By Vicki Hyatt | Jul 10, 2013
Kaleb Rathbone, superintendent of Mountain Research Station, measures the rain at the manual weather station on the farm.

Spring and summer rains have wreaked havoc in Haywood County and beyond, frustrating event planners, delaying spring plantings, delaying haying and stunting crop growth in waterlogged fields.

“We had a cool, wet spring, which made it hard to get out in the fields,” said Kaleb Rathbone, superintendent of the Mountain Research Station outside of Waynesville. “A lot of the hay hasn’t been put up yet because it’s been too wet. Everything is delayed.”

As if that news isn’t bad enough, farmers and gardeners are bracing for diseases that follow wet weather.

“Late blight has already been found in the state,” Rathbone said. “Typically, it doesn’t show up until August.” Blight-infected plants wilt, turn brown and die.

Downy mildew, a disease that affects plants such as squash, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and gourds (collectively known as cucurbits), is also expected to hit the area.

A forecasting model by the American Phytopathological Society lists risk levels for certain diseases across the nation. Levels are assigned on a low, moderate and high-risk basis. In Western North Carolina, the site notes, “epidemic spread is likely” for downy mildew.

Just like blight, downy mildew causes plants to rapidly die after the first telltale spots on leaves show up.

“This is the perfect weather for disease,” Rathbone said. “You can spray for it, but timing is critical.”

That’s why it is important to closely follow the risk projections found on the N.C. Department of Agriculture and APA websites.

The data shows where the diseases have been found and, based on weather projections, predicts when the spores that are carried through the atmosphere will hit other areas. Those who intend to spray for the diseases to save their crops must do so before the disease enters an area, Rathbone said.

“If it isn’t in an area, there’s no real need to spray because it’s expensive,” he said. “but if it is in an area and you don’t spray, you could lose a crop. Timing is very important.”


Protecting plants

Bill Skelton, director of the Haywood County Extension Service, advised gardeners and growers to be on a constant lookout for first evidence of any diseases. Typically signs will include leaves that are a bit off color, water-soaked, have the appearance of being greasy or that have spots. Diseased leaves should be removed and destroyed.

"The next step is to determine what disease is present, and determine what to do from there," said Skelton. "You have to know what it is before you reach for a bottle of fungicide."

Growers and gardeners can bring samples of diseased plants to the extension office on Raccoon Road just outside Waynesville to get help in identifying the type of plant disease or fungus present. The most common diseases will include late blight, early blight, downy or powdery mildew, or for tobacco growers, blue mold.

It is feasible to spray plants once the right type of fungicide is selected. However, it is important to strictly follow the directions and to not exceed the recommended application levels, Skelton said.

"With this kind of weather, you would probably put on as much as allowed," he said, cautioning the spray is more protective than curative. If you already have the disease, chances are spraying will slow it down."

Skelton said the 17 inches of rainfall in June and more than 6 inches so far in July have taken their toll.

"With the wet spring, a lot of people just haven't been able to get their garden planted. If it is planted, they haven't been able to get in there to keep it weeded or sprayed," he said.

Those who have gardens in raised beds are likely faring a bit better.

"If conditions are too dry, you can water, but if it is too wet, it is hard to take water away," Skelton said. "With raised beds, you can at least keep the root zone a bit drier."