Category Archives: Monthly Column

July 2021: Summer Doldrums – Wilted Tomatoes in the Garden

Tomato IconI have recently received a slew of questions about wilted tomatoes in home gardens.  Here are the top five reasons that tomatoes can wilt based on samples that I have received in my clinic over the years.

Walnut toxicityOne of the lessons that I have learned after doing plant disease diagnostics for over 20 years is that when a home gardener consults me about wilting tomatoes, the first question I should ask is, “Do you have a walnut tree near your vegetable garden?”  More times than not, the answer is “Yes” and the walnut tree is the cause of the problem.  Black walnuts produce toxins (exuded by roots and produced in leaves and fruits) that adversally affect a wide range of plants,  Tomatoes are particularly sensitive and are often die from the exposure.  Anytime that tomatoes are grown in the root zone of a walnut tree (which extends three to five times the height of the tree from the trunk), problems can arise.  Cutting down walnut trees will not solve the problem in the short term, because roots from the cut tree can continue to exude toxins for 15 to 20 years.  Often the best recourse when walnut trees are present in a landscape is to grow tomatoes in raised beds or in pots to keep tomato roots as far above walnut roots as possible.

Drought stress:  In 2021, lack of rain has been a potential cause for wilting in tomatoes and virtually every other plant.  Most established plants require about one inch of water per week.  When rain is insufficient (as it has been in much of Wisconsin this year), it’s important to apply supplemental water to plants with a soaker or drip hose.  Proper watering can not only prevent wilting in tomatoes, but it can also help improve calcium uptake and reduce problems with blossom end rot.  Using an inch or two of a high quality mulch (my favorites are shredded oak bark mulch and red cedar mulch) around plants can help retain moisture and lessen wilting issues.  Mulching around tomatoes also helps reduce movement of spores (produced in bits of old tomato debris in the soil) of the fungi that cause Septoria leaf spot and early blight.

Bacterial canker:  The bacterium that causes this disease (Clavibacter michiganensis subsp. michiganensis – THERE’S a mouthful) is seedborne, so gardeners typically introduce this pathogen into their gardens on contaminated tomato seeds or transplants.  Plants initially look healthy, but the bacterium eventualy colonizes, discolors and disrupts the water-conducting (vascular) tissue inside the plant, leading to wilting.  Infections can lead to long, somewhat subtle cracks in stems and ultimately less subtle open wounds (i.e., cankers) in stems near the soil line.  Another telltale symptom of the disease can be ghostly-white spots with a darker center (called bird’s-eye spots) on tomato fruits.  Removal and destruction of infected plants, and rotation away from susceptible vegetables (e.g., tomatoes and peppers) for several years in the affected area of a garden are typical management strategies.

Verticillium wiltMany gardeners are familiar with this disease in the context of the death and destruction it brings to woody trees and shrubs.  However, Verticillium, the cause of Verticillium wilt, is an equal opportunity destroyer and can kill a wide range of herbaceous plants as well, including popular vegetables such as solanacoues crops (e.g., tomato, potato, eggplant, pepper) and vine crops (e.g., cucumber, squash, pumpkin).  This fungus is routinely found in the soil and can build up over time if susceptible vegetable crops are grown over and over again in an area where the fungus is located.  Verticillium infects through the roots and colonizes and plugs a tomato’s (or other plant’s) water-conducting tissue, leading to wilting.  Discoloration of a tomato plant’s vascular tissue is a typical symptom of this disease, but stem cracks and cankers are notRotation can be useful as a control strategy for Verticillium wilt, although it is less effective than for bacterial canker because of the wider host range for Verticillium (including many weeds).  For tomatoes, use of resistant varieties can also be useful.  To identify resistant varieties, look for a “V” after the variety name on a tomato seed packet or in the variety description in your favorite seed catalog.

Fusarium wilt.  This disease is very similar to Verticillium wilt except for the fungus involved.  For Fusarium wilt, Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. lycopersici is the culprit.  Fusarium oxysporum is a large fungal species with many special forms (that’s what “f. sp.” stands for), each one adapted to infect a specific host plant or a very small range of host plants (e.g., vine crops).  Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. lycopersici is specific to tomatoes and will not infect other vegetable crops.  If you ever encounter this disease, rotation away from tomatoes in the affected area for several years should work well as a management strategy.  In addition, you can use resistant tomato varieties.  Look for one or more ‘F’s” after the variety name.

As you can imagine, figuring out the exact reason your tomatoes are wilting can be challenging, particularly if there is disease involved.  For help with proper diagnosis of tomato wilts (and other plant problems in general), contact the PDDC at pddc@wisc.edu or (608) 262-2863.

To find out more about the clinic and its activities, check out the PDDC website.  To keep up-to-date about new PDDC education materials and programs, follow the clinic on Twitter or Facebook (@UWPDDC) or contact the clinic at pddc@wisc.edu and ask to be added to the PDDC’s listserv (UWPDDCLearn).

June 2021: Fired Up About Fire Blight

FireIconforJune 2021 Monthly ColumnIt‘s the time of year where I am once again getting questions about apple and crabapple trees with dead branches.  Often, in these situations, clients assume that their trees are suffering from fire blight.  This bacterial disease has received a lot of press over the years and can be a serious problem.  However, fire blight is definitely not the only reason that branches on apples and crabapples die.

