Putting the “Ugh” in an Ugly Garden

I want to tell you all about my lovely  June garden… I want to post beautifully composed photos of the peas going gangbusters, of the fresh strawberries we pick to sweeten our morning cereal,  the lovely  green beans  in full flower,  and the prairie forbes  just opening their petals to the sky.


But tell the truth and shame the Devil, my Grandma Juanita used to say. I’m a sho’ nuff knotty-headed organic gardener and I’ve got to tell it like it is.  Something is going on in my garden this year, something that puts the “ugh” in an ugly garden.   Brace yourselves.


THIS is the truth of what is going on in my garden this year.  This ugly, sickly, disease-spotted wreck of a leaf.  Yeppers, my entire tomato and pepper crop has contracted – in varying degrees — bacterial spot.   In case you’re not familiar, bacterial spot is a serious disease caused by several species of organisms in the Xanthomomas family. Xanthomomas will attack any and all plants in the nightshade family, the most common of which are tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and egg-plants. You shouldn’t be surprised that I’m grinding my teeth, grumbling, and shaking my finger in God’s face.   I’ve got to figure out what to do. What caused the outbreak? Should I intervene? If so, how and how strongly?

First, let’s everybody get on the same page about bacterial spot. What does it look like? How do you recognize it?

It isn’t so very difficult. This disease is so common that you’ve probably seen it, even if you didn’t quite know what you were looking at. While the disease can manifest in any part of the plant (stems, foliage, blossoms or fruits), early signs are usually found in the leaves (thus its common name, bacterial leaf-spot). You’ll probably notice tiny yellow-greenish spots on the leaves, mostly likely on the leaf margins. These will rapidly expand to a triangular shape (hemmed in by the vascular structure of the leaf); this tissue will become necrotic, and blacken. Eventually, infected leaves fall off, and spread the disease pathogen into the soil. A sure diagnosis of advanced bacterial spot in pepper plants is a tall leggy plant with leaves at the crown, and none along the lower stem (tomato leaves infected with bacterial spot are less likely to fall off, so be careful to differentiate these symptoms between the two species).

Bacterial spot can be indigenous in soil. It can spread to soil in which infected plant parts have decomposed. It can be vectored on contaminated seed, and it is spread by water: splashing raindrops, overhead watering, over-watering, by insufficient air circulation among closely crowded plants. You can bring it home from a nursery, save it in your own seed, or have it thriving in your own soil.

It is important to mitigate any knee-jerk response you may have to the presence of this disease (“ahhhh! My plant has leaf spot!!!) with the realization that some plants catch it and get over it, some plants catch it and tolerate it, and some plants catch it and drop dead. Whether or not your plant succumbs depends on a complex interplay of weather conditions, choiceful chemical intervention, garden hygiene, and each plant’s individual constitution.

Organic gardening is always about choices, and about weighing risk-to-outcome-to-cost ratios. For me, one key issue that guides how I proceed is how I think the plant most likely caught the disease. This will tell me something about the likelihood of the plant surviving the disease with or without intervention.

Disease sleuthing is the work of the organic ecosystemer. Let’s get on the prowl…

1) I planted out all of my tomatoes, and peppers on the same day in mid-May. All of them began to show signs of infection within a week of planting.

2) The weather was in the optimum range for the proliferation of the disease, between 60 – 80 degrees Fahrenheit; and worse, it has rained, more or less, every other day since I planted them out. It has rained so much that I still have not (by mid-June) laid out my soaker hoses!

3) I planted the tomatoes in last year’s tomato bed. Did this year’s tomatoes catch the disease from last year’s soil (i.e. should I have rotated the crop)? I didn’t have bacterial spot in my tomatoes last year, despite the long wet spring. So probably not.

4) I planted the cayennes and chili peppers in the raised beds where I had planted peppers last year. Did they catch the disease from last year’s soil (i.e. should I have rotated the crop)? I didn’t have bacterial spot in my pepper plants last year, despite the long wet spring. So probably not.

5) I planted the sweet bell peppers and the poblano peppers where I grew corn last year (in short, I rotated this crop). There shouldn’t be any soil-born contamination between these two crops. Of course, the soil could have contained the bacterial already; there just isn’t any way to tell.

My guess:

Because I had no bacterial spot in my garden last year whatsoever, because there was no difference between replanting in the same spot or planting in a new spot, and most critically, because all of my plants showed symptoms of the disease at exactly the same time, I’m thinking I probably imported the disease from the nursery. The cool, wet conditions in my garden were also perfect for rapid disease proliferation.


