R.I.P., cherry tomato plant

Commenters, you rule.

When asked, you came through with theories and ideas and thoughts. Regardless of what was really happening, the consensus was clear: pull the sickly plant. Excise it from the garden before it spreads infection.

Dead tomato plantHere at the home of the Inadvertent Gardener, we heard you. Steve took to the garden early yesterday afternoon and removed the offending plant. He left it up against the side of the house so I could pay my respects when I returned home.

I should be happy about the fact that we’ve saved the other tomatoes, that we’ve ridded the garden of blight. But, in reality, I’m extremely irritated.

You see, we have planted our tomatoes underneath a black walnut tree.

For some of you, that sentence has made everything clear. For the rest of you (and me), it probably never occurred to you that the black walnut is as good as black death for tomatoes. And peppers. The peppers may be next.

Steve and I might never have put this together if our landlord, Randy, hadn’t stopped by on Monday night to cut the grass. I am not one to complain about having someone taking care of the lawn. I appreciate our landlord, and I really appreciate coming home from work to see neat edges and short blades.

However, this is the same landlord who told us to plant against the fence in our backyard. The fence that rests underneath a towering black walnut tree on the next lot.

On Monday, Steve and Randy stood out in the backyard chatting for awhile after Randy finished cutting the grass. When Steve came inside, I asked him how Randy was doing.

“Fine,” Steve said. “He did say that walnut trees are bad for the garden, though, and that’s the tree that keeps dropping stuff on our plants.”

“Weird,” I said. “If he knew that, why did he tell us to plant on that side of the yard?”

Steve shrugged, I continued fixing dinner, and we forgot about it.

Today, Steve found this:

Walnut Toxicity
Close-up shot of the wiltinessBlack walnut trees produce a toxic material (juglone) that can injure and kill solanaceous crops (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant) and other juglone-sensitive vegetables in the garden. Symptoms of walnut toxicity include stunted growth, yellowing and wilting of foliage, and death of susceptible plants. Juglone is present in all parts of the black walnut tree (fruits, leaves, branches and roots). The sources of juglone in the soil include both living and decaying plant material. Rain droplets leach juglone from the buds, leaves, and twigs. The decomposition of leaves and other plant debris by soil microorganisms also releases juglone. Living roots exude juglone into the surrounding soil. Generally, the greatest concentration of juglone in the soil exists within the dripline of walnut trees. Nothing can be done to save juglone-damaged tomato plants. Simply remove and destroy dead plants. Gardeners who have large walnut trees near their gardens should consider alternate sites. If alternate sites are unavailable, plant tomatoes and other susceptible plants 20 to 25 feet beyond the dripline of walnut trees to minimize walnut toxicity problems. Corn, beans, onions, beets, and carrots are tolerant of juglone and can be planted closer to walnut trees provided the area receives sufficient sunlight. Walnut trees that are 75 to 100 feet from the garden shouldn’t be a big threat to tomatoes and other juglone-sensitive vegetables. (Source: Iowa State University Horticulture and Home Pest News, July 22, 1992)

This explains why the tomato plant looked beautiful right before we got several days of rain, and then proceeded to wilt from the top down. This explains why the pepper plants have been oddly droopy, although they seem to be bouncing back. It even might explain why most of the tomato growth is happening lower down on the plants. All these plants were in the “dripline.”

When Steve emailed this information to me at work yesterday, I called home in an infernal bad mood. My mood turned worse when he told me that another of the tomato plants was also wilting quickly.

Formerly a tomato plantI went out last night to see the damage. It’s true: we’re going to be down to four tomato plants soon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some more rain brings down another two or three, or even all four of the survivors. I’m starting to worry about the peppers and the eggplants, too, although at least the zucchini and its prodigious leaves might actually be helping shelter the eggplants from the infernal dripline.

There’s a good side, if that’s possible. The second plant that’s in the process of wilting is the Jetstar tomato, so it has bigger fruit. Right now, there are about four good-sized green tomatoes hanging low to the ground. If we have to pull the plant, all is not lost. “We can still pick them and make fried green tomatoes,” Steve reminded me.

That’s not a bad silver lining. Still, it’s going to take a lot more than four fried green tomatoes to alleviate my crankiness.

49 Responses to “R.I.P., cherry tomato plant”

  1. 1 steven June 30, 2006 at 8:59 am

    Oh no! The dreaded black walnut! My garden runs along my fence line and until about 5 years ago (before I lived here) there were several black walnut trees on the property line.

