Blight-Resistant Tomatoes: WNC Leads the Way in Research

There are two words that elicit a deep sigh and considerable head-shaking from backyard and commercial vegetable gardeners: tomato blight. 

A costly and deadly pathogen
Of the tomato blights, the deadliest is late blight caused by Phytophthora infestans, which infects some members of the Solanaceae plant family, especially tomatoes and potatoes. Although this pathogen superficially resembles a fungus, it is an oomycete that is more closely related to brown algae. This is the culprit that produced the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, so to say it’s a problem is an understatement!

For the home gardener, late blight is the destroyer of a beloved summer treat—a freshly picked, vine-ripened tomato, bursting with flavor and warm from the sun. The pathogen overwinters in infected potato tubers. Its spores are carried by the wind, which means that it spreads easily. Once it starts, it is next to impossible to stop.

Conditions favorable to blight
Don’t be fooled by its name. Late blight isn’t limited to later in the growing season. It can develop anytime between early and mid-season, depending on weather conditions, and it is a threat wherever tomatoes are grown.

The very things that tomatoes need to grow create conditions favorable for Phytophthora infestans to take hold—plenty of moisture (rain, dew, irrigation, and fog) and temperatures between 64 and 71°F. Under the right conditions, the disease lifecycle can occur in as little as five days and can spread quickly any time humidity is over 80 percent for two days or more. There are many days when conditions are just right in WNC for tomato blight! It is for this reason that NC Cooperative Extension tracks and reports where the disease is appearing and how quickly it is spreading from farm to farm and county to county. You can also follow the disease each year through the USA Blight website (

Prevention and control strategies
Phytophthora infestans is a formidable adversary for any gardener and requires multiple strategies to combat it. Prevention and control are particularly challenging for organic gardeners and farmers. Choosing the right location for tomatoes can help. Full sun, good air movement, reduced leaf wetness, and well-drained soil all help plants stave off the blight for as long as possible. Chemical products may slow down the spread of blight, but need to be applied frequently and on ALL plant surfaces with every application. It’s a lot of work.

WNC, a leader in tomato research and development
There is some good news on the horizon for tomato growers worldwide! Unlike infected potato tubers, tomato seeds do not transmit the blight pathogen. This makes it possible for researchers at Western North Carolina’s Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River, Henderson County, to develop tomato varieties resistant to Phytophthora infestans and many other tomato diseases.

Dr. Dilip Panthee, Associate Professor of Horticulture at North Carolina State University (NCSU), leads this research. Developing disease-resistant, higher-yielding plants for North Carolina’s $30-million-a-year tomato industry will reduce the global economic impact of diseases like Phytophthora infestans.

It was Panthee’s work on tomato breeding in his native Nepal that grabbed the attention of NCSU. “You’ll find tomatoes growing on every continent except Antarctica. We tend to associate them with Mediterranean food, but tomatoes are a favorite ingredient world-wide,” Panthee said in an April 2015 interview. “The varieties we are creating are important for two reasons. First, we are reducing the need for farmers to use pesticides, and we know that is good for the environment. Second, we are creating fruits with better food quality, both in flavor and appearance. That means greater availability of nutritious fresh tomatoes, particularly in developing countries.”

Disease-resistant tomato varieties
Working with NCSU professor emeritus Randy Gardner (the man behind ‘Mountain Pride’ and many more tomato varieties), Panthee developed ‘Mountain Merit,’ a high-yielding, fresh-market cultivar that is resistant to three tomato plant problems—late blight, tomato spotted wilt virus, and root-knot nematodes. Panthee also developed ‘Mountain Majesty,’ a large tomato with improved fruit color and resistance to tomato spotted wilt virus. Both are commercially available.

Panthee’s latest creation is ‘Mountain Rouge,’ a pink heirloom-type hybrid that is also resistant to early and late blight, as well as root-knot nematodes. “The flavor of this tomato is excellent,” Panthee says. “And its heirloom appearance makes it very appealing to commercial growers and backyard gardeners.”