There are myriad of fungal diseases that can lead to branch dieback.  In particular, fungal canker diseases can be an issue.  I often find fungi like Cytospora, Phomopsis and Sphaeropsis in dead apple or crabapple branches.  These fungi, like the fire blight bacterium, locally infect and girdle branches (thus leading to branch death), often in a somewhat random pattern in a tree.  Sphaeropsis is particularly common.  This fungus not only infects branches but can also infect fruits (causing black rot) and leaves (causing frogeye leaf spot).  More systemic fungal diseases like root and crown rot, Armillaria root disease and black root rot (dead man’s fingers) can also lead to branch dieback.  The pathogens involved in these diseases infect and disrupt root and trunk function, preventing proper water movement from roots to branches.  This lack of water leads to branch death, often over a fairly substantial portion of the tree canopy.

Environmental stresses can also lead to branch death in apples and crabapples.  Drought can lead to branch dieback symptoms similar to those caused by the systemic diseases I described above.  Cold injury can also be a contributing factor.  Growing a non-hardy apple or crabapple variety often leads to dieback issues.  Even on hardy varieties, branch dieback can occur if cold snaps occur in the spring right as or just after trees leaf out.  Lack of snow cover (which insulates soil) coupled with extremely cold winter temperatures can lead to physical injury to roots, which in turn limits water uptake, leading to branch dieback.

So, with all of these potential causes of branch dieback on apples and crabapples, how can you tell if your tree is suffering from fire blight?  The answer is, “It’s not easy!”  People often claim that fire blight leads to a branch with a shepherd’s crook (a downward bend at the branch tip).  However, after years of seeing dead and dying apple and crabapple branches, I just don’t consider this a reliable symptom for diagnosing fire blight.  To me, a shepherd’s crook just indicates that the branch didn’t get enough water and wilted.  That could be due to any of the causes I outlined above.  And conversely, I have seen cases of fire blight where branches don’t have a shepherd’s crook.  What I tend to look for as I’m attempting to diagnose fire blight is oozy material (a combination of sap and bacterial cells) that seeps from affected branch.  I also look for some indication that the infection may have started where flowers were attached.  I look for this latter indicator because trees are often inoculated with the fire blight bacterium by bees that carry the bacterium and drop it off in the flowers as they pollinate.  Even when I see these symptoms, I will only diagnose fire blight if I have evidence that the fire blight bacterium is present.  There are dipstick serological tests (these use the same technology as home pregnancy kits) that I use to confirm the presence of the fire blight bacterium.  If I don’t find evidence of the bacterium, I look for other possible causes of the branch dieback.

So, why do I really need to know if branch dieback is really due to fire blight?  It all comes down to management.  If fire blight is the cause, I recommend very aggressive pruning (roughly 12 inches below where there are obvious symptoms).  The fire blight bacterium can move rapidly down a branch under the bark, so you want to make sure to prune down far enough to remove all of the bacterium.  Fungal pathogens tend to move less rapidly, so you can get by with pruning roughly six inches below where there are obvious symptoms.  If the problem is a root disease of some kind, pruning will not resolve the problem.  Fungicide treatments to the roots may be needed in some instances, or there may be ways of reducing tree stress that slow down the progression of these types of diseases.

It all comes down to the fact that if you don’t know what the underlying problem is with your tree, it is unlikely that you will be able to fix the problem.  So, get a proper diagnosis and then tailor your management strategy to the specific problem(s) you are facing.  Without a proper diagnosis, you can spend a lot of time, effort and money, and not improve the health of your trees one bit.

For help with proper diagnosis of plant problems, contact the PDDC at pddc@wisc.edu or (608) 262-2863.  To find out more about the clinic and its activities, check out the PDDC website.  To keep up-to-date about new PDDC education materials and programs, follow the clinic on Twitter or Facebook (@UWPDDC) or contact the clinic at pddc@wisc.edu and ask to be added to the PDDC’s listserv (UWPDDCLearn).

May 2021: Rampant, Ravaging Rusts

May 2021 Column IconI really love this time of the year as plants emerge once again after their long winter naps.  I also love the fact that I now get to start looking once again for some of my favorite plant diseases.  At the top of the list at this time of the year are the rust diseases.  Rusts encompass a large group of fungal diseases, where the fungi produce brightly-colored (yellow to orange to bown) spores.  Each rust fungus has a very specific host range.  The following are a few of the rusts (one on a broad-leafed tree, one on a conifer and one on an herbaceous plant) that I have recently seen either through the clinic or in my own yard.

Crown Rust Buckthorn
Crown Rust on Buckthorn

Crown rust:  Crown rust is classic rust of grass species such as turfgrass and oats.  If you’ve ever walked through your lawn and gotten orange shoes, you’ve encountered this disease.  The fungus that causes crown rust is Puccinia coronata, which has several variants adapted to infect specific grass hostsThe disease and pathogen names come from the look of the resting spores of the fungus.  These spores have spikes that give them the appearance of a crown.  At this time of the year, I don’t see crown rust on grass or oats (that comes later in the growing season), but I see it on a second host (called the alternate host) of the fungus, buckthorn.  Buckthorn is actually required by the crown rust fungus to complete its life cycle.  Puccinia coronata causes yellow-orange, powdery patches on the buckthorn leaves and green stems, and I actually use crown rust as an ID feature for buckthorn.  If I see seedlings that I think are buckthorn, but I’m not quite sure, I look for the characteristic orange patches of crown rust to confirm.  And if you need another reason get rid of buckthorn, in addition to this plant being incredibly invasive, here it is.  If you remove buckthorn, you will prevent the crown rust fungus from completing its life cycle and reduce the severity of the disease on turf and oats.

