Potato pests and diseases
This is part of a monthly series on growing potatoes, a dietary staple.
PART ONE: Planting potatoes (April)
PART TWO: Growing potatoes (May)
PART THREE: Potato pests and diseases (this one, June)
PART FOUR: Harvesting potatoes (July)
PART FIVE: Storing potatoes (August)
PART SIX: Planning to grow potatoes again (September)
I have a whole chapter about potatoes in Sustainable Market Farming, where most of this information can be found.
See Root Crops in June for info on digging up new potatoes, if you can’t wait for them to mature!
See The Potato Association of America, Commercial Potato Production in North America 2010 for lots of interesting info, including planting in hot weather. (But hurry up, you need to have enough growing days left in the season to get them to maturity.)
Organic Integrated Pest Management involves tackling pest problems one step at a time with ecologically-based practices, starting with actions to reduce the chances of the pest ever getting a grip on your crops. I recommend the ATTRA online publication Organic Integrated Pest Management. Each of the 22 pages is a poster, complete with good photos and concise clear info. Because nightshades have a lot of fungal, bacterial and viral diseases, it pays to take action to minimize the chance of diseases attacking your plants.
Integrated Pest Management in Organic Field Crops Webinar from eOrganic
Biological IPM disease and pest reduction strategies for potatoes
- Cultivate strong crops and provide healthy soil, sufficient space, nutrients and water, suitable temperature, and soil pH.
- Choose varieties that resist the pests and diseases you most expect. Improve the soil tilth, drainage and aeration. Chisel plow or broadfork to break hardpan, or grow deep-rooting cover crops ahead of your potatoes. Maximize air circulation around the plants. Choose a bright, breezy location (avoid frost pockets as they also collect dew), orient the rows parallel to prevailing winds and give the plants plenty of space.
- Add compost and cover crops to build fertile soil to support strong plant growth and help increase the diversity of soil microorganisms, building naturally disease-suppressing soil. Use foliar sprays of seaweed extract, microbial inoculants or compost tea to boost general disease resistance. Consult ATTRA for compost tea Brew one part of compost to 5 parts water by volume for 14 days before spraying.
- Practice crop rotation to reduce the chances of pests and diseases carrying over from one crop to the next. For potatoes, it’s best to rotate away from nightshade crops for at least three years. We don’t manage this ideal of one year in four. In our ten-year rotation, three of our ten years are nightshades (one paste tomatoes and peppers, two plantings of potatoes).
- Practice good sanitation. Clear old crops promptly, so they don’t act as a breeding ground for pests or diseases. Avoid smoking, especially near nightshades, and have smokers wash their hands with soap or milk before working with potatoes. Tobacco can spread tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) to nightshade plants. Avoid working potato plants while the leaves are wet. Remove and destroy diseased plants, especially for late blight. Clean tools in between use in one field and another. When the harvest is finished, till the tops into the soil to speed decomposition, or remove and compost or burn them if growing on a small scale.
- Remove nightshade weeds (e.g., horsenettle, jimsonweed and black nightshade), which can be alternate hosts for pests and diseases.
- Prevent soil splash-back onto leaves, to reduce outbreaks of soil-borne diseases. Use drip irrigation rather than overhead sprinklers.
- Cover or protect the plants physically from the pests
- mulches to stop soil-dwelling pests (CPB) moving up into your crops
- netting or rowcover to protect from airborne pests (leaf hoppers, blister beetles)
- Provide habitat for natural enemies and other beneficial insects. Farmscaping with sunflowers, peas, vetch, buckwheat or small grains, to encourage ladybugs and lacewings, can make insect control unnecessary in a good year. Ground beetles and bats can consume surface and air attackers before you even need to look.
- Monitor your crops regularly at least once a week and identify any pests you see.
- Introduce natural enemies of the pest (bacteria, fungi, insect predators or parasites). Try biofungicides for use against some diseases. F-Stop, T-22G Biological Plant Protectant Granules or other forms of Trichoderma can control Rhizoctonia, Fusarium and Sclerotonia. Soil-Gard (Gliocladium virens) can work against Rhizoctonia. Bacillus subtilis works against Rhizoctonia, and Sclerotonia. Mycostop (Streptomyces griseoviridis) can be used against Phytophthora, Alternaria, 35% hydrogen peroxide diluted to a 0.5–1% foliar spray solution may help control early blight. 1% solution = 3.7 oz in 124.3 oz water to make one gallon (1 ml:33 ml). There are commercial products such as Oxidate that are based on hydrogen peroxide, which is corrosive and challenging to handle.
- Hand pick (or trap) and kill the pests if the pest population is above the action threshold. Many fruit and root crop plants can take 30% defoliation before suffering any loss of yield. Where the crop is the foliage, this may be too much, but people don’t east potato foliage!
- Use biological controls (often derived from natural enemies) if the damage is still economically significant after trying the earlier steps in the process, including Spinosad or Bt.