Because the Mountain tomato series (‘Mountain Pride,’ ‘Mountain Rouge,’ ‘Mountain Merit,’ and ‘Mountain Majesty’) was developed here in Buncombe County, it is well-suited to local growing conditions. You’ll find one or more of the cultivars in the series throughout the planting season at area garden centers.

Learn more
To learn more about the important tomato breeding work being done at the Western North Carolina’s Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River, go to Better yet, plan a visit in late summer 2017 for Tomato Field Day, talk to the experts, and taste the fruits of their labors.

Article written by Janet Moore, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.


Seed Starting: From Sowing Indoors to Transplanting in the Garden

Indoor Seed Starting_MelanieO_CC BY-NC-ND 2.0Are you drooling over the garden catalogs arriving daily in your mail box? Are you longing to get out into the garden? Get an early start on the season by growing your own transplants from seeds! Although this will not save you money—unless you want to grow a lot of one kind of plant—it will allow you to grow varieties not available in the garden center, or to use seeds you or friends have saved. Growing your own transplants will also give you a head start on growing plants like tomatoes that take too long from direct seeding in the garden to fruiting for our growing season.

When to begin? Timing is everything
Choose what you want to grow, then use the Extension planting calendar for Western North Carolina (see Resources below) to figure out when you need to start the seeds to have the transplants ready to put in the ground at the right time. Study your seed packets for more precise information about how long before your planting date you should start each seed type and how deep to plant them. If you don’t have seed packets, Suzanne Ashworth’s book, Seed to Seed: Seed Saving Techniques for the Vegetable Grower is one useful book for seed-starting.

Petunia seedlings_Satrina0_CC BY-NC-ND 2.0Starting the seeds
Plan to use grow lights, as even a very sunny window doesn’t give enough light to grow strong plants. (See the blog Starting Seeds Indoors: Using Grow Lights.) You can start your seeds in small cell packs, peat pots or cubes, or reuse clean plastics, such as individual yogurt containers. Make sure anything you use has holes for drainage. Start your seeds in a sterile commercial mix, that does NOT contain fertilizer. Plants don’t need fertilizer until they have their first true leaves! To grow the strongest plants, move seedlings to a pot one size larger once they are established and growing steadily.

outdoorsinmay_ethnobot_CC BY-NC 2.0Hardening off the seedlings
Before planting seedlings in the garden, they need “hardening off” to prepare them for tougher outdoor conditions. Don’t try to rush the season for tender plants or a late freeze may ruin all your hard work! A week or so before you’re ready to plant, start putting your seedlings outside in a shady place during the day. Be sure to keep them well-watered and out of strong winds. Bring them in at night. After a few days of this, if night temperatures are above 45°F, you can leave them out to get them used to more sun and gentle breezes.

 Last step: planting in the garden
Ideally, put your plants in the ground on a cloudy day, or after the hottest part of the day. Water about an hour before planting and then again when they are in the ground. Make sure peat pots or cubes are thoroughly soaked and completely underground so they don’t wick water away from the plant.

Article written by Joyce Weinberg, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.


Time to Maintain: Cutting Back Ornamental Grasses

The best time to cut back your ornamental grasses is any time before new growth sprouts in the spring.  If you haven’t done this yet, plan to do so in late February!

Panicum virgatum_Matt Lavin_CC BY-SA 2.0_Flickr

Panicum virgatum or switchgrass

Ornamental or warm season grasses in the landscape
I thoroughly enjoy ornamental grasses in my landscape for their interesting foliage textures amidst my evergreen shrubs and perennials, and for their lovely seed heads in fall.  I even like seeing their golden-brown leaves dotting the landscape in winter.  My yard is home to a variety of ornamental grasses of various sizes and shapes—blue fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’), pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris), dwarf fountain grass (Pennisetum oriental ‘Hameln’), little blue stem (Schizachyrium scoparium), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’). These warm season grasses are mostly maintenance-free with one exception: the dead foliage needs to be cut back in the late winter to showcase the thick flush of new growth in spring.

