Sunday, July 26, 2009

Lyme disease on the rise

I pulled the first deer tick off my new puppy yesterday (ok, I made my dad do it). Our puppy's 6 weeks old and she's only been living in Dedham for about 5 days, with the majority of the time spent indoors. I'm crossing my fingers she won't get Lyme Disease. If she doesn't, she'll be luckier than our family friend who's recovering from her second severe attack of Lyme Disease (possibly from a tick off our cat) in the past two years, and my uncle (in Sherborn) who's been under the weather for nearly 4 years due to the disease.

Bites from a deer tick carrying Lyme Disease typically have a "bull's eye" look to them. Photo from

A severe tick-o-phobe myself, I check myself thoroughly after any extended time outside. But I don't check my animals all the time. The vet says we shouldn't put a tick collar on my cat in case he chews it off (as he has previously) and my puppy gets hold of it. Tick collars are actually pretty toxic. Who knew?

Ticks are a fact of life in Dedham, and always have been, but rampant Lyme Disease is not. Recently, the warmest winters on record have allowed more ticks to survive and reproduce for a longer period than normal, leading to a surge in Lyme Disease throughout the region.

According to the Patriot Ledger, in MA "The number of cases has more than doubled since 2001". The usual list of "maybes" accompanies this stat -- maybe we are better at recognizing it, maybe cases are being reported more frequently, etc. -- but nobody can deny that warmer winters mean more ticks. For the squeamish like me, that's bad enough.

More info on the subject:
PatriotLedger: Lyme Disease on the Rise in Massachusetts May, 2009
WickedLocal: Tick Bites Leading to Dramatic Rise of Lyme Disease in Brookline March, 2009
Boston Globe: Mild Winter Raises Lyme Disease Risk, Doctors Say (2006)
Dedham Veterinary Associates: What you Need to Know about Lyme Disease

Saturday, July 25, 2009

What's eating my potatoes and tomatoes?

Yesterday my uncle showed me a mysterious ailment affecting his tomato plants -- the leaves would sort of shrivel up and the whole plant would die. He'd asked around, but no one could explain it. Today, we had some ladies come over who tend to our garden as part of a community exchange program, and they took out a torch and started burning our potato plants.

What do we have? It's called "late blight", and it kills tomato and potato plants. It's the same disease that was responsible for the Irish Potato Famine in 1840.

Why do we have late blight?
The ladies explained that we always have late blight, but it usually lies dormant. This summer, being unusually cold, wet, and darker than most, has been a perfect opportunity for late blight (being something like a fungus) to rear its ugly head. And it has; of the farmers she knows across Massachusetts, all have crops affected by late blight.

What didn't help, they explained, was that the big box retailers all purchased infected plants this year from one mega-distributor in Alabama (Bonnie Plants), so if you bought your tomato plants from a Lowes, Home Depot, etc. you probably bought an infected plant.

They also said late blight can obliterate a fully healthy crop - not just a backyard garden, but an actual farmer's crop - in 3 days.

Since we were growing mainly potatoes for our local farmers market, its likely our whole garden will be destroyed. What was the one extra, special crop we were growing for ourselves? Tomatoes.

From our friend who runs the community exchange we're part of-

What you should do as a gardener:
Visit the following websites to get an idea of what to look for. The first is the Cornell plant disease website. It has good background information and photographs.

The second is the UMASS Vegetable site. It also has basic information and photographs, but it is updated regularly to reflect what's going on in Massachusetts. It also explains how to dispose of your diseased plants.

More news on the subject:
Boston Globe - There's a Tomato Fungus Among Us
WickedLocal - Across the Pond and Beyond: A blight on our tomatoes
NYTimes - Outbreak of Fungus Threatens Tomato Crop