Bacterial Wilt In Tomatoes: A Potential Solution!

About a month ago, Neha and I discovered our tomato plants were wilting in a mysterious manner. Almost overnight, entire plants were withering away into sad, deflated versions of themselves. Still green, just unable to manage turgidity. A bit of research later, we found that we had an infestation of bacterial wilt. (We confirmed this via an easy, 2-minute test, needing nothing more than a glass of water, it’s featured below…)

Sad tomato plants.

What Is Bacterial Wilt?

An infection caused by the bacterium Ralstonia (Pseudomonas) Solanacearum. As the name indicates, other members of the family Solanaceae, such as potato, eggplant and tobacco are equally susceptible. Sure enough, some brinjals were also starting to suffer the same fate as our tomatoes.

There was good news, though. Thanks to our emphasis on increasing bio-diversity, we were growing far more than just Solanacae. Our greens, chillies, beans, gourds and squash were doing just fine, and starting to provide harvests.

How Does Bacterial Wilt Do Its Thing?

Bacterial wilt enters the plant through cuts in the root, which happen during planting, or naturally via nematodes or insects. The bacteria then multiply in the vascular system, eventually clogging up the water conducting vessels with bacterial cells.

How To Confirm Bacterial Wilt

The easiest way to confirm your garden has a case of bacterial wilt is to cut a stem section from a suspected plant, and then immerse it in water for a few minutes. If wilt is an issue, the bacterial slime will begin to flow from the xylem into the water and you’ll see it as a cloudy, murky stream issuing from the cut end of the stem.

A cut stem showing slime oozing from it, a sure sign of bacterial wilt.

What Can You Do About Bacterial Wilt?

Sadly, there are no known ways of eliminating bacterial wilt other than solarizing the soil, a process whereby the sun’s heat and UV light is used to sterilize the soil (down to a depth of at least two feet). Then you rebuild all life, from scratch. A drastic and painstaking effort, and at the end of all of that work, you have to be incredibly paranoid about reinfections as well. Clearly this is a last-ditch cure. For us, the worst case scenario would have been to grow Solanacae in containers with solarized soil. Not great, but not devastating.

A Potential Solution?

While we waited to decide what to do about the tomato plants, we began casting about for any other solutions. Among various research papers I read while investigating bacterial wilt, I found “Low sodium chloride priming increases seedling vigor and stress tolerance to Ralstonia solanacearum in tomato”, a 2011 paper written by a group of Japanese researchers investigating the use of a salty solution (of NaCl and water) to prime, or soak the seeds in before planting. Apparently this is a method used to synchronize seed germination, but it also was suspected to improve the plant’s resistance to bacterial wilt.

Their research showed promise. Not only was the treatment easy to administer (just soak the seeds for 24h in a specific concentration of salt and water before planting) but the results appeared incredible:

In this experiment, which was run twice (A & B) with 13 plants each time, the NaCl-primed plants wilted at a rate between 40% and 60% less than plants primed with water or not primed at all.

OK, we are trying this. 40% to 60% means if we double the number of plants we put in, we’re back to normal!

The Salt Solution

The first step was to make the 300mM salt solution that the seeds had to be soaked for 24h. A bit of figuring out concentrations and molar masses later, I had the recipe. I needed to put in 19.48gms of salt into a litre of water. (Actually it gives me a 333mM solution, but since I’m doing a real-world test of this method, it needs to also tolerate imprecision like this.)

A relatively small quantity of salt…
Took a surprisingly long time to dissolve!

Salt Priming!

Once the salt solution was ready, we dropped the seeds in, set an alarm and waited for 24 hours.

We planted four varieties of tomato, to test each one. Sungold Select II cherry tomatoes and Black Krim tomatoes from friends’ farms, Yarroway Farms’ Roma Tomato and a variety of beefsteak tomato called Delicious, from a previous season at The Habitat Homestead.

Planting

After 24 hours, we fished out the seeds, washed them in running water and planted them.

Tucked in and waiting for germination!

At this point, our fingers are crossed, hoping for a good germination rate, followed by robust growth and a resistance to the wilt. Will it work? We’ll know in a few weeks! Look out for part two of this post at that time!

Garden Restart: Summer Edition!

A view of one of our garden beds, sorely in need of a restart!

When Neha and I returned to the Habitat Homestead a couple of days ago, we knew that a garden restart was on the cards. After just under 3 months away from our home in the hills, we were eager to see what impact the hiatus would have on our veggie beds and our potted plants. While we weren’t expecting complete decimation, we did anticipate some damage. We’d hired a part-time gardener to water the garden three times a week, and do some light weeding, but the lack of our supervising presence meant that we genuinely could not estimate what the state of the garden would be.