1) I responded to the presence of the disease by first removing and discarding any leaves that showed symptoms. I then treated all of the plants with a single application of copper fungicide, mixed with insecticidal soap and neem oil. I added the soap and neem oil to repel insects that might be attracted to the stressed plants.

2) By June 1, all signs of the disease in the tomato plants had disappeared.

3) By June 1, the cayenne and chili peppers planted in the raised beds showed neither improvement nor worsening.

4) By June 1, the sweet bell and poblano peppers were slouching their way closer to an ignominious, and perhaps inevitable death.

What I’m thinking:

1) The tomato varieties I chose may have responded to the copper fungicide treatment better than the peppers did because they, themselves, are partially resistant to the disease. I planted heirloom varieties; but even heirlooms – not selected with disease resistance in mind – have some indigenous disease resistance.

2) All four varieties of pepper plants (unlike the tomatoes) may be particularly susceptible to bacterial spot. Again, these are heirloom varieties, not selected for disease resistance.

3) The peppers in the raised beds responded to the treatment better than their ground-planted cousins because superior drainage conditions allowed drying of the plants between rainstorms. Oppositely, the peppers planted in the ground sickened despite treatment because of the poor soil drainage.


1) I can continue to treat all tomatoes and all peppers with copper fungicide for this gardening season, and then rotate the crop next year. Continued treatment will provide prophylaxis for the tomato plants should weather conditions continue to favor the disease, and will help to mitigate the continued presence of the disease in the pepper crop.

2) I can cease copper fungicide treatment of the tomato crop, especially because I anticipate warmer, drier weather conditions in June and July, but continue copper fungicide treatment of the entire pepper crop, which still shows sign of disease stress.

3) I can cease copper fungicide treatment of the tomato, cayenne and chili crops, but continue treating the sweet bell and poblano crops, which are the worst effected.

4) I can cease treating all of my nightshade crops with copper fungicide and rely on the coming warmer and drier June/July weather to slow the process of the disease.

My best organic ecosystemic sense tells me:

1) Copper fungicide is one of the most toxic chemical interventions in the organic gardener’s arsenal. It lingers in the environment. It is dangerous to fish. It is dangerous to birds. It is dangerous to mammals. It is dangerous to me. I use it very rarely, most often when trying to prevent total crop loss by fungal disease in fruit crops. Furthermore, it is best used in prophylaxis. You spray it before disease shows up. It is much less effective if used afterward.

2) If I’ve guessed correctly that the peppers are susceptible to the disease, knowing that the drainage around the sweet bell and poblano crops is poor, it only makes sense to conclude that spraying copper fungicide repeatedly is a waste copper fungicide. I will dig these plants up, discard them, and replant new ones in one of the raised beds. I certainly won’t plant peppers or tomatoes in the same location next year until I’ve built raised beds there.

3) Because the weather is going to warm up and dry out as June turns into July, I’m just not worried enough about my tomato plants to treat them with copper fungicide again. The disease may reappear if June and July weather conditions don’t improve; but with excellent garden hygiene, sufficient fertilizer and a prayer or two, the plants can tolerate a mild to moderate infection with minimal crop loss. I have 15 plants, for Pete’s sake. Surely that’s enough to satisfy my family, even if the crop is reduced?

4) I will also cease to spray the chili and cayenne peppers, as they seem to be holding their own so far in the raised bed. I will certainly rotate nightshade plants out of this raised bed next year to prevent the build up of the disease pathogen in the soil.


I am, by constitution, somewhat anti-interventionist when it comes to managing garden pests. In this case, the risk-to-outcome ratio doesn’t, to my mind, justify the continued use of a highly toxic chemical intervention. I’ll keep you posted on the progress of the situation. I’m curious how others out there have responded to similar garden troubles.


19 thoughts on “Putting the “Ugh” in an Ugly Garden

  1. Kami Landy says:

    Thanks for sharing your struggles!
    As you know, I’m not much of a gardener, and I can’t even *eat* nightshades. So my response is more to the writing than the content. So– have you thought about writing a gardening book for kids? say- grades 4-6? I loved following your “Sleuthing” process. And “choiceful” is a *lovely* word!
    And I do need to learn when to worry about a funny colored or damaged leaf, and when to figure that nothing in nature looks like a magazine photo…

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      Actually, I’ve just started a co-authored book on gardening in defiance of the sixth mass extinction. I’ve not considered writing a gardening book for children. What a wonderful idea. But you’re right on the money: nothing in nature looks like a magazine photo. Also: plants are mortal. They die. I guess I’ve let a cat out of a bag? 🙂

  2. Once again, you have come to my rescue with a timely post! I came back from a few days away (missing the hot and rainy weather) to find this exact problem on one of my pepper plants. (The tomatoes are–currently–thriving.) After reading your entire post, I have decided to discard this one plant. I am also going to pray for (no) rain. What a mess it is out there!!! Wishing you all the best with this issue, too!!!

