that, and with the use of black plastic to pre-warm the ground, I should be able to plant in early March every year. Early planting is everything to me in terms of tomato success. I planted early this year and we have had a tremendously bountiful harvest that almost defies description. To a certain extent, that's the best spider mite strategy for those of us in rural areas surrounded by thousands of acres of pasture lands teeming with spider mites---just to plant early enough that we get a good crop before the spider mites reach epic numbers. Because, of course, there's no way we can can keep them from coming into our gardens.

I don't remember if I mentioned that some plants will show tremendous spider mite damage up to a point and will look very close to dying, then will make a miraculous comeback. I am seeing that already on four tomato varieties this year: Red Beefsteak (aka Red Ponderosa or Crimson Cushion), Big Boy (my dad's long-time favorite), Terenzo and Lizzano (two AAS winners from a year or two back that were bred for hanging basket culture, but I grow them in the ground). All of them appeared nearly dead, but now are putting out new growth. It remains to be seen if they'll get hit again by spider mites, or if the spider mite population at our house has peaked early (I doubt it, but I can hope) and they'll regrow and refruit for fall. Time will tell.

I have a handful of tomato plants in molasses feed tubs near our garage that barely have been hit by spider mites at all, although brugmansias sitting 20' from them were heavily infested by the end of March. Those plants get sunshine until about 1 p.m. and then are in shade. I think this makes them less stressed and, perhaps, less vulnerable to spider mites. However, it makes them produce less. I'm getting ready to move them out into almost full sun tomorrow in the hopes that they'll continue growing and producing well in July and August as the plantings in the ground in the big garden fade....because I don't water the in-ground tomatoes after July 1st in a year like this. In a big garden like ours, you cannot water the plants enough to keep them producing in very hot weather, so it doesn't make sense to run up a big water bill. I usually plant more plants for fall production in mid-July but don't know if I will this year. It depends on whether any measurable rainfall occurs here during the next couple of weeks.

Next year, I hope to be able to attack the spider mites more vigorously early, when they first show up and am going to experiment with rosemary oil and other essential oils to see what I think of them with regards to spider mites.

Since I mentioned DeWitt's extra-heavy 3.0 oz. frost blanket, I'll link it for anyone who wants to read about it. The floating row cover material I have now only gives 4 to 8 degrees of protection and works well, but I'd love to give the 10-degree stuff a try.

I hope you won't let the spider mites discourage you. Many of us manage to battle them long enough to get a good harvest in spite of them. Fresh, tasty, home-grown tomatoes from your own garden are worth whatever effort it takes to grow them.


Here is a link that might be useful: Ultimate Frost Blanket

    Bookmark   July 2, 2012 at 9:48PM
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Dawn, the spider mites here in OKC - specifically on the tomatos - are horrendous this year. As you know, I always take the "road less travelled", which means I don't use anything at all. Despite the mites (and the heat), so far most of the plants are still producing well. I have about as many beneficials in the garden as anyone, so perhaps they are helping some. I had a guy stop by this morning who said he had not seen many bees at all this year, except in my garden. I don't have many ladybugs this year at all. I may lose most of my tomatos by the end of the month, unless they make that miraculous turn-about you mentioned. The mites have been very selective, choosing the tomatos over my other plants this year. Last year, they chose the Asters primarily and a few other ornamentals. So you never know what their "preference" will be from year to year.

This veggie gardening has proven to be a risky venture. Kinda like Forrest Gump - like a box of chocolates and you don't know what you're getting until you pop one into your mouth.

Ome thing is that I have had absolutely NO BER this year on my tomatos because I have regularly watered the tomatos. That at least was a plus for me. The Big Beef and Better Boy are still getting little green tomatos despite the heat, as is Bush Goliath. Bush Goliath has produced heavily for me. More and bigger tomatos than the plant can really support, weight-wise. I've been very happy with this one.