Weirs Cushion Rust
Weirs Cushion Rust on Spruce

Weir’s cushion rustThis is rust disease of spruce that I see infrequently, but I just received a sample of it this past week in the clinic.  I was over the moon!  (Yes, I know I’m weird and lead a very sheltered life.)  The fungus that causes this disease is Ceropsora weirii (formerly Chrysomyxa weirii), a single-host rust fungus that only requires spruce to complete its life cycle.  Infection leads to yellow banding on one-year-old needles.  Within these bands in the spring (typically April or May), fruiting bodies (i.e., reproductive structures) of Ceropsora weirii form yielding orangish spores that blow to newly emerging needles where the fungus infects.  The fruiting bodies are easily visible with a hand lens or even with the naked eye.  Eventually the infected3 needles brown and drop off the tree.  Management of Weir’s cushion rust can be a challenge and typically involves use of fungicides to protect newly emerging needles.

Mayapple_Rust
Mayapple Rust

Mayapple rust:  I’d like to give a shout-out to Brenda Dahlfors, Master Gardener Program Coordinator with University of Illinois Extension for sending me photos of this cool rust.  The fungus involved here is another species of Puccinia, Puccinia podophylli.  This is another single-host rust, where the fungus that only infects mayapples.  The disease is most visible in the spring when bright orange, powdery patches develop on the undersides of leaves.  On the upper leaf surfaces above these patches, you will see yellow spots/discolored areas.  The orange spores produced by the pathogen reinfect mayapple plants, causing additional disease.  The bright orange patches tend to fade to a duller brown as they age and convert to producing brown overwintering spores.  These overwintering spores germinate in the spring to produce yet another type of spore that causes the initial infections in the spring.  Careful removal of infected leaves and plant debris (burn, bury or hot compost this material) combined with fungicide sprays where appropriate is the typical management strategy for this disease.

These are just a few of the cool rust diseases that you may encounter as you are out and about.  Watch for these and other rusts, and enjoy them when you find them.  There are the most visually colorful and attractive diseases that I see.  For additional information on the PDDC and its activities, check out the PDDC website.  To learn about new PDDC education materials and programs, follow the clinic on Twitter or Facebook (@UWPDDC) or contact the clinic at pddc@wisc.edu and ask to be added to the PDDC’s listserv (UWPDDCLearn).

April 2021: Tomato in the Basement, Canary in the Coalmine

Canary IconI have the coolest job on the planet.  Everyday, I get to help people with their plant disease problems.  This may entail helping someone learn how to grow healthy, nutritious vegetables to feed their family or assisting a grieving family select the just the right tree to plant to serve as a lasting memorial for a recently lost loved one.  On occasion, I get to help Wisconsin farmers avoid severe economic losses due to plant diseases or help prevent the introduction of federally regulated plant pathogens that potentially can have negative impacts nationwide  This month, I’d like to share with you a diagnostic case where a proper diagnosis had the potential to save someone’s life.

I recently received photos from a home gardener who was growing tomato transplants indoors.  She was concerned that her plants were not doing well and losing leaves.  Her photos showed plants with leaves that were cupping downward and showed twisted petioles and other growth distortions.  I was immediately suspicious that the plants had been exposed to ethylene.  Ethylene is a gas that is a plant growth hormone that can be very beneficial for proper plant development; in particular, ethylene is important in fruit ripening.  But in other situations, when plants are exposed at the wrong time or at too high of a concentration, ethylene can have negative effects, in fact exactly the sort of symptoms I was seeing in my client’s photos:  distorted plant growth and premature leaf loss.

Tomatoes Damaged by Ethylene
Tomatoes suffering from ethylene exposure. Photo courtesy of Kristine Meixensperger.

After an exchange of several emails, the puzzle pieces started to fall into place.  My client had been growing her tomatoes in the basement (not uncommon for many gardeners) next to the boiler that provided heat for her home.  As the weather warmed up, she moved the plants to her garage where she parks her car and where she has a full kitchen.  She had been cooking in this kitchen recently to provide a bit of additional warmth for her plants.  Both her boiler and stove burn propane.

At this point, alarm bells were going off.  If propane burners malfunction and don’t burn propane completely, one of the breakdown products of this incomplete combustion is ethylene.  You can also find ethylene in exhaust fumes from motor vehicles, in the smoke produced by wood-burning stoves and as a contaminant in natural gas.  I suggested to my client that she should have her boiler and stove checked immediately for problems.  One or both of these (and possibly also fumes from her car) were likely the source of ethylene that was causing problems for her tomatoes.  She emailed back to tell me that what I had told her made perfect sense as her tomatoes nearer the boiler had more severe symptoms than those farther away.  Another sentence from this email became the inspiration for the title of this article:  “So the tomatoes plants in the basement acted like a canary in a coalmine.”

I told her that she was spot on with her analogy, and at that point, I gave potentially even more serious news.  In addition to producing ethylene, malfunctioning propane burners (and other types of heating systems) also can produce carbon monoxide, a potentially deadly gas.  According to the CDC, approximately 50,000 people visit hospitals with carbon monoxide poisoning each year and at least 430 of these people die from this poisoning.  Luckily, my client had a carbon monoxide detector near the boiler and it hadn’t gone off.  But, the unit was old, and my client indicated that our conversation had made her realize that she needed to replace that unit.