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      Fight the good fight!!! Cheers!

      • PS, I’m working on a tomato update and saw in Louise Riotte’s book “Carrots Love Tomatoes” that she thought it OK to plant tomatoes in same place each year UNLESS you have a disease issue. So don’t feel bad about the non-rotation and, yes, moving them might be a part of the solution. Nothing we can do about the danged weather. Sigh.

      • Sho'Nuff says:

        Good to know someone else is planting their tomatoes in the same place multiple years in a row. I do this right up until I see the beginning of disease pressure. My vegetable garden is so small, I just don’t have a lot of rotation options. It’s poured so often and so long here that my plum trees have started to bend over under the weight of the water. I’m actually worried they might drown…;(

  3. Have you thought about growing some of your vegetables in pots? That way you don’t have to worry about contaminated soil, if that is a contributor. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you bought them infected. Greenhouse conditions are perfect for disease. I’d toss them so they don’t spread the disease and start over.

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      That’s what I did. I don’t grow many vegetables in pots… only in years when I’m resting the soil, and then only with vegetables “I can’t live without.”

  4. Lrong says:

    Hi there… luckily for me, I have yet to experience such a serious misfortune… I do rotate my crops though… good luck!

  5. Robbie says:

    oh don’t feel too badly, it seems each year brings its own adventure in organic growing. I do rotate my crops each year since I have had problems in the past and it has become habit for me each year since that first year with problems. Each year, I find something new to deal with, for example, last year it was critters eating all my pole beans, this year they were eating my squash-crazy.
    I hope your plants survive and you get a crop of peppers. I had an aphid infestation in my pepper seedlings this year, so after I battled under my grow lights ( hand picking for a week + spraying water) that I never htought I would see my pepper plants get tall-lol. I am worried about all this rain and hot-cold weather on them ,too. Fingers crossed, hoping to get some peppers!

  6. Oh my I feel your pain as every year my heirloom tomatoes succumb to some disease and I may lose all or some…so I plant hybrids that are resistant. Peppers don’t like cool, wet weather and I have lost whole crops that just won’t rebound from a cool spring. I agree using the chemical too long just won’t work for me so some years I lose all peppers or tomatoes.

    It sounds like you may have some of this licked though…I definitely rotate crops. Sending good wishes for your crops to kick in and grow.

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      We’re fighting the good fight. A few days of hot weather and some garden hygiene will help things along I’m sure. Good luck to you this year. Looking forward to hearing about your garden progress!

  7. Mary Clare Minor says:

    After the week away, any surprises? I love the blog and will keep reading if I can remember! I have a vine problem again reappearing – so far the little catapiller buggers haven’t eaten them entirely. It’s a woodbine vine that has beautifully covered my fence until the catapillers show up and strip them. (Basically skellitanizing the leaves until they drop). Ahh the traumas of the garden!
    take care,
    your roommate,

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      Hooray! Hullo Mary Claire! Thanks for peeking in. Drat those caterpillars on your woodbine vine! Have you tried Bt? it’s specific to caterpillars and may prove helpful, though to be fair it might impact any other butterflies you have trying to reproduce in your yard. Hugs to you!

  8. Christienne–are you still out there???! I know you had a very rough time last year & were trying to get the garden back in shape so maybe you are on a blog break (understandable!) Just touching base because I thought of you in terms of this blogger action day I’m doing with Robbie of Palm Rae Urban Potager. Check out my blog post today–the one about soil I remember your proclivity for no-till, etc. and think you would be a great voice to have out there on this topic. We’re looking for like-minded bloggers who want to post about the importance of healthy soils–do you have any time/interest? Please let me know! Either way, wishing you a happy & delicious 2015!!!

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      Lori: I am so very sorry I missed your Blogger Action Day. The next time you do one, be sure to let me know again. It’s an excellent idea, and I will try to participate. Hopefully this summer, I will start my blog again. I miss it terribly, and miss keeping up with my gardening friends.

      • Will do!!! Look forward to seeing your posts again this summer. Frankly, with a day like today (pending blizzard), I’m *really* looking forward to summer! 🙂

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