Global agriculture or local gardens
Whether we are talking about pandemics in the global food supply or epidemics in neighborhood home gardens, the spread of disease affects us all.
Finding cures and treating sick plants takes time, costs money, and reduces crop size. Farmers and home gardeners can work to prevent these problems (easier) or deal with the consequences (harder). Plant pandemics are increasing in frequency and effect because of rising temperatures, global trade, pathogen spillover, and evolution.
Temperatures are rising around the world. Many pests that act as disease vectors used to die in winter. Warmer winters mean more disease-carrying pests are attacking plants, and pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses, are more active. And they are expanding their territories.
Changing storm patterns, drought occurrence, and other conditions also weaken plants and favor diseases. Monitoring plants regularly for signs of trouble can help nip those problems in the bud.
Travel along the Silk Road 2,000 years ago brought untold wealth and riches to the far reaches of the globe. It also furthered the development of science, literature, and medicine. And it increased the spread of diseases, such as intestinal parasites, the Black Death (bubonic plague), smallpox, and STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). Modern global trade has had similar effects on our gardens.
A single pest, virus, bacteria, or other plant problem can catch a ride on a shipment of produce, furniture, or dollar store doo-dad bound for your neighborhood. Before you know it, you’re up against something new. Some of those new problems can be devastating. And many countries are forced, through poverty, to ignore trade restrictions regarding pests, diseases, and chemical use. As a result, low-priced produce often comes at a higher long-term cost.
In some cases, the carriers of diseases develop a taste for something new. Expanding food preferences are becoming more common as we craft new varieties of plants that tolerate non-traditional temperature ranges. As crops are grown in new areas, pests and diseases that favor those crops follow. Once established, those pests and diseases often develop a taste for the local flora, spilling over into these local crops. Also, where one plant disease may be tolerable, multiple diseases are often devastating.
One thing I learned while studying for the Master Gardener’s exam was that pathogens push plants to develop better defenses. It’s one of Nietzsche’s “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” situations. Plants that die are removed from the gene pool, leaving more resistant specimens to reproduce. Of course, we don’t want anything to kill our herbs, tomatoes, or fruit trees. We want them to grow and thrive and produce.
Like everything else, diseases evolve. A simple mutation can change everything. Insects and microorganisms evolve much faster than plants (or us). Sometimes a plant disease can have a mild effect for several years and suddenly mutate and become devastating.
Common plant epidemics
Monoculture and the increasing demand for food have led to the rise of several plant pandemics. These are some of the most common plant pandemics that you probably never heard about in the news:
These are only a few of the plant pandemics currently happening. Like Covid-19, many of the carriers of these diseases can be asymptomatic, which means they look perfectly healthy. But adding them to your landscape can cause years of headaches and work.
You can reduce the risk of plant diseases causing problems in your garden by monitoring insect movements in your region. Many insects carry diseases. Knowing which insects are coming your way can help you be better prepared. The Big Bug Hunt is a good tool I’ve used to see what’s coming. I’m sure there are others, but the Big Bug Hunt has the added benefit of providing photos and identification tools.
These other tips can help break the chain of plant epidemics and pandemics:
Finally, learn more about the relationships between the plants you are growing and the pests that threaten them.
Did you know that green peach aphids hide and spend their winters on stone fruit trees and can then carry potato leafroll to your potatoes in spring? Now you know.
Remember, the more you know, the better equipped you are to halt the spread of these and other plant diseases. We may not be able to vaccinate our garden plants to protect them (yet), but there are other things we can do.
Kate Russell, writer, gardener, and so much more.