The Tomato Plant's Mischievous, Tiny Foe

sayle may8 spidermites.jpg

Photo by Carol Ann Sayle

For a couple of weeks, ever since our three inches of rain (the first in months), the farm has been on a honeymoon. Everything turned from brown to green almost overnight. The crops enjoyed the life-enhancing water and started to show real promise.

Heirloom and cherry tomatoes stretch to the sun, lifting their arms to embrace its energy, their roots grabbing the good moisture. Full of promise. So happy they are. But we aren't complacent. When a crop looks this good, something is going to give it a whack. And so...

Apparently, the honeymoon is over. Reality has set in, and it has brought one of the most formidable foes to the the tomato patch: spider mites.

The hoards of gluttonous guests will kill the tomato plants, often before a single tomato ripens.

Larry spent Sunday morning tying the tomato vines' exuberant growth to wire baskets and stakes, and always his eyes were fixed on the state of the green leaves. Soon, he spotted the dreaded announcement. Tiny specks of yellow dotted some of the leaves, looking like pollen, but that guise is false. The specks are not pollen, but rather the evidence that something on the underside of the leaf has sucked the green life blood from the leaf, leaving the yellow speck as a testament to its hunger.

Turning the speckled leaves over, he saw two to three tiny red dots on each. The spider mites. Unchecked they will multiply to the point that they make webs to help them travel from eaten leaves to new gustatory treats. The post-wedding banquet seems endless, but soon the hoards of gluttonous guests will kill the tomato plants, often before a single tomato ripens.

So Larry left the tying for another day and shouldered his backpack sprayer, filled with a concoction that included water, hydrogen peroxide, horticultural oil, orange oil, and seaweed. Who knows if this will arrest the mites? All known remedies have their detractors.

We're just crossing our fingers that the honeymoon can be extended to the fruiting stage. After we harvest the tomatoes, the spider mites can eat the leftovers if they wish.

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Carol Ann Sayle is co-founder and co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, a five-acre urban, organic farm in Austin, Texas.

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