In the middle of our trip came news that monkeys had trashed our nursery section (AGAIN!) and generally played havoc with the garden. Fair enough, we left, they stuck around, and struck when the timing was right. We haven’t seen any since we’ve returned, and with Miko the perimeter security dog back on the job, we’ve hopefully seen the last of the monkey raids. So, on to the next piece of work: getting our garden back on its feet! We’re taking things in stages:

Step 01: Survey The Situation

Our first big day in the garden came yesterday, when we spent a long time surveying the damage:

A garden restart will include a plan for this damaged trellis!
There were broken trellises…
Wind, sun and rain account for the damage to this footboard. Another item to replace in our garden restart.
and damaged steps.

Some of the damage was caused by weather and decay, like the footboard above. The monkeys were responsible for more large-scale assaults, like those on the trellises.

Most of the carefully laid mulch was gone, some of it decomposed into the soil, the rest undoubtedly blown away.
More monkey damage to our fence…

Amidst all the destruction and decay, though, life still bloomed through.

Fennel flowers peeked out from the foliage…
And a brazen Marigold thrust herself at me by the front door.
While in the shade of the overhang by the porch, a pomegranate furtively buds.

Not to be outdone, the chillies in the garden are also putting on a show.

Other Unexpected Garden Surprises:
Our fennel plants are doing incredibly well in the rocky soil and low water situation
We have a lot of biomass thanks to the glyricidia and elderflower bushes
Our moringa plants are now taller than I am, and already supplying us with greens!
ALL the basil survived!

But perhaps best of all, the most unexpected surprise was… our worm bin had created some amazing vermicompost and FIVE LITERS of worm juice!

Step 02: Make A Garden Restart Plan!

OK so where we stand at the moment is not looking too bad. A lot of our plants have in fact survived, albeit in survival mode, and they’re far from thriving. Our real obstacle on the path to a full garden recovery and restart is the water supply. We’re heading into summer, and the next three months are going to have us on a strict water-use regimen, similar to our first summer on this piece of land. With only 15,000 liters of tank space to play with, we need to be very careful about re-using our dish washing water, channeling our grey water to planted areas, and reducing the number of beds we water. That last one is a wrench, because it means abandoning some of the plants that are in beds we won’t water.

Our water math boils down to us having about 8 buckets of water per day, until we return to a more steady water supply. (Which, realistically will happen in July at the earliest.) That’s about enough to water 2 beds adequately, especially if we want the plants in them to thrive, rather than merely scrape by.

Our plan, therefore, is to:

  1. Identify two beds which will be our primary growing spaces for the summer (down from our total of about 10 beds).
  2. Spend the bulk of our water and soil resources (vermicompost, worm juice, fish meal, etc) on getting those two beds into lush, food-producing status.
  3. Gather mulch materials (dried leaves) and heavily (at least six inches) mulch the beds.
  4. Transplant into those beds all the plants we can ill-afford to lose.
  5. Germinate, nurture and then plant in new saplings of select, drought-hardy species (bhindi, brinjals, etc)
  6. Nurse along any other plants that are in un-watered beds as best we can.
  7. In case of early rains or sudden windfalls of water, sow the un-watered beds with a cover crop of millets (foxtail and pearl), moong dal, and cow pea. With any luck, they’ll survive and be ready to be worked into the soil by the time the rains come in. This will add a hit of nitrogen and organic matter to the soil just when the monsoon planting is happening.

Bulking Out The Garden

Apart from the plants we already have in the garden and the ones we plan to grow from seed, we also managed to pick up a lot of cuttings from Goa!

More Glyricidia and African Bitterleaf for biomass!
Perennial greens like Moloccan Spinach!
Tree spinach (chaya), Sweetleaf and tree tomatos!
Black pepper, betel and tropical dill!

I can’t wait to get these guys planted out in our two luxury beds!

Our First Harvest From The Veggie Garden

One of the 12 permaculture principles is Obtain A Yield. The principle urges us to implement solutions that will allow us to harvest something from every design element we build into our plan for the land. The idea is if you are going to put effort (energy) into something, you should receive a benefit (in the form of a store of energy). Another way of looking at it is, everything on your land needs to be producing stuff that’s useful. Either to you or to the other organisms sharing your habitat. This principle needs to be networked into your overall plan for the land, but it also needs to be constantly tinkered with.