What if she hadn’t had a carbon monoxide detector?  Then, those distorted tomatoes would have been her first hint that a potentially deadly carbon monoxide situation was developing.  Similarly, if she had had distorted tomatoes growing near a natural gas-fueled furnace, that could have indicated a natural gas leak, another potentially lethal situation.

Ah, the power of a lowly vegetable and a bit of knowledge about how they grow!

For additional information on the PDDC and its activities, check out the PDDC website.  To learn about new PDDC education materials and programs, follow the clinic on Twitter or Facebook (@UWPDDC) or contact the clinic at pddc@wisc.edu and ask to be added to the PDDC’s listserv (UWPDDCLearn).

March 2021: Gardening Ideas for the 2021 Growing Season

Plant Light BAs the temperatures begin to warm and the snow melts, gardeners are chomping at the bit to be outdoors working away.  Thoughts tend towards “What should I plant this year?” and “When should I plant and seed?”  Those are great questions, but there are other aspects of gardening that I think are important to consider.  This month, I’d like to share what I think about at this time of year as I try to prepare for a successful growing season.

Garden clean-up.  I often talk about the importance of fall clean-up for plant disease management.  Plant pathogens often overwinter in debris from infected plants left over from the previous growing season.  Removing this material from a garden helps eliminate a source of pathogens that can reinfect plants during the current growing season.  While fall is a great time to do this removal, there are a variety of reasons why gardeners might choose not to do clean-up in the fall.  Some people just don’t have the time.  Some like to use leaf litter to insulate flower beds.  Others like to maintain plants that have died back for winter visual interest in their gardens or as overwintering sites for beneficial insects.  If you’re one of the people who likes keep plant debris around for the winter, spring is the time to take care of this material.  Try to remove the debris before plants begin to produce new growth, and burn (where allowed), bury or hot compost it.

Watering concerns.  This can be a tough time of year for many evergreens (particularly yews and boxwoods), as they tend to be prone to winter burn.  Sometimes winter burn develops during the winter months, but spring is a prime time for symptoms to develop as plants start to photosynthesize and thus lose more water through stomates on needles and leaves.  So, as the ground begins to thaw and new needles and leaves begin to emerge, make sure evergreens are receiving sufficient water.  Established plants (those planted three years or more) require approximately one inch of water per week from rain or from supplemental watering with a drip or soaker hose placed at their driplines (i.e., the edges of where the branches extend).  Newly transplanted plants (those planted within the past three years) require roughly two inches of water per week.

Decontaminating pots.  If you grow plants in pots or other containers, and particularly if you have issues with root rots or other diseases caused by soil-borne pathogens, you should seriously consider decontaminating your containers before reusing them this year.  Empty any soil from the containers and discard the soil (especially if the plants previously grown in the containers have had disease issues), wash the containers thoroughly to remove any remaining soil, then soak the containers for 30 minutes in a 10% bleach solution (one part of a disinfecting bleach and nine parts water).  Rinse the containers thoroughly to remove any bleach residues and you’re ready to plant.  Note that this techniques works best for clay or ceramic pots, but may not be reliable for plastic pots.  Sometimes the best way to decontaminate plastic pots is to throw them away.

Mapping vegetable gardens.  For long-term success with vegetable gardening, crop rotation is a must.  Growing the same (or related) vegetables in the same spot in your vegetable garden year after year is a great way to build up disease-causing organisms in the soil.  These pathogens can cause problems for years, if not decades, to come.  So, if you haven’t been mapping out where you plant your vegetables each year, make this the year when you start doing that.  Buy some graph paper, draw your vegetable garden space to scale and preplan where you will plant your various vegetables this year.  Keep this plan as a reference so that next year when you create your 2022 map, you can properly rotate your vegetables to new areas in your garden.  If possible, don’t grow the same (or related) vegetables in the same area for a period of at least three to four years.

Keeping a garden journal.  Also, make this the year that you start documenting what goes on in your garden.  Record information on when plants emerge or begin to leaf out, and when they flower.  Keep track of the weather including temperatures, rain (and snow), significant storm events (hail, high winds, driving rains) and note when you see particular insects and diseases in your garden.  This sort of information can be very useful (particularly after you have several years’ data) in predicting insect pest and disease activity and thinking ahead about how to fend off these sorts of problems.

I hope these pointers help you have a successful 2021 gardening season.  For additional information on the PDDC and its activities, check out the PDDC website.  To learn about new PDDC education materials and programs, follow the clinic on Twitter or Facebook (@UWPDDC) or contact the clinic at pddc@wisc.edu and ask to be added to the PDDC’s listserv (UWPDDCLearn).

February 2021: Deep Freeze Search and Destroy

Magnifying glass and hatchetIn this month’s Plant Disease Pointers, I discussed the advantages of pruning trees and shrubs in the winter to increase structural soundness and overall aesthetics.  Winter is also a great time to inspect trees and shrubs for certain diseases and, where needed, prune out these problems.  Diseases that can be corrected, at least in part, by winter pruning include canker and gall diseases.

