I have a confession to make. I killed my garden this summer. The surprising thing is, that I’ve never been more relieved.
It first started with one of our standard varieties of Jalapeno – the el Jeffe – a dark green, heat filled but smokey variety that last year proved to be so unexpectedly prolific that I’d planned on pickling a peck of peppers this fall, but it was not to be.
At first I thought the garden needed to be watered, yet the ‘wilting’ began to spread not just between the peppers (which were planted in the same bed) but soon the tomatoes in another bed began dying off as well, wilting from the tips down to the roots, leaving caged little sticks behind.
I’ve never personally seen this kind of failure before, but it closely resembled what I’ve studied and have heard horrific tales of. Visiting one of my favorite resource sites, the death and destruction resembled what I was seeing in my garden.
Wilt. Holy shit. No, no, no… please don’t let it be Wilt.
Wilt. If either Verticillium or Fusarium wilt was in my garden, then it was game over for me. These soil born fungal diseases move into and destroy the vascular system of plants just as they have reached maturity and are producing fruit. Once established, the spores can survive for decades, and any attempts at heritage tomatoes would result in reinforcing the disease, and the slow painful death of the promise of huge, beautifully ugly colorful tomatoes.
Methodically and doggedly plants were pulled, doggedly inspected, torn apart and inspected to see what was going on… animal, insect, fungus or bad practices. I didn’t immediately sending off samples to the pathology lab for a definitive diagnosis as there are several conditions out there that resemble these two catastrophic war waging diseases. Perhaps it was a measure of prolonging my denial, that if I kept looking I could find another cause.
Please don’t let it be wilt I prayed with each plant that went down for the count. It was after the 8th plant died that a pattern began to emerge, and it was the key to solving the mystery.
It was also a reminder of very good lesson for this tried and true old timer. When it comes to nutrients, if a little is good, a lot is not. I killed my plants, and I’ve never been more relieved. This years harvest, what little there is, is a reminder of how precious gardening is and how quickly a passion can be taken away.
Yes friends, with each tablespoon of blood meal that I added to the root zone of soil for my tomatoes and peppers, I set into motion their slow and untimely death. In the photo above, microbial activity can be seen as white flecks within the dark layer of the blood meal I applied to the soil.
Blood meal is one the highest non-synthesized sources of nitrogen that organic gardens rely on for the slow release of this foundational nutrient. Without nitrogen living things cannot exist (save for a few odd species that call the depths of the ocean home. Nitrogen is the N in DNA and RNA, and a multitude of other essential activities within a living being.
Yet, iron is a micro-nutrient and makes up the heme in hemoglobin (or blood) and it is toxic in large doses to both plants and animals.
When I received my soil report (insert link here) and saw the famine-state levels of nitrogen in my garden I found information on how blood meal has been used since the dawn of time to feed the soil, of it’s reliability for long term soil building, and warnings that it might attract nuisance critters like squirrels and raccoons to the garden, but I failed to pursue the other ‘cons’ of the material, and my plants suffered the consequences.
It’s a mistake I share so that you don’t suffer the same fate. Had I done a better job of researching this fertilizer and paid more attention to what the plants were growing in, I would have used it in smaller amounts, and as part of a treatment plan, not as THE treatment plan.
The plants that died were the ones where the blood meal, the peat-heavy media and water all came together to create an acidic environment in which the iron could be absorbed at toxic levels. Normally in our clay based soils, the pH is high rather than low, and iron isn’t as much of a concern – meaning that blood meal can be used to benefit your plants and soil.
Those plants within the garden that survived were ones where I used the ‘trench’ method of planting, so the peat-heavy rootball was further away from the location the blood meal was applied. My fault was having hungry plants, applying too much after too long without food and too close to the peat.
Planning for next year has already started, and part of the work starts now. The garden is still active; I’ve tomatoes and peppers that are still soaking up the sun’s energy, and the fruit is becoming more flavorful with each cool night on the vine. Raspberries continue to swell and ripen. If last year was any indication, the seasons have shifted and we will be finishing up our small harvest in November again.
Killing frosts should be later this month, and when that happens, plants and cages will be pulled, weeds removed and the soil turned to incorporate alfalfa, compost and yes, blood meal.
While the garden sleeps, microbes will be feasting, working and building the soil so that it is prepped and ready to welcome next years crops once the season rolls around again.
For now though, I am celebrating (and hopefully not prematurely) that my garden has not fallen to Wilts, and the dream of rich, gnarly, twisted fruit at next summer’s end is a possibility, even if it can’t be now. The few fruit that I’m able to harvest this year are cherished a little more so than usual.
Until next time, may your knees be green and your spirits light.