One example of how we did this is with the stakes we used when we were mapping out our veggie garden: Instead of using dead wood, we cut living stakes which have now rooted (well, some of them have) and are providing us with a yield (of leaves and other biomass, for mulch) as well as becoming part of our trellis system for beans and gourds to climb on. The way we’re tinkering with the idea is by trying out different species of plants to use as these biomass providers, so we get the maximum yield in the shortest amount of time.

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Today, we harvested our first tomato, from a sprawling plant in our balcony patch. As you can tell by the vibes in this photo, this is a moment for me. ❤ For two reasons. ❤ One, because I have watched this plant grow from a gangly sapling to a sprawling (but still gangly) adult, watched it swell from a pinhead to luscious tomato, watched it gently (and miraculously) turned from mottled green to red, tempting my fate by giving it one more day to ripen on the mama plant. I have watered it, staked and pruned its branches, whispered sweet nothings when the monkeys came visiting. In turn, the plant has witnessed my morning meditations nearly every day of its life. Wonder if it noticed. ❤ Anyway, so there it was, hanging with its peeps until after lunch today, when Vahishta and I were chatting on the back porch, and I thought, ah what the heck, it's a beautiful day, I'm still feeling peckish, and I really want to know what the damn thing tastes like. (Of course, I will love it regardless). ❤ IT WAS WONDERFUL. ❤ Wonderfully sweet and sour, and just so flavourful. All the intensity of a sun-dried tomato, but also ridiculously juicy. It sings salaaaaaaaaaad. 🎵 I am (truly) surprised by how good it was. Which brings me to the other reason: Score One for organic, home-grown produce trumping large-scale market veggies! ❤ Yes, I am aware that this does not mean every other tomato is going to taste this good, but for now, I am just thrilled to bits. ❤ Anyway, I guess what I'm trying to say is, grow your own tomatoes everybody. It's beautiful, start to finish, and sometimes you might even get some delicious fruit. ❤ #permaculture #PermacultureIndia #KodiByHabitat #HabitatHomestead

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What About The Edible Harvest?

Apart from these initial biomass dividends, we’re also starting to reap some edible fruits of our labor. A group of cherry tomato plants on our back porch have been providing us with a steady supply of the juiciest, most flavorful tomatoes I’ve ever tasted. They go great in rasams, sandwiches and pickles. We’ve also been able to harvest a number of leaves, most of them from plants that we put in a couple of months ago: Purple Joyweed and Bathua (which is either Pigweed or Lamb’s Quarters, depending on who you talk to) as well as Red Amaranth and Nasturtium are the semi-perennials we harvest from regularly, while red lettuce and spinach are cut-and-come-again annuals (although we should have a nice long growing season, I don’t think they’ll survive the winter.)

Our very first harvest - a Marigold flower, a red Okra and 5 Feverfew flowers...
Our earliest harvests were just a couple of flowers and the odd okra or bean.

We’re also regularly harvesting flowers from the Calendula, Marigold and Feverfew plants. We’ve got a bunch of beans from a pair of Yard Long Bean plants as well. Herbs have been providing us with a lot of flavour for our salads, pastas and roasts: fresh thyme, spearmint, coriander, onion chives, lemon balm and oregano are all regular features.

It’s fulfilling on a deep and meaningful level to go into the garden and cut or pick or pluck something fresh to eat. But it’s not just a mental or spiritual fulfillment. Growing your own food rewards your physical senses in equal measure. The flavor of home-grown food is undeniably better than anything you might be able to buy from a market. Seriously. I cannot stress this enough. You haven’t tasted food until you’ve grown it yourself.

The Water Saga (And Solution)

When Neha and I decided to move to the Palani hills and set up our homestead, one of the features of the area that really appealed to us was that there’s only one really dry period, from March, to about April. The rest of the year, there’s (apparently) ample rainfall, and we’ve assumed that most of our water usage could come from rainwater harvesting, supplemented by other sources during the dry period. How wrong we were…

Continue reading The Water Saga (And Solution)

The First Six Weeks

The evening of April 2, 2019, saw Neha and I stumble out of our car and unload our two cats, (Sheila and Pebbles, siblings, age 11) some basic luggage, and move into what we hope will become a sustainable homestead near the village of Pethuparai, in Kodaikanal Taluka, Tamil Nadu. We drove up from Goa, via Bangalore and we were tired, cranky and mildly dehydrated. The car AC packs up religiously after 400 kms of highway travel. We had done 500 that day, with the two elderly cats, remember.

Continue reading The First Six Weeks