Canker diseases:  There are a wide range of fungal and bacterial pathogens that infect branches and eventually lead to branch dieback.  With some of these diseases (e.g., Diplodia shoot blight and canker, white pine blister rust), the pathogens initially infect through needles.  With others (e.g., fire blight), the pathogens enter through flowers.  Once in the plant, these pathogens work their way relatively rapidly down branches and can cause significant damage.  Catching these diseases early and pruning out affected branches can reduce the overall damage that they cause.  If not managed properly and removed, these pathogens can eventually reach and girdle the main trunk, thus killing the tree.

Other canker diseases tend to be more localized in their effect.  For some, like Nectria canker, the pathogens often enter through wounds (e.g., pruning wounds, wounds from storm damage).  For others, like Thyronectria canker of honeylocust or Cytospora canker of spruce, direct infection of branches appears to be the norm.  With these diseases, the pathogens progress somewhat slowly, causing localized sunken areas (a “classic” canker symptom) around the point of infection.  Eventually these diseases will progress to the point where the entire circumference of the branch is affected, which leads to branch death.  Movement of these pathogens into the main trunk tends to be a slower process, although if left unchecked, these organisms can eventually cause significant damage as well.

Gall diseases:  The classic diseases in this category include black knot of Prunus species (particularly plum and cherry) and the Gymnosporium rusts like cedar-apple rust and cedar-hawthorn rust.  These diseases typically do not cause branch dieback but can reduce the aesthetic appeal of infected trees and shrubs.  In the case of black knot, you will see fairly large black masses (what I call “poop-on-a-stick”) on infected branches.  These are particularly visible in the winter when there is no foliage to hide them.

Galls associated with Gymnosporium rusts are much smaller and more subtle.  They look like tiny brown brains that form on the branches of junipers, particularly Eastern red cedar.  In the winter, if you don’t look carefully, you might miss these.  In the spring however, the galls reach the pinnacle of their visual glory when they sprout gelatinous, orange arms/masses that produce spores.  These spores infect certain trees and shrubs in the rose family (e.g., apple, crabapple, hawthorn, quince, pear and serviceberry) leading to brightly-colored leaf spots (in the case of cedar-apple rust and cedar-hawthorn rust) or spiny fruits and branch galls (in the case of cedar-quince rust).  Spores produced in these diseased leaves, fruits and branches eventually infect junipers completing the life cycle of the pathogen.

Once either canker or gall diseases become established, pruning is the method of choice for management, and wintertime is a great time to do this pruning.  Symptoms are often more visible during the winter months, and pruning in colder, drier winter weather tends to reduce the risk of infections through pruning cuts.  For diseases caused by fungal pathogens, I suggest pruning four to six inches below where you see obvious symptoms.  For diseases caused by bacteria, I suggest pruning more aggressively, roughly 12 inches below where symptoms are visible.  When pruning in the winter, it may seem that decontaminating tools is not necessarily.  However, I recommend decontamination no matter when you prune.  Treat pruning tools between cuts for at least 30 seconds with 70% alcohol (e.g., rubbing alcohol straight out of the bottle), a commercial disinfectant that contains roughly 70% active ingredient or 10% bleach.  If you decide to use bleach, be sure to thoroughly rinse your tools after you are done pruning and oil them to prevent rusting that can be caused by bleach use.  You can dispose of branches by burning (where allowed) or burying them.

So, as temperatures start to hover in the upper 20s or lower 30s this winter, think about pruning your trees.  Remove diseased branches, and at the same time, prune out healthy branches to improve the structural integrity and aesthetic appeal of your trees.  All of this said, please DO NOT prune when it is excessively cold:

  • Pruning diseased branches in winter:  GOOD!
  • Frost bite and freezing to death:  BAD!!

For additional information on the PDDC and its activities, check out the PDDC website.  To learn about new PDDC education materials and programs, follow the clinic on Twitter or Facebook (@UWPDDC) or contact the clinic at pddc@wisc.edu and ask to be added to the PDDC’s listserv (UWPDDCLearn).

January 2021: Taking a Close Look at 2020

Magnifying Glass2021 has arrived and I can’t say that I’m sad to see 2020 gone.  Last year was incredibly challenging for everyone due to COVID-19.  I am very grateful to still have job and to be able to do the work that I love.  Here’s how things shook out in 2020 at the PDDC.

Clinic staff processed a whopping 2381 samples, up 58% from 2019 and an all-time record for my tenure at the PDDC.  Samples came from 69 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, as well as 21 additional states (AZ, CA, CO, FL, GA, ID, IL, IA, ME, MD, MI, MN, MO, NV, NM, NY, ND, OH, SD, TN and WA) and three foreign countries (Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom).  Much of the increase in sample numbers resulted from the clinic formalizing and substantially promoting digital diagnostics for the first time.  This was necessitated by COVID-19, which limited clinic staffing (specifically student hourly help) and curtailed the clinic’s capacity to process physical samples.  In addition, having several wet seasons in a row prior to 2020, as well as a wet early 2020 season, helped promote a wide range of plant diseases.  People, sequestered at home for much of the year, seemed to take notice of and were curious about the diseases in their gardens and landscapes and as a consequence asked for more help with identifying the problems they observed.  No matter what the cause of the increase in sample numbers, I was certainly kept busy (and out of mischief) for the year.

In 2020, as in previous years, the PDDC expanded its molecular (i.e., DNA-based) diagnostic offerings.  One disease of note that was detected this year using molecular diagnostics was Potato mop top virus (a first report for Wisconsin)This virus is transmitted by the organism (a type of slime mold) that causes powdery scab.  As always, whenever I discuss the PDDC’s molecular efforts, I have to give a shout out to Sue Lueloff, the PDDC’s Assistant Diagnostician.  Without Sue, molecular diagnostics at the PDDC would not exist.  As in 2019, Sue not only tested routine clinic samples but also worked with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WI DNR) to test tree samples from around the state for phytoplasmas.