Tips for cutting back foliage
I choose a warm, sunny day in late February, retrieve hand and electric pruning shears and some bungee cords from the shed, and head to the yard.  For more delicate, short grasses, such as blue fescue and dwarf fountain grass, I use very sharp hand pruning shears and cut the foliage to 1 to 3 inches above ground level. For larger grasses, I wrap a bungee cord around the center of the foliage of each grass clump. Then I use electric shears to cut the foliage below the bungee cord, about 3 to 6 inches above the ground.  I’ve discovered that electric shears make quick and easy work of the cutting-back process on these thick, tall grasses.  And the bungee cord holds the foliage bundle together in a nice, neat package that I simply pick up and toss in the compost pile!

Article written by Beth Leonard, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.


Saturday Seminar: Pruning Shrubs and Trees; Sharpening Pruning Tools, February 25

Saturday Seminar presents:
Pruning Shrubs and Small Trees, plus
Sharpening Your Pruning Tools

Saturday, February 25, 2017
10:00 a.m. to noon

NC Cooperative Extension
Buncombe County Center
49 Mount Carmel Road
Asheville, NC

Presenter: Alan Wagner, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer

Pruning your landscape requires different methods than pruning tomatoes or bonsai. And it requires practice, practice, and more practice! Learn the use of time-tested techniques; the importance of good, sharp tools; and, the right time of year to prune particular plants.

Join Alan Wagner as he demonstrates the tools and techniques for pruning shrubs and small trees.

Bring your pruning tools for the session on how to sharpen them!

The talk is free, but registration is requested by calling 828-255-5522.

Kids Post: Winter Fun with Seed Catalogs and Bird Feeders

On the day the first seed catalog arrives, I start getting the itch to garden. Why not get your children or grandchildren interested, too? Planning for a garden and attracting birds to your yard are ideal winter activities.

Make a garden blueprint
Use last year’s seed catalogs to let children cut pictures of fruits and vegetables that they like and that you are willing to grow. Add at least one vegetable you would like them to try. 

Help them plan a garden on paper or cardboard by pasting the items where you will plant them. At planting time, take the “blueprint” out to the garden and plant.

During the growing season, it will be fun to compare the paper garden plan to your actual garden. A bonus of creating a blueprint: next year you won’t have to remember where veggies were planted for crop rotation!

Flashcards and matching games
For younger children, you can use seed catalog pictures to make flash cards, a match game, or bingo from pictures of fruits and vegetables. Older siblings will enjoy helping construct these items.

Bird feeders
Pine Cone Bird Feeder_mel issa_CC BY-NC-ND 2.0_Flickr
Another great winter project is making bird feeders. The easiest one I’ve seen is made with a pine cone. You’ll need some inexpensive peanut butter or plain suet, and bird seed. Attach a string to the pine cone for hanging, spread the peanut butter or suet over the cone, and then roll it in bird seed. Hang outside near a window so that your family can enjoy watching the birds feeding!

Enjoy the winter with these fun, simple projects. Spring will be here before you know it!

Article written by Nancy Good, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.


Time to Maintain: Last Call for Pruning Deciduous Trees

Despite what the weather feels like, we are coming to the end of winter! Now is the best time to prune most deciduous trees. Without leaves, you can see the tree framework and identify existing or potential problems.

See what needs to be pruned
It’s best to stand back and visually trace the tree’s structure. You may have to move around a bit, but look for places where limbs are rubbing together or hanging below what I like to call the “browse line.” In winter in forests where deer populations are high, you can see a browse line, where deer have “pruned” limbs off trees to the level they can reach. Sometimes, we want to create “browse lines” in our home landscapes. For example, it’s desirable to prune trees planted in or around a parking area or sidewalk to a height above the heads of folks walking to or from their cars by removing all tree limbs that hang below 7 or 8 feet.