The old saying, "fighting fire with fire" has changed to "fighting bugs with bugs". That means I intervene virtually not at all in the course of nature's design. I have lots of insects around, which is the way I want it. One of the first things I learned was that if I don't have aphids, I don't get ladybugs. There has to be a reason for them to stop and visit. And in a bug's life, it's food.


    Bookmark   July 4, 2012 at 7:58PM
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Susan likewise I haven't used a pesticide yet. I have come close a few times. And still might. If I do it will be on a selective basis and not the whole garden or even a major part. I haven't got the garlic spray out yet either. Again I've threatened too. I don't have many lady bugs. Ordered some and most left. I'm going to release some green lacewings over the next week. Will also spray a feed that should keep the adults around hopefully. Some say they are good for the mites and tend to stick around as long as there is food for them. The spider mites here haven't been real bad but still a problem on a few plants. I have lots of toads also. And one grass frog. Had never seen one here till this one showed up. I'm seeing several beneficials this year and I few I'm not sure what they are so assume they are beneficial. I also have a few Monarch's around. I planted two types of perennial milk weed and one type of annual. I haven't seen them around either. Although have seen some of the others around them. I saw a bumble bee this morning. The first I've seen in my garden in several years. I never had hardly any pollinators. I've been planting flowers around the garden for several years now. And gradually seeing an increase in pollinators and beneficials. I am seeing a problem I've never had problems with before. I've stated many times that I didn't have many pollinators and had never seen any crosses from seeds I've saved. I'm seeing a few now. I will have to adjust how I save seeds some. Had salamanders in the garden last year but haven't seen any yet this year. I'm still holding out hope that I will be able to get by with very little if any spraying. May have to spray the squash plants with garlic spray. Seen the dreaded bugs on one plant Monday. Jay

    Bookmark   July 4, 2012 at 8:22PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Other than spraying Bt 'kurstaki' for cutworms, I haven't used a pesticide either, thought I've been tempted a few times. I wish I had used Slug Go Plus before the cutworms showed up, but I didn't.

I rely on the beneficial insects to take care of the bad ones and that usually works out well. This year, all the pest damage is occurring because there's a huge imbalance between the number of pest insects and the number of beneficials. By the end of summer, I expect the beneficials will have produced enough that they'll be winning the war with the pest insects. I just have to be patient.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2012 at 2:02PM
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Well, following that message about not using any pesticides, etc., I broke down and dusted my Baptisia australis var. minor this morning. I am so darned tired of the Genista moth caterpillars eating it to the ground. They already ate it to the ground once and the foliage is barely making a comeback now. It's about 3-4" tall and the Genistas are once again consuming the new leaves. I decided to be proactive and BT them to death, hopefully. I am not sure the plant would be able to handle a second attack, They are very, very slow to throw up new foliage after being eaten and I didn't want to take the risk.

So, there you go - from a strict, organic gardener, to a BT mama.........sigh........


    Bookmark   July 5, 2012 at 8:46PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Susan, Well you know, you've got to do what you've got to do. If we lived in a perfect world with a perfectly balanced ecosystem, no one ever would have to resort to pesticides, but we don't. What I believe is the main issue this year is that last year's drought hurt many of the beneficials, and they are very slow to bounce back from a population decrease. Their numbers won't climb until there's already a large food source available for them. Thus, we always see a pest surge first and then a beneficial insect surge, but sometimes not until months later.

This week the grasshoppers have begun eating the tomato plant foliage, and my plants are being just stripped of all their leaves. I could try fighting the hoppers, but since the spider mites are going to wipe out the plants anyway, I just don't want to fight that battle. In recent years, it seems like the pests are showing up in increasing numbers, especially after bad drought.

If this is the new normal that climate change is bringing us, I don't like it. And I don't know that it is the new normal, but I do know that our climate appears to be changing. Of course, it could be we're just having a really miserable decade like the Dirty Thirties of the Dust Bowl years or the Filthy Fifties (Texas' Seven-Year Drought in the 1950s).

It sure makes gardening more and more challenging.


    Bookmark   July 6, 2012 at 1:23AM
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