In other 2020 diagnostic highlights, Ralstonia wilt reared its ugly head once again in the US with an initial detection in Michigan.  The last occurrence of this disease in the US was in 2004.  The pathogen that causes Ralstonia wilt (Ralstonia solanacearum race 3, biovar 2) was introduced on contaminated geranium cuttings brought into the US from Guatemala and is of concern because of its potential to spread and cause severe disease on potatoes.  In fact, this bacterium is so destructive that the US government has listed it as a select agent, with potential to be weaponized by terrorists and used against US agriculture.  In 2020, potentially contaminated geranium cuttings were shipped to 650+ greenhouses in 44 states, with 19 greenhouses in Wisconsin involved.  Luckily there were no positive detections the disease in Wisconsin greenhouses.  My involvement with testing for Ralstonia wilt came in the latter half of 2020 through collaborative work with Dr. Caitilyn Allen, the UW-Madison’s world expert on Ralstonia wilt.  She was contacted by the geranium producer in Guatemala (through USDA APHIS) who was involved in the 2020 outbreak, to test current stock (for 2021 geranium production) for Ralstonia solanacearum race 3, biovar 2 contamination.  Dr. Allen’s group had insufficient staffing/resources to process the 1500 samples requested and ended up partnering with the PDDC to use the clinic’s Maxwell automated nucleic acid extraction system.  Using this equipment allowed Dr. Allen’s group to quickly obtain DNA samples from the plants that were subsequently tested for the bacterium.  Fortunately, all of the materials tested negative.

Other PDDC outreach activities were somewhat curtailed due to COVID-19.  I did end up giving 70 talks/presentations/workshops in at least 16 Wisconsin counties.  Many of these presentations were provided via Zoom with participants coming from multiple counties and sometimes the entire state.  My biggest outreach event in 2020 was Wisconsin Public Television’s Garden and Landscape Expo.  I spent three days at the event, gave three talks and helped answer questions with Lisa Johnson at two Q&A sessions (one hosted by WPR’s Larry Meiller).  I had a steady stream of visitors to the PDDC booth (newly redesigned and rebranded given Extension’s merger with the UW-Madison) and talked with and answered questions for visitors the entire time.  I distributed 4,023 University of Wisconsin Garden Facts fact sheets, brochures and other informational materials at the event.  Across all outreach programs in 2019, I interacted with almost 223,737 people (interestingly just a slight decrease from 2019).  As always, a big thanks goes out to Larry Meiller for having me on his radio show with its awesome listenership.

And finally, I can’t emphasize enough that the accomplishments of the PDDC are not a solo effort.  I have amazing help, including Sue Lueloff (molecular diagnostician extraordinaire mentioned above) Ann Joy (data entry expert who keeps federal funds flowing from the National Plant Diagnostics Network), Dixie Lang (IT support wizard who makes the PDDC website look beautiful and keeps the PDDC database running and up to snuff), Laurie Ballentine of the Russell Labs Hub staff (who never says no and happily prints, folds and otherwise produces all of the written handouts I use for my outreach efforts), and Alex Mikus (an undergraduate here at the UW-Madison who was able to help process samples in the clinic prior to the onset of COVID-19).

2020 is over – Phew!  Let’s see what 2021 has in store!

For addition information on the PDDC and its activities, check out the PDDC website, follow the clinic on Twitter or Facebook (@UWPDDC) or contact the clinic at pddc@wisc.edu.

December 2020: Launching into 2021

RocketshipI think it’s safe to say that 2020 was a surreal year for everyone, including those of us here at the Plant Disease Diagnostics Clinic.  COVID-19 fundamentally changed how the PDDC conducted business (e.g., check out my March 2020 Monthly Column for details on how the clinic handled sample submissions in 2020).  As I look ahead to 2021 (where COVID-19 is still likely to loom large), I am trying to adapt how the PDDC functions so that I can continue to provide timely and informative services to my clients around the state.  Below are some thoughts on how the PDDC will function in 2021.

Sample submissions:  Submitting samples to the PDDC in 2021 will be similar to 2020.  Due to COVID-19 safety concerns, having student hourly help in the clinic likely won’t be possible, and that will limit the number of physical samples that clinic staff (myself and Sue Lueloff, the PDDC molecular diagnostician) will be able to handle.  To manage sample volume, I will be requesting that clients initially submit photos of their plants using the PDDC online submission form.  Whenever possible, I will provide a disease diagnosis based on these photos.  If an accurate diagnosis is not possible, I will then request a follow-up physical sample.  As in 2020, in-person submissons will not be allowed, but you will be able to mail samples to the clinic.  As always, a completed  PDDC sample submission form should accompany each sample.

New in 2021 will be a $20 fee for all digital submissions.  If a follow-up physical sample is needed, this digital fee will be credited to any fees charged for processing the physical sample.  For a complete listing of PDDC fees, check out the PDDC Clinic Fee Schedule.  Note that as a public service, the PDDC will continue to offer free testing for plant diseases of regulatory importance (e.g., Ralstonia wilt, sudden oak death, boxwood blight) and for plant diseases that pose significant risks to Wisconsin’s agricultural economy (e.g., late blight).