Choose the correct pruning tools and cuts
Remove small branches with hand or pole pruners. For larger cuts, use a saw. To avoid damaging the tree when removing or cutting back large branches, use a “three-step cut” to prevent ripping the bark on the tree trunk.

Locate the point where the branch joins the trunk. Follow the branch out approximately six inches:

  1. Make the first cut from the bottom up. After a few saw strokes, you’ll feel the weight of the limb begin to squeeze the saw. Stop!
  2. Now go back and make the second cut from the top down, completely dropping the limb. Watch out! It may go suddenly.
  3. What’s left is a six-inch stub. To remove the stub, make the third cut from the top down just outside the branch collar.

Maintain the protective branch collar
On most trees, you’ll see what’s called a “collar” or ridge encircling the branch where it joins the main trunk. That collar should remain on the tree to help promote healing of the wound created when you remove the stub from the trunk. Over time, the collar becomes part of the “scab” that protects the tree from infection or rot.

Article written by Glenn Palmer, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.


Lecture: Healthy Soil for Healthy Plants, February 16

Gardening in the Mountains presents:
Healthy Soil for Healthy Plants

Thursday, February 16, 2017
11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m.

NC Cooperative Extension
Buncombe County Center
49 Mount Carmel Road
Asheville, NC

Presenter: Mary Hugenschmidt, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer

Although winter is upon us, there is a lot of activity going on in your soil. Soil is gardeners’ black gold. Come delve into the amazing world within the soil, and explore sustainable techniques that will help you create healthy soils that nurture healthy plants.

The talk is free, but registration is requested by calling 828-255-5522.
You are welcome to bring a brown bag lunch.

2017 School Garden Grants Available: Applications Due March 8

Buncombe County Master Gardener Volunteers are happy to announce that, for the tenth straight year, we are offering School Garden Grants to Asheville City and Buncombe County public schools, including charter schools.

We provide a copy of the grant application form along with instructions to all school principals, elementary through senior high. Additional information is available on our website page, 2017 School Garden Grants, where you can learn more about selection criteria and download copies of the 2017 School Garden Grants Application and Guidelines for 2017 School Garden Grants.

Completed application forms will be accepted beginning February 8, 2017, and no later than 5 p.m. on March 8, 2017, at the Buncombe County Extension Office, 49 Mount Carmel Road, Asheville, NC. If you have any questions, please call 828-255-5522.

We are proud of our partnership with Asheville City and Buncombe County Schools. Since 2007, we have awarded 51 School Garden Grants totaling over $35,000. Our records show that these grants have involved more than 16,700 students, 1,100 teachers, and over 3,300 parents and community volunteers.

Announcement written by Nancy Good, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

The Living Classroom: Gardens in School Settings

Buncombe County Extension Master Gardeners open the annual application process for awarding School Garden Grants on February 8, 2017. In this blog, we share information about the educational value of connecting children with nature and explain why we feel these grants are so important to our schools. We hope parents and teachers will work with their school principals to encourage applying for School Garden Grants.

Children today face “nature deficit disorder”
Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, voiced concern about what he labeled “nature deficit disorder” — a chronic disconnect between children and nature that adversely affects childhood development. There was a growing anxiety that childhood obesity, poor nutrition, attention spans, and behavior problems were increasing as children spent more time indoors with television, computer games, and sedentary activities. The question was: How to get children outside and connected to nature, particularly in urban settings? Obviously, parks and gardens were among the first considerations, especially school gardens where kids could “get their hands dirty.” 

School gardens emerge as outdoor, Living Classrooms
Today, the traditional concept of school gardens as places to raise plants has grown into the concept of the garden as an outdoor, Living Classroom for hands-on learning, discovery, integration of concepts across disciplines, applying facts and concepts to practical situations, problem solving, scientific experimentation and observation, writing, reading, and artistic expression. Discovery Learning, or Integrated Learning, are terms used to describe the process of learning facts and concepts, applying them to real-life situations, observing and analyzing what happens, and sharing the information gleaned with others through talking, writing, journaling, scientific reporting, or artistic creations. 