    When I began to dig my beds, unaware of the previous situation I hit all these huge roots. From previous experience in my front yard in California I knew they were walnut roots from the smell and appearance and I ended up digging out hundreds of feet of roots.

    I’ve never had any instance of juglone damage to my plants *knock on wood* but it may have something to do with the trees being cut down so many years before.

    Black Walnut is a trash tree around here and the squirrels spread them all over. They are so prevelant that I won’t get compost from the Township for fear of contaminating my garden with juglone.

    I’m sorry you had to learn about this after you planted and I hope you can salvage what’s still doing well.

  2. 2 kalyn June 30, 2006 at 9:03 am

    I’m so sorry to hear about this, and hope your other plants will survive. I haven’t heard of this before. Maybe this tree isn’t common in Utah. I know it doesn’t make you feel better, but maybe you posting about it will help some other gardener to prevent the mistake.

  3. 3 inadvertentgardener June 30, 2006 at 9:09 am

    Steven and Kalyn, thanks for the sympathies…I cannot even begin to tell you how bummed I am about this. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed for the rest of the plants.

    Hey, at least the zucchini will survive, no matter what!

    And yeah, if I can help another gardener out by posting this stuff, I’m all for that. I need to get a few photos of the tree itself so people can identify it better. It had never occurred to me to even think about the trees around the garden, especially since this particular tree is so tall it doesn’t even shade the garden until very late in the day.

  4. 4 Melissa June 30, 2006 at 9:41 am

    Wow, that’s a real bummer. Hopefully you’ll still get a decent harvest. There are black walnut trees along the fence line of the house I grew up in. I’m not sure if your neighboring walnut tree is the same as those, but those walnuts were pretty tasty.

  5. 5 Claire Splan June 30, 2006 at 11:08 am

    This is so frustrating and sad. And it’s one of the reasons that I’m switching all my vegetable gardening to containters (not juglone here, but worries about other kinds of wilt lurking in the soil). Perhaps it’s not too late for you to transplant the tomatoes and peppers into containers? It is an added expense–potting soil is definitely not cheap–but you may be able to get some 5-gallon pots at a nursery free (one near me was happily giving them away). Considering what you’ve probably invested already, it may be worth it.

  6. 6 Carol June 30, 2006 at 10:02 pm

    I feel your pain. There are other plants that can be affected by walnut tree but it seems to have most impact on members of the Solanaceae family which also inclues peppers, potatoes, petunias, flowering tobacco, and eggplant in addition to tomatoes. This is the walnut tree’s mechanism to keep other plants from growing near it and competing for soil nutrients, I think. I know some people who take a 40 pound bag of black top soil, but it on the ground with a few slits on the bottom for drainage, and then plant the tomato right in the bag. Then, no competition from the walnut trees!

  7. 7 inadvertentgardener June 30, 2006 at 10:38 pm

    Melissa, I’ve been reading that you have to drive a car over the walnuts to get through the outer shell. That seems like way more work than I’m willing to put in. Plus, the tree is on someone else’s property, so there’s that, too. Hmm. But yes, I am a fan of eating of the walnuts, particularly in chocolate chip cookes….

    Claire, thank you for the suggestion…I’m still hopeful that maybe we can keep some of these bad boys alive — apparently the juglone sometimes causes some stunting, but not complete plant death, depending on the plant. I don’t know…this feels like such a big decision!

    Carol, that’s an interesting idea — who’d have thought of planting directly in a bag of soil? (Well, OK, some people that you know…) We might consider that as an option!

    Thanks to all of you who have been contributing comments — this is so very helpful.

  8. 8 rachelle July 1, 2006 at 9:10 am

    i don’t know what i would do if i found out that my hard work had come to a bleak end! i thinned my tomato plants, and transplanted them from the garden to containers filled with a mix of humus, manure, and peat moss. i got the humas and manure at home depot for under 2$ a bag, the peat moss was a little more expensive (5-8$), but the bag is huge, and i still have half a bag left! the tomato plants did suffer some transplant shock and i though they were goners, but they came back to life and are doing very well. just a suggestion. wishing you well.

  9. 9 Lizzie July 1, 2006 at 11:40 am

    I’ve only heard about black walnut in a natural remedies context before – black walnut tincture is a powerful antifungal/antibacterial/antiparasitical. So it makes sense that it would kill everything else too!

