Sagaponack Community Notes, May 30

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Everyone is hoping that we have seen the last of the winter weather, and that we can get on toward summer in a more orderly fashion. The tomatoes could not have been happy on Saturday. They are not really happy anytime the temperature gets much below 55 degrees. That is why vegetable farmers go to such trouble to put down plastic mulch and floating row cover, but these insulators can only help so much.
Tomatoes are just like us: Stressful conditions early on can leave its trace in the adult life form. Bad times taint.

The lilacs can be smelled from a long way off. When the day is right, a breeze will carry the heavy fragrance down the driveways, up the hill, far enough from the source that you cannot see its purple highness beaming in the sun.

The rule of thumb is that if the lilacs are blooming, it is safe to plant tomatoes. So now, wary but powerless, I prepare to plant the second group of tomatoes … and all the heat-loving things we’ve been growing and papering in the greenhouse. Further delay means the plants only get larger. Then they are that much more set back by transplant. Every decision can feel like a no-win situation, except that once you have committed and planted them, then there us one less job that needs to be done yesterday.

The plant pathologist who is studying late blight came to install a spore collector near my tomato field. Essentially, it is a specialized net. It has two needle-like probes attached to a solar motor that spins them around in the air, catching particles and pathogens as they float past. Every four to seven days, I am to replace the probes. I must carefully remove the exposed ones and put them in a specimen vial. I’ll date the label and put it in my refrigerator, where, week after week, I will help to compile a data bank of spore activity.

As the scientist goes over the details of the project, I am aware that even with this neat machine I do not have an early warning system. The samples will be analyzed after the growing season—parsing the facts after the fact is what helps us fill in the blanks so we better understand the disease. For example, it will help us know how much time elapsed between the probes catching the disease and my own eyes observing the pathogen in the field.

Like a lot of data, it may help in the future, but its collection can do little to allay the uncertainty of the moment. Such anxiety can only be treated with superstition or positive thinking, sometimes both.

As the scientist packs up her gear, she tells me she has a suspicion we won’t have blight this year just because she’s gotten this study together. “And wouldn’t that be nice,” then adds, checking her line of reasoning, “Although it is 2013, so I don’t know what to tell you.”

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