Hot, dry summer has vegetables rotting on the vine

SHERBORN, Mass. — It’s an equation that, to a vegetable farmer, makes perfect sense.

“If the plant is not getting enough nutrients from the soil, then it can’t produce a ripe, beautiful tomato,” said Laura Raney, a farm manager at the Silverwood Organic Farm in Sherborn.

But here’s something that doesn’t seem to make any sense: a bone-dry summer and vegetables rotting on the vine. The phenomenon is known as Blossom End Rot -- and it’s hitting small farms and big, home gardens, and community plots.

“We’re seeing a lot of Blossom End Rot this year,” said Sully (Amy) Sullivan, who founded Edible Gardens By Sully -- which helps homeowners establish and maintain vegetable gardens. “It started pretty early this year because we’ve had such a severe drought.”

In fact, Blossom End Rot, along with other crop-loss issues, is one of the reasons the state’s Drought Management Task Force voted to recommend moving Western Massachusetts to Severe Drought status.

“It specifically affects peppers, tomatoes, eggplants as well as some squash varieties,” Sullivan said.

And it leaves a nasty mark. Fruit affected by Blossom End Rot develops an attenuated underside that rots into a discolored, mushy mess.

“The bottom part is flat and it looks like it’s diseased, basically,” said Raney. “Just brown and rotting. We often clean the plants in order to kind of get the diseased crop off of it. So that way nutrients from the soil can reach the new growth.”

At Silverwood Organic Farm, one field of tomatoes has been more affected than another by Blossom End Rot -- simply because the latter field is closer to a natural irrigation source.

“It’s really a calcium deficiency that causes the problem,” said Drew Blazewicz, assistant manager at the Medway Community Farm. “The reason the plants are having a calcium deficiency doesn’t so much have to do with what’s in the soil, but rather with how they’re able to pull calcium out of the soil.”

For plants, pulling calcium out of the soil requires water -- something that’s been in such short supply this summer that major rivers in Massachusetts, including the Charles and Neponset, had essentially no flow before this week’s rain showers. And experts who presented before the state’s Drought Management Task Force were not optimistic that rain will improve things much.

Once Blossom End Rot sets in on fruit and vegetables, they have to be discarded. But Blazewicz said by applying a fertilizer with soluble calcium topically to the plant, gardeners can bypass the plant’s need to pull it from soil. Spraying plants with Epsom Salt-laced water might accomplish the same thing, too.

But these are remedies that would make sense earlier in the growing season.

At this point, the drought is forcing some farmers to cut their losses -- for a variety of reasons.

“We actually just had to pull the plug on our field of winter Squash,” Blazewicz said. “The soil has been so hot that the plants never started to run. We never got vines. And without vines we’re not going to get any fruit out on those fields.”

Blazewicz said perhaps even more challenging than the lack of water this summer has been the abundance of pests.

“The deer, the woodchuck, the squirrels, the small rodents -- as soon as anything starts to become ripe, they’re getting into it,” Blazewicz said.

He understands why.

“I think a lot of it is that there’s not enough water,” Blazewicz said. “A tomato is basically a water balloon.”

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