“What happened to my plant?” has to be the most common question that horticulturists are asked by clients, and bewildered friends who believe they have been cursed by a plant-killing hex. In this blog post by guest contributor, David Haddad, small-business owner and horticulturist, encourages those struggling with domestic plant cultivation to “stick with it”…

The solution to your problem may in-fact be at your finger-tips, and often has nothing to do with having ‘green fingers’…

A Gardener’s Nightmare

Picture the scene: a budding plant enthusiast wakes up one summer morning, feeling energised from his efforts in his urban farm the previous day. On this morning, even before his non-negotiable first cup of coffee, he makes his way out into the garden to marvel at his green-fingered handiwork. To his dismay, his prized Abraham Lincoln tomato plant has almost completely wilted. As he stares in disbelief, a wave of despair takes over. He could have sworn that the plant looked healthy the previous day…

Thirty years ago, a situation like this may have permanently stunted a burgeoning interest in plant cultivation. Back then, a really resilient person may have taken the time to visit the local library, and spend the hours needed finding out what caused this issue with their tomato plant. He may have even telephoned an aunt or uncle, who was blessed with so-called ‘green fingers’, for answers. In reality, this ’expert’ relative had honed their plant knowledge over many years of trial-and-error gardening.

Understanding Plant Disease

There is an age-old threat that remains in any agricultural activity: the threat of plant pests and diseases. As humans, we understand the importance of early diagnosis and treatment of any illness; a person with a weak immune system has a higher chance of being severely affected by an illness that wouldn’t necessarily be as serious for a stronger, healthier individual.

In the same way, plants have an immune system which helps defend it from disease and disease-causing organisms. When the plant is weakened due to poor growth conditions, over- or under-watering, insufficient nutrients, and physical damage, it becomes at risk of infection.

Therefore, the early diagnosis and treatment of plant disease is essential. Entire crops can be decimated by an undiagnosed disease that spreads quickly and causes maximum damage. Pathogens such as Phytophthora, Ralstonia and Erwinia are common disease-causing organisms that wreak havoc with plants and crops around the globe.

Control Methods

There is a misconception by some domestic gardeners that Disease and Pest Management Plans are only necessary for large scale agricultural growing enterprises. In reality, maintaining a domestic garden is no different to that of a farm, and if a grower of any level of expertise expects a ‘good crop’ they must have an effective plan in place for that piece of land to protect the plants on it from disease and pests.

Pocket Diagnostic In Use Agricultural Plant Disease Management Urban Farming

The concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) was born to combat the negative environmental impacts of overuse of pesticides. It has shifted towards more environmentally friendly methods, with greater understanding of pests and pathogens, their connection, and conditions under which they thrive. IPM is a combination of the following controls:

  • Biological controls: introducing natural ‘enemies’ to pests such as ladybirds and frogs, as well as companion planting to direct pests away from the plant being cultivated.
  • Mechanical controls: physical removal of infected plant material or isolation of infected the plant(s).
  • Chemical controls: restricted use of chemical pesticides to prevent overuse. Eco-friendly options are now available too; such as the extensive range of biopesticides from Belgium-based Biobest).
  • Technological controls: technology such as digital pest control management systems (check out Rentokil’s range), digitised insect-traps like those from Smapplab, and drones to map and spray crops are all strong examples. An AI robotic weed killer, that will be able to learn and distinguish between plants, is also already in development.
  • Cultural controls: educating communities in disease management methods and promoting indigenous crops that are suited to or able to adapt to the environment.

Technology to the Rescue

The rate of technological developments in the past 30 years, has led to agricultural technology becoming more affordable and readily available to small scale farmers and home-gardeners alike.

For example, Pocket Diagnostic has developed affordable, easy-to-use lateral-flow tests which detect the presence of pathogens, and are the perfect addition to your disease prevention tool-kit. Whether you need to diagnose a possible Erwinia amylovora (fire blight) infection on your apple trees, Phytophthora spp causing root rot or Potato Virus Y (PVY) growth on your spuds, Pocket Diagnostic’s affordable range of products will enable growers to accurately diagnose the problem in minutes.

Top Tips for Disease Management

  • Inspect seeds and seedlings for presence of disease, fungi, and pest infestation.
  • Choose the correct plant or crop for the specific area. Plants under stress from sub-optimal growth conditions are far more vulnerable to pests and pathogens.
  • Clean implements are essential in preventing the introduction and spread of disease.
  • Adequate space between plants ensures space for strong growth, and decreases the ‘fight’ for sun and nutrients.
  • Regular monitoring and inspection of plants ensures early detection of disease and pest infestation.
  • Removal of weeds to ensure they don’t suffocate young plants and use up valuable nutrients and resources.
  • Use of diagnostic tools such as Pocket Diagnostic’s range of rapid tests and other technology can really give you an edge to help deliver a strong yield. There are also some great apps out there to help you identify plant issues and tackle them quickly.
  • Implementation of disease and pest management / treatment plans to ensure isolation and eradication of disease and pests.
  • Investigate technological options that are readily available to home-gardeners.
  • Improve your knowledge of the signs and symptoms of plant diseases so you can act quickly.

These tips, implemented well as part of a holistic approach to gardening for pleasure or urban farming to deliver a crop yield of any size to supplement food security, can make a garden where pests and disease can break it. Some strong resources I’ve incorporated in my many years as a horticultural professional are shared below to help you on your way to success.

It’s really important to do our bit to promote strong landscapes; as many of us know, plant disease can spread quickly and easily. This blog by Pocket Diagnost’s exclusive UK distributor, Sorbus International, provides insight into how this can happen and some of the biosecurity control measures that can be implemented even on a walk in the country: Phytophthora | The Serial Killer of the Plant World.

In Summary:

Plant disease and disease-causing organisms are a major threat to the environment and food security, but can easily be managed through an effective IPM plan, in a home garden, urban farm or major agricultural setting.

The sentiment behind IPM practices is to use biological controls when you can, and chemical controls where you need. As individual households continue, and begin, to take part in small-scale subsistence farming in order to survive, access to disease and pest control tools and technology is going to become more and more critical to success.

We can all play a part in preventing the spread of pests and diseases from our own garden by implementing affordable IPM protocols into your blossoming garden or urban farm.