  10. 10 inadvertentgardener July 1, 2006 at 8:10 pm

    Rachelle — thank you for the suggestion. Stay tuned to find out if we took advantage of your advice… :-)

    Lizzie — I didn’t know that about black walnut and its remedy properties. It figures…


  11. 11 Jenny July 1, 2006 at 9:55 pm

    Methinks the landlord goofed and should be castigated whilst being hit with half-ripe tomatoes from the dying plants…

  12. 12 inadvertentgardener July 2, 2006 at 12:06 am

    I totally agree…and really, as limp as the tomato branches got from the juglone, it probably would hurt me more than it would hurt him.


  13. 13 Melissa July 2, 2006 at 1:15 pm

    The black walnut tree that I lived near was also in the neighbor’s yard and enough walnuts dropped on our side of the fence that we got more walnuts than we could use every year. If the trees are all over the neighborhood, you could just scavenge them too. Some cities around here (southern CA) have laws that any fruit that is directly over the road or public sidewalk can be picked by anyone, regardless of where the tree is. I’m not sure what Iowa City law states, but being a Nebraska native myself, I’d watch to see if the neighbors harvest the walnuts, and if they don’t I’d ask them if I could enter their yard to pick up the fallen walnuts.

    A car is most certainly not necessary to open the walnuts. Simply gather the walnuts, take them to the patio, place them on the concrete, and smash them open (one at a time) with a brick or large rock. Even my 7 year old nephew can crack a walnut open with one smash from the brick. But I should tell you, the husk (the fruity soft part surrounding the familiar walnut shell) will stain your hands! So, I’d recommend wearing gloves if walnut stained hands bothers you.

    Also, here’s a nice link I stumbled across that may be useful for you:

  14. 14 inadvertentgardener July 2, 2006 at 1:35 pm

    Melissa, wow — great information! I might try that — worth checking it out, regardless, and it sounds like a fun project.

    Besides, after all this, getting something good off the walnut tree would be a bit of a consolation.

  15. 15 Kelli July 15, 2006 at 12:53 am

    I too am having black walnut concerns with my tomatoes. Only a couple of my 20-ish plants have been noticeably affected. I think these ones may have hit the walnut tree roots. In any case, one of them was incredibly wilted and droopy for several days, and I figured it was a goner, but then it seemed to bounce back. Now, a week later, it’s wilting again, after a lot of rain, so who knows?

    Anyway, things may not be so tragic. You may just end up with some stunted growth…and a little anxiety. Don’t give up on your plants right away.

  16. 16 inadvertentgardener July 15, 2006 at 6:59 pm

    Kelli, your experience sounds like mine — one would droop after the rain, then rebound a bit, but then we got a bunch of rain, and one at a time, they gave up the ghost. It was weird — it was sort of like a disease, in that not all of them went at the same time, but if you get a bunch of rain, don’t be surprised if things get really beaten down by the juglone.

    Still, I agree with you — not letting it worry us was probably the way to go, but things are turning out OK now that we’ve transplanted everything!

  17. 17 Lance Oldre August 12, 2006 at 11:57 am

    Why is the fruit on my plants still green they are plenty big.

  18. 18 inadvertentgardener August 13, 2006 at 10:56 am

    Lance, that’s a good question. If you haven’t had hot weather and sun, that might be why they’re not turning yet. My advice is just to be patient. I started to think mine would never turn and then, suddenly, they started turning and went nuts!

  19. 19 Erica August 15, 2006 at 10:15 am

    i’m thinking about starting a tree farm and I heard black walnut trees can bring in a very good price. My parents have several trees and I’m gonna harvest their nuts. It takes a while to grow, so its good for long term investment purposes. I’d probably use other trees too and separate them with some distance. any thoughts?

  20. 20 inadvertentgardener August 15, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    Erica, other than what they do to tomatoes and peppers and eggplants, I’m really not the expert on the black walnut tree. But yes, I’ve heard their wood is very valuable.

  21. 21 Jerry November 30, 2006 at 12:11 am

    This is great information. Thanks for sharing. I completed a Master Gardening course and heard lot’s of horror stories but nothing about Black Walnuts. Thanks for sharing.

  22. 22 inadvertentgardener November 30, 2006 at 7:15 am

    Jerry, I’m glad to hear the information about the trees is out there. It’s too bad they’re so poisonous…they’re really quite amazing.

  23. 23 Csilla October 5, 2007 at 7:08 am

    Fantastic news about the black walnut,s poisenous effects.I planted several tomatoes and peppers in our fenced garden under a black walnut tree. From the same batch, on the same day, I planted some in a sunny garden spot far from this tree. The difference was amazing!!! All along I was blaming the soil and perhaps less sun. Thanks Jerry for this information.