Educational Outreach:  COVID-19 curtailed PDDC in-person educational outreach in 2020.  In 2021, I will be taking greater advantage of distance education platforms like Zoom to provide education.  I am planning to partner with county Extension educators across Wisconsin to offer monthly plant disease presentations.  The goal is to to give these presentations a local flavor by offering the first opportunity to participate to residents of the host and surrounding counties.  Eventually however, participation will be open to residents statewide.  On January 13, 2021, I will be partnering with Darrin Kimbler of Extension Iron County for the first of these talks.  I’ll be presenting on Early Season Landscape Diseases.  Stay tuned for additional details on this presentation and others in the series.

In addition to these monthly presentations, I am willing to entertain requests to provide other talks throughout the state.  I really LOVE talking to the public about plant diseases, and I have been beefing up my repertoire of talks in anticipation of getting requests.  Check out the Talks for the General Public section of the PDDC website for details on some of my favorite talks.

Also, if there is interest, I am considering sponsoring statewide online plant disease Q&A sessions once a month from May through September.  These sessions will be informal discussions of whatever plant disease-related topics are of interest to whomever chooses to participate.  I’ll be providing additional details on these sessions as we get closer to the 2021 growing season.

Online content:  As always, watch for new and revised University of Wisconsin Garden Facts/Farm Fact/Pest Alerts on the PDDC website.  Winter/early spring is definitely a prime time for me to put on my editor’s hat and crank out fact sheets.  I currently have fact sheets on container gardening and pruning tomatoes waiting in the wings.  I will also continue to post web columns (like this one) each month.  In addition, I will be adding a new online feature called Plant Pathology Pointers, which will provide short, timely advise on plant diseases and their management.  Watch for these to start early in January 2021.

Finally, I am always looking for new ideas on how to better serve my clients around the state.  If you have thoughts that you’d like to share, please contact me at pddc@wisc.edu.  To keep up-to-date on PDDC services and educational resources, feel free to follow the clinic on Twitter or Facebook (@UWPDDC).  Or alternately, put in a request (by emailing pddc@wisc.edu) to subscribe to the clinic’s listserv, UWPDDCLearn.

Happy Holidays, everyone!  Please be safe, and stay healthy!

November 2020: Houseplant Horrors

Houseplant IconAs cold temperatures arrive in Wisconsin, many diehard plant enthusiasts are now concentrating on inside gardening activities involving their favorite houseplants.  In some cases, people have been growing their houseplants outdoors for the summer and recently (or perhaps not so recently) brought them back indoors to avoid plummeting fall temperatures.  In other cases, gardeners have visited their local greenhouses to pick out brand new plants to add to their indoor collections.  In either case, disease-causing organisms may be coming along for the ride.  Here are some of the common diseases that you may encounter as you garden indoors this winter.

Powdery mildewsI have talked about powdery mildews before on numerous occasions, but typically in the context of plants growing in outdoor settings.  One of the plants where I see powdery mildews indoors is rosemary.  Rosemary plants are often grown outdoors for the summer where they become infected and then begin to show severe symptoms once they are brought into the kitchen for the winter.  Higher humidity from cooking and dishwashing most likely contributes to development of the disease.  Relatively uniform, white, powdery growth on leaves is pretty typical for the disease on this host.  Management often involves cutting the plant back almost to the ground and allowing regrowth, in addition to placing the plant in a new location with lower humidity.  I also occasionally see powdery mildew on jade plants where typical symptoms are dark, sunken spots on leaves.  It’s only when you look carefully that you see a subtle network of white hyphae (i.e., fungal threads) of a powdery mildew fungus in the center of these dark areas.  Plucking off the infected leaves (typically there aren’t a lot) often takes care of the problem.

Root rotsVirtually any plant grown indoors may end up with a root rot problem.  Plants taken outside for the summer can become infected if soil from an outdoor garden accidentally gets splashed (e.g., via a hard rain) into a pot.  Garden soils typically contain at least some level of root rot pathogens.  Greenhouse-grown plants can harbor root rot pathogens as well, as these organims can survive in production facilities and retail greenhouses for years.  Plants may not show symptoms initially, but once brought into a home setting where owners tend to overwater, root rot pathogens can become very active.  They will cause root decay below ground and wilting above ground.  Root rots can eventually kill plants.  Often by the time indoor gardeners notice root rot symptoms, damage is so severe that discarding plants is the best option.  Plastic pots should be thrown away with the plants  Clay or ceramic pots are salvageable if you wash the pots well (to remove any remaining soil), then soak them for roughly 30 minutes in 10% bleach to kill off root rot pathogens.  Whenever you decontaminate pots, be sure to rinse thoroughly after treatment to remove bleach residues.  To minimze future root rot issues, cut back on watering, providing enough water to keep plants happy and growing vigorously, but not so much that root rot pathogens become active.

