Plenty of agricultural worries even without ash borer problem

Even without the arrival of the dreaded emerald ash borer, environmental and agriculture officials were braced to have their hands full this summer with a number of insects, diseases and other maladies posing threats to a swath of the state’s plant life.

A midsummer check reveals a counterintuitive bit of good news: drought. The mostly dry weather seems to be holding down disease outbreaks and pest infestations. That said, there’s still been plenty to track and the situation could easily turn worse, especially if there’s a lot of rain.

Boxwood blight: A fungus that arrived in the state last year. “Things did not get as bad as we anticipated and a lot of that was attributed to the heat and dry conditions,” said Sharon Douglas, chief scientist in the Department of Plant Pathology and Ecology at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, noting that fungus typically thrives in damp, cool weather.

But there have been problems. One private property in Fairfield County found blight in dozens of newly planted boxwoods as well as in pachysandra, a ground cover that had been found in laboratory testing to be susceptible to boxwood blight. This was the first naturally occurring incidence.

Fears from the state’s greenhouse industry of an economic Armageddon for the $20 million-to-$40 million boxwood industry as well as loss of other plant orders, also have not materialized so far.

“It’s not over yet,” Douglas cautioned. “Especially because we’re coming into a cooler period and frequently in early fall there’s more rain. And we have been getting really torrential downpours with a lot of splashing around.”

Late blight: This strain of the same fungus that caused the Irish potato famine more than a century ago came close to wiping out the state’s tomatoes in 2009.

When torrential rains arrived in July, University of Connecticut extension educator Jude Boucher expected a late blight explosion. So far, only a handful of growers – all organic – have reported the disease. But he too cautions the season is far from over, noting that heavy dews and cool nights also promote late blight.

“And in August we always have that situation,” Boucher said. “From here out dews become heavier and heavier so there’s more and more potential to get late blight even if we don’t have rain.

“The first two cases occurred after not a drop of rain.”

Downy mildew: With changing weather patterns, this microbe, which loves to set its sights on Genovese basil, is arriving earlier and earlier and has been reported already.

Spotted wing drosophila: A fruit fly also known as a vinegar fly — it turned up in Connecticut late last growing season three years after it had arrived on the West Coast from Asia. Laying eggs on even healthy small fruit — it turns them to unusable mush.

“It’s all over the state,” said UConn extension educator Mary Concklin. But she said growers seem to be keeping it at bay even with no proven methods to combat it.

“The trap counts in most places are low,” she said. “But we expected low numbers early that pick up as the season goes on.”

With berry and grape seasons still weeks from ending, Concklin warned the worst could be yet to come.

Brown marmorated stinkbug: Another newcomer, but this one attacks many different fruits and vegetables and is difficult to control. Concklin said so far fields haven’t been hit, but the stinkbug has turned up in homes — and that has her worried.

“This is what happened in Pennsylvania,” said Concklin, who worked in that state at the time, witnessing firsthand the stinkbug’s devastating capabilities. “They found it in homes in 1999, but didn’t have it in the agricultural fields until late 2000s. I’m sure at some point it will be in agricultural fields and I hope by then there’s a way to manage it.”