  24. 24 inadvertentgardener October 7, 2007 at 12:32 am

    Csilla, I’m Genie, not Jerry, but I’m glad it was helpful info! The difference in the effect from the tree is really wild, isn’t it?

  25. 25 bea123 February 19, 2008 at 6:51 am

    I too, found out the hard way about black walnut toxicity.
    I knew nothing about it, and planted tomato plants near the tree. They did well for a while, growing nicely, and had quite a few green tomatoes. One day, I came home from work ony to find one of the plants and wilted so badly, it did not survive. Had no idea what had happened. Then one by one they all did the same thing. The tree itself is a nice shade tree, too close to my house. It is messy, and there are so many husks that fall, I’m afraid to walk out there for fear of twisting an ankle. I’m going to have the tree removed, but since it is the only shade tree I have, any suggestions what kind of tree I could plant out there that the roots wouldn’t kill?

  26. 26 inadvertentgardener February 19, 2008 at 7:12 am

    Bea123, you pretty much are safe with anything in the cucurbit family, like squash and cucumbers and melons. I have had good luck with herbs and garlic and leeks, too. Flowers generally work, too, although I don’t know if some work better than others?

  27. 27 superled March 5, 2008 at 4:38 am

    sad to see the tomato plant go =(

  28. 28 inadvertentgardener March 14, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Superled, it definitely was sad.

  29. 29 Carolyn June 9, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    I was lucky enough to have been warned against planting my vegetable garden over a big black walnut rootball(only one year prior it had been chopped down). My neighbor had declared certain death for anything planted there; but, there’s no need to give up hope. Green beans loved it! Tomatoes, peppers, etc. I planted furthest away (approx. 15 feet from center of rootball) and spinach, carrots, dill, and lettuces nearer by. I had a happy garden (can’t tell you how happy those green beans were!). Of course, unlike you, I did not have to worry about leaf runoff. For a list of walnut intolerant and tolerant plants, Virginia Tech has an excellent site. http://www.ext.vt.edu/pubs/nursery/430-021/430-021.html
    Good luck!
    P.S. no joke about the husks staining your hands! wear gloves!

  30. 30 New comer-gardener Mandy June 15, 2008 at 8:32 am

    I’m new to gardening, and this is the first year I’ve tried to grow tomatoes here in Bavaria, Germany. The weather has been lousy and I put it down to this as the cause of my tomatoe plant turning limp from the top down, over a matter of a week or so. None of my gardening friends nearby have seen this happen before and couldn’t help so I searched on-line and found this article. Sorry to hear about your unfortunate event, but it may be the answer to my problem too. Although there isn’t a walnut tree in the garden we do have a hazel nut tree and I wonder whether this may cause similar problems. I’m about to check it out …
    Thanks for posting on this site, if it wasn’t for you, I would have planted all the tomatoes in that patch. As it is I’ve only lost one, and I plan to plant the others in containers.

  31. 31 inadvertentgardener June 19, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    Carolyn, you’re absolutely right — there are definitely plants that are not in the least bit affected by that tree, and that’s a good thing! I’m glad you were warned, though, before you planted all those tomatoes there.

    Mandy, I don’t know the first thing about hazelnut trees, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the culprit. Is the tomato in the dripline? (Where the water from rainstorms runs off the tree onto whatever’s below it…)

  32. 32 Sammie June 27, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    Genie – Did your transplanting of your tomatoes work? I also just found out why 5 of my 13 plants are wilting and dying (walnut tree too close).Just wondering if it’s safe to move my still healthy ones into pots since they’re already huge and producing fruit? Don’t want to lose anymore plants but am willing to try transplanting if it works :) Please let me know how yours did :) :)

  33. 33 inadvertentgardener June 28, 2008 at 11:06 am

    Sammie, I’m pretty sure they didn’t yield what they would have yielded if we’d planted them in the right place to start out with, but yes, we got tomatoes that year, and the plants bounced back after the transplant.

  34. 34 Sammie June 28, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    Thanks for the fast reply :) 2 more died over nite but I was able to transplant the last 6 healthy looking ones this morning. All but 2 of those don’t seem all that happy about the relocation but I keep telling them it was either move or face certain death from the evil walnut tree Ha! Ha! Thanks again!

  35. 35 inadvertentgardener June 29, 2008 at 10:35 am

    Sammie, you’re quite welcome — I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that the six transplants bounce back!

  1. 1 inadvertentgardener Trackback on July 1, 2006 at 8:09 pm
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