Granny’s Got the Blight and She’s Got to Go

Granny Cantrell is on her way out.

The story of these rare Granny Cantrell tomatoes is that a soldier brought home the seed when he returned from Germany after WWII. Lettie Cantrell grew those tomatoes from seed every year since the 1940s. It was the only kind of tomato Lettie Cantrell of West Liberty Kentucky, grew.

She grew those “very large and tasty” tomatoes until her death in 2005 at the age of 96. And I’d say that’s proof enough that gardening – especially growing tomatoes, will help you live to a ripe old age.

The sad news is my tomatoes got early blight late this year. The plants will not live a long life, because I’ll be pulling them up very soon. It’s a shame too because this is the first time I’ve grown this variety of heirloom tomato. Today I shared a couple of tomatoes each with two of my neighbors and had one more sliced at dinner. That’s five red tomatoes, thin skinned, with very little core and bright red, solid fruits weighing 13 to 14 ounces each. All of my Granny Cantrell tomatoes weighed in under a pound this year, though I was not trying to grow the really big ones.

If you want to know my secret to growing big tomatoes, I’d have to say neglect is the key. Once a tomato plant shows signs of blight – late blight or early blight, any blight, it will quickly spread to all the tomato plants. I ripped out the first tomato to show signs of early blight, then carefully cleared out any sign of the doomed tomato plant, but the rest of the tomatoes still ended up with the disease. Sure, you could try to blast the plants with chemical treatments, but there really is no practical way to get rid of this soil borne disease.

This year I grew only rare heirloom tomatoes. A lot of those plants are susceptible to early blight. Heirlooms like “Brandywine,” and “Old German” have been around a long time, but the older varieties don’t have a lot of disease resistance.

Plants with early blight slowly lose their leaves. Right now, the infection is not severe, so I am harvesting mature tomatoes. The immature tomatoes are stating to show signs of the disease. Soon, I’ll pull up all the tomatoes and put in a cover crop for the cool season. Next year I will rotate the tomato crop to a different location, probably growing different varieties.

The German Red Strawberry tomatoes are growing in the straw bale garden next to the Granny Cantrell. Both tomatoes are struggling with blight. But for this week, I’ll have more big tomatoes to share and to eat fresh.

The grounds keeper has requested Gazpacho from these last few weeks of big tomato harvests. It’s a great way to use a lot of fresh tomatoes and a summertime favorite.

Baker Creek and Southern Exposure sell the seed. Abundant Acres sells the plants. These red beefsteak type tomatoes won “Best In Taste” at the Baker Creek Fall Festival 2006. A rare variety, that can reach 2 ½ pounds.

This is the German Red Strawberry tomato. It needs another day or two f warm sunny weather.
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