Studies prove value of garden-based learning
In their article in Review of Educational Research 2013, Drs. D. R. Williams and R. S. Downs of the University of Georgia concluded that “research conducted between 1990 and 2010 has shown overwhelmingly that garden-based learning had a positive impact on students’ grades, knowledge, attitudes, and behavior.” (

The University of Colorado’s Benefits of Gardening for Children, Fact Sheet #3, October, 2011, ( identifies numerous, research-backed benefits of school gardens, including those summarized below:

  • Increased self-understanding and maturity; ability to work productively in groups; calmer and happier connections with peers and adult mentors.
  • Higher scores on science achievement tests.
  • More meaningful learning with integrated curricula.
  • Increased parental involvement.
  • Increased understanding of ecology, interconnections with nature, and responsibility to care for nature.

Buncombe schools apply their grants many ways
From 2007 through 2016, the Buncombe County Extension Master Gardener Volunteers have awarded 51 School Garden Grants totaling $35,000. These grants have impacted over 17,000 public school students in grades K-12 and 4,000 teachers and community volunteers.

Grants to Owen Middle School, Fairview Elementary, and Vance Elementary have been used school-wide. Francine Delany used their grant for afterschool programs. North Windy Ridge Intermediate and Barnardsville Elementary focused on a single grade level. A.C. Reynolds High, North Buncombe Elementary, and Erwin Middle School concentrated on single classrooms or groups. And North Buncombe High School spotlighted horticultural curriculum goals.

These school grants have helped create learning spaces with no walls. They offer unlimited opportunities for all students to apply what they learn in the Living Classroom to the real world as they develop and use skills necessary for academic achievement, personal growth and development, and life skills. Living Classrooms grow children as well as plants! 

Article written by Mary Hugenschmidt, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.


Starting Seeds Indoors: Using Grow Lights

This time of year, gardeners are often a bit itchy to get going! One way to partially alleviate that itch is to inventory your tools and review your gardening practices. So, let’s look at seed-starting and review the basics of indoor lighting.

GOPR1261_jalexartis_CC BY-NC-ND 2.0_Flickr

Plant seedlings under grow light

The light plants need
Plants use almost the entire spectrum of the sun’s light, so once they germinate, seedlings are much affected by the kind of light they receive. Most important are the ultraviolet range at the low end of the spectrum and the infrared portion at the upper end. The blue part of the spectrum encourages leafy growth, while the red seems to affect stem growth, budding, or flowering. In other words, blue light serves as the seedlings’ nitrogen, and red as their phosphorus, affecting the development of flower and fruit production of the adult plant.

Artificial light
Fluorescent light bulbs, unlike traditional incandescent bulbs, provide red and blue light without producing much heat. Fluorescent “grow lamps” provide an even better balance of light at both ends of the spectrum.

Remember that fluorescent bulbs also produce some heat, so you need to adjust their height above the plants. You can establish the best distance by holding your hand above the plants and adjusting the bulb’s distance to a “just right” feel.

Another thing to keep in mind: long fluorescent bulbs produce more light at their center than closer to the ends. If plants are to remain under lights for any length of time, switch them around to even out their exposure so they don’t get “leggy.” Consider more expensive LED lights if you intend to grow plants indoors long-term.

Damping off
Another cause of sickly seedlings is “damping off,” a fungal disease that will rot the lower stem and/or roots. Reduce the risk of disease by using fresh or sterilized potting soil, decontaminating pots and flats with a bleach solution, and careful watering. As with adult plants, when you water, don’t just sprinkle those plants, water thoroughly and then let the soil dry out a bit before watering again. 

Article written by Glenn Palmer, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.