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Leaf Hoppers and Curly Top

By Dennis Domrzalski

AUGUST 16, 1999:  It's enough to make you want to burn your neighbor's house down twice; to take a sledgehammer to a relative's car; and to make even organic gardeners shout, "More poison!"

The "it" is the dreaded, the sickening, the evil, tomato-destroying curly top virus.

Gardeners, this virus straight from Satan's bowels has invaded Albuquerque and has the potential of turning you, especially if you're as mad as I am, into a raving lunatic. It can destroy your tomatoes, chiles and eggplants and the limited amount of goodwill you have toward family, friends, neighbors and co-workers.

It's already gotten some of my plants and is threatening to stunt and maim more than two dozen tomato plants, some of which are already as tall as I am. This, gardening friends and enemies, is a potential disaster.

How do we know the curly top virus is here? I said so.

So did Carol Dawson, a horticultural agent with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service in Bernalillo County. I called Dawson last week after panicking one morning when I looked at the garden and noticed that all of my tomatoes were starting to look arthritic. Their leaves have been curling up and are no longer soft to the touch, and the leaves and stems don't have that lush, green look that they normally have.

I suspected the curly top virus because, well, I always suspect the worst. No one can turn an earache into a brain tumor faster than I can. Dawson only confirmed what I suspected.

"We are having a really bad year this year," Dawson said of the curly top infestation. She said the Extension Service has gotten many calls from gardeners across the city and county. Gardeners have brought in their sickly plants to her office, and people have been complaining that they're having trouble finding good tomatoes at farmer's markets across town because of curly top.

Here's what this disease is and does:

It is a virus carried by a vile, little, one-eighth-inch-long bug called a leaf hopper, particularly beet leafhoppers. Leaf hoppers poke tiny holes in plant tissue and suck out the sap, causing the host plant to gradually lose color in the leaves and weaken. Many carry viruses, including the curly top.

The curly top causes leaves to roll and turn over to expose their undersides. Leaves become stiff and leathery. Branches become stiff and erect and the veins turn purple. The plant becomes stunted, and fruits, if the plant produces any, are deformed.

Curly top basically ruins your tomatoes. And it destroys all the hard work you've put into a tomato patch.

What can you do about this virus? Not a damn thing. I know. I tried. I went out one day and started screaming at the damn little bugs. I leveled the vilest insults at them, called them names, resorted to the thing that sets today's New Age sensitive types screaming, "Not fair! Not fair!" -- the personal attack -- and threatened them with the one thing that scares absolutely everybody and everything into submission these days: a lawsuit. It didn't work.

I tried shaming my tomato plants by ridiculing them for being weak and susceptible to disease. But still the plants look sick and diseased.

Dawson also said there's nothing you can do if your plants are infected -- except yank them up and throw them out.

"There is no cure for it," Dawson said. "There is nothing you can spray or do for it. All you can do is pull [the affected plants] out."

I thought I had done that. Early in the season I yanked out three plants because I noticed that they were leathery and stunted. There were a couple of others that had similar symptoms, but I left them in. After all, any real mad gardener believes that nature is something to be fought, tamed, challenged and dominated. I figured I could beat nature.

So, if you've got a tomato plant (or two or three) that looks sick and leathery and has purple veins, you should probably pull it up. You don't want the tiny leaf hoppers hopping from the infected plants on to the healthy ones and infecting them. Pull them out and dispose of them. You can put them in the trash, burn them or throw them into the neighbor's yard. But don't compost them.

Why do we have this infestation this year?

Dawson said that the mild winter was ideal for leaf hoppers. The bugs spend winter on weeds, including mustard weed. So since they all didn't freeze to death in December and January, there were plenty of them around to breed like crazy in the spring. And that's what they did. Now they're hopping from tomato plant to tomato plant spreading disease.

One good thing about curly top is that it is mostly transmitted by those bugs. Mere proximity to an infected plant won't cause a plant to get it. Nor will humans by way of touching a sick plant and then touching a healthy one. No, those bugs have to inject the virus into the plants.

And there is something you can do to save a whole tomato patch if only a couple of plants are infected. Pull up the bad plants and then spray the healthy ones with an organic insecticide to kill the leaf hoppers.

As for me -- and I don't urge anyone to take this advice -- I'm going to do what I do when I have severe chest pains and dizzy spells: drink beer and hope it goes away.

I'm going to stick it out and see what happens to the plants. If they all get sick and bear deformed, toxic fruits, no big deal. It just means that I'll have tomatoes for the boss.

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