Bacterial leaf spots and blights:  I see bacterial leaf spots and blights on a wide range of plants grown indoors including geraniums (brought in from outdoors to overwinter), poinsettias (purchased for the holiday season), and more traditional houseplants such as dieffenbachia, Chinese evergreen, elephant ear and philodendron (all in the Arum family).  These diseases are typically caused by bacteria in the genus Xanthomonas.  Plants initially may harbor sub-symptomatic levels of these bacteria, but eventually high enough populations develop to cause disease.  Typical symptoms can include angular, necrotic leaf spots (i.e., dead areas where veins border the dead tissue leading to very straight edges) or dead areas along leaf margins.  Dead tissue is typically surrounded by a distinct yellow halo.  Bacterial diseases are notoriously hard to manage.  You can remove symptomatic leaves, but healthy leaves typically still harbor the pathogen.  These healthy leaves often eventually development symptoms.  When bacterial diseases are a problem, you are typically left with the choice of living with the disease or throwing the plant out.  As I outlined above in my discussion of root rots, I recommend throwing out plastic pots and decontaminating clay and ceramic pots by bleaching them.

Whether I’m working with outdoor or indoor plants, there’s never a dull moment at the PDDC.  If you are having plant disease problems of any kind and need help diagnosing these problems, feel free to contact me.  For the PDDC’s current policy on sample submission, including submission of digital photos, check out the following link.  As always, be sure to check out the PDDC website for timely information on plant diseases.  Also, feel free to follow the clinic on Twitter or Facebook (@UWPDDC) to receive timely PDDC updates.  Or alternately, put in a request to subscribe to the clinic’s new listserv (UWPDDCLearn) by emailing pddc@wisc.edu.

As always, hang in there, be safe, and stay healthy!

October 2020: Autumn Angst

October AngstAutumn has arrived in Wisconsin, with days shortening and temperatures cooling.  As gardeners begin putting their gardens to bed for the winter, they have been coming across what they consider alarming developments on their herbaceous ornamentals, deciduous trees and evergreens.  Luckily, most of what they have been seeing is innocuous and non-life-threatening.  Here is a rundown of some of the issues that I’ve been hearing about.

Herbaceous ornamentals.  Many clients have commented on an uptick is what appear to be foliar diseases on a wide range of herbaceous perennials.  While I have certainly seen a number of fungal and bacterial diseases on herbaceous plants over the course of the summer, much of the dieback I have been seeing in September and October has been natural dieback as plant start to go dormant for the year.  As the days shorten, perennial plants start moving nutrients from leaves and into crowns and roots where these nutrients can be stored for the winter.  Leaves yellow and brown as a consequence of this nutrient movement.  These changes can occur quickly and look very dramatic and disease-like, but this is normal for this time of the year.

From a disease standpoint, I like to point out that as plants go into “winter mode” at this time of the year, pathogens do as well.  For plants with phytoplasma diseases like aster yellows, as these plants transport nutrients into their roots and crowns, they also concentrate phytoplasmas in these tissues, where the organisms overwinter.  Powdery mildew fungi often overwinter as hyphae (i.e., fungal threads) in the overwintering buds of perennial plant hosts.  Above-ground plant debris is another place where a variety of plant pathogens can survive the winter.  For that reason, I routinely emphasize the importance of garden cleanup to remove these materials and eliminate a source of fungal spores that can infect next year’s plants.  Most gardeners traditionally do cleanup in the fall, but there can be reasons (e.g., improving winter appeal of a garden, leaving overwintering sites for important plant pollinators) for doing this cleanup in the spring.  Cleaning up before new leaves emerge in the spring is critical however, for good good disease control.  Burning (where allowed), burying or hot composting are typical ways of disposing of old plant debris.

Deciduous trees and shrubs.  Leaf diseases on trees and shrubs have been quite prevalent this past summer, but as gardeners have begun to rake leaves, one particular disease, tar spot, has been generating a number of questions for the PDDC.  Tar spot is a fungal disease, characterized by formation of black, tarry spots on leaves of maples.  These spots appear to be more visible (and thus disconcerting to gardeners) in the fall, most likely because the spots are more easily visible against leaves that have turned bright fall red or yellow, compared to the dark green of leaves in the summer.  There are two variations of tar spot that occur in Wisconsin.  On native silver and red maples, the tar spot fungus is Rhytisma americanum, which causes large, solid black, raised areas that look as though someone left a thumbprint in the middle of the tarry spot.  On Norway maple (a European maple species), the tar spot fungus is Rhytisma acerinum, a non-native fungus that causes large, diffuse (spotted-looking), flat, black areas.  Both types of tar spot are cosmetic.  Good cleanup of the infected leaves (as described above) should provide adequate control of the disease.

Evergreens.  I have recently been getting numerous questions about yellow or orange/brown needles on white pines and arborvitaes (as well as occasionally on other evergreens).  The discolored needles are typically very vibrant in color and are, for the most part, interior, older needles.  The timing of the color change (September into October), as well as the intense color and location of the affected needles, points to this being something called seasonal needle drop.  Seasonal needle drop is a natural needle color change and loss that evergreens can go through in the fall.  It is equivalent to the color change that we are used to seeing on broad-leaved trees (like oaks and maples) every autumn.  While sometimes dramatic, seasonal needle drop is normal and not detrimental to trees and shrubs.

Are you seeing what you consider alarming developments in your garden or landscape?  Hopefully not, but if you are, and need help diagnosing these problems, feel free to contact the PDDC.  For the PDDC’s current policy on sample submission, including submission of digital photos, check out the following link.  As always, be sure to check out the PDDC website for timely information on plant diseases.  Also, feel free to follow the clinic on Twitter or Facebook (@UWPDDC) to receive timely PDDC updates.  Or alternately, put in a request to subscribe to the clinic’s new listserv (UWPDDCLearn) by emailing pddc@wisc.edu.

Hang in there, be safe, and stay healthy everyone!