Potatoes can be attacked by more than 150 insect pests. But don’t despair! In each region there are only a few species that could cause unacceptable losses of yield or quality. These losses can result either directly from the insects or indirectly by transmission of diseases.
Colorado potato beetle is the most common pest that potato growers get to deal with. The pink blob-like larvae of this beetle can eat enormous amounts of potato leaves while growing into bigger pink blobs. Left alone they can kill a planting. Acceptable amounts of defoliation without causing loss of yield are surprisingly high: 50%–75% of the top leaves on a young 6″–8″ (15–20 cm) plant, 25% on a 12″–16″ (30–40 cm) plant, a mere 10% at the critical full bloom stage (when the tubers are sizing up), and up to 25% once full grown. As with many pests, having a few of them is not important — it’s all about the numbers. Action to control CPB is only needed if the number of adults or larvae is higher than 1.5 per plant or egg masses exceed one per ten plants.
Crop rotation is effective, because Colorado potato beetles overwinter as an adult in the soil and when they emerge they have to walk around searching for a potato plant. CPB can have 1-3 generations a year. Even where two or three generations are usual, a significant portion of the summer generation adults go directly into the soil and become dormant. Eggs are laid in clusters of 20 or more. They look like ladybug eggs but are a stronger orange color – don’t kill the wrong ones! The beetle can go from egg to adults in as few as 21 days. There are four larval instars, with 75% of the total foliage destruction caused by the final and fattest instar.
Mulching with hay or straw can prevent CPB finding your potato plants – we never find them on our summer planting. Our unmulched spring planting is a different matter. I scout that field once a week, counting adults and larvae on a hundred randomly selected plants. As soon as I see more than 50 adults or 150 large larvae or 400 small larvae per 100 plants, I unpack the sprayer. I do a spraying with Spinosad, a fermentation product of a soil bacterium. It kills insects by over-stimulating their nervous systems. Spinosad kills a wide range of helpful and harmful insects too, so spray in the early morning or late evening when bees are not flying. Shake the bottle well, and mix following the instructions. Clean and triple rinse the sprayer. Do not flush in the creek or pond. Repeat in 6 days, but only if needed. Usually one spraying is enough, although I continue weekly checks. In the South, there can be three generations of CPB each year, so stay vigilant.
Prior to using Spinosad, we used Bt. The version of Bt for CPB nowadays is Bacillus thuringiensis var. tenebrionis. The kurstaki strain (such as Crymax) generally available in small quantities previously is genetically modified, so we stopped using it, not wishing to be part of any support for GMOs. Neem and Beauvaria bassiana can also kill CPB larvae.
Flaming when the potatoes are less than 8” (20 cm) tall, is another effective control measure for CPB. Choose a warm sunny day when the pests are at the top of the plants. Flaming can kill 90% of the CPB adults and 30% of the egg masses, according to Colorado Potato Beetle: Organic Control Options – ATTRA
Insects with piercing-sucking mouthparts damage potatoes by physical injury to the leaves, sucking out phloem, injecting their toxic saliva and possibly transmitting diseases. While potatoes can grow new leaves, there is still damage to plant health. Direct injury by sap-feeding insects can kill the plant. Soil-dwelling insects have only minor effects on yield, generally, but can reduce tuber quality and storage life.
Aphid-transmitted viruses cause greater losses than all other insect-related damage together. There are at least 9 aphid-transmitted potato viruses. Aphids can be reduced by farmscaping, planting flowers which attract ladybugs, lacewings and other aphid-eating insects.
Potato leafhoppers are a bad problem in central and eastern North America. They overwinter on the Gulf Coast. In spring, flying adults are transported north on upper level airstreams. Yield loss can occur before visual symptoms are obvious. Leafhoppers can cause leaves to shrivel and die. The initial effects are reversible if leafhoppers are controlled before leaf tissue is destroyed (“hopperburn”). By reducing the green leaf area, hopperburn affects photosynthesis and growth. The most vulnerable stage is when the tubers are bulking up. Leafhoppers can also transmit diseases. Trichogramma wasps parasitize leafhopper eggs. Garlic with insecticidal soap, sprayed early in the morning, especially on the undersides of the leaves, can control hoppers.
Potato psyllid occurs in the western U.S. Damage to the roots and tubers is caused by feeding nymphs, which can cause psyllid yellows. The first symptoms of psyllid yellows include stunting, loss of green color, leaflet distortion, reddish discoloring of new leaves, and the appearance of aerial tubers. Early action can stop and even reverse the damage. Adults cause little to no damage underground.
Wireworms (click beetle larvae) can tunnel through the tubers. Wireworms can live for 1-3 years, so crop rotation is important. Avoid planting potatoes the first year after turning under pasture or lawn. If you expect to have wireworms, plant small whole seed potatoes rather than cut pieces. Cut slices of potato can be used to trap wireworms (dig up the trap pieces each day and kill the wireworms.
Cutworms can eat the leaves from the bottom of the plant up (the opposite approach from CPB larvae). Once the plants are fully grown, up to 75% loss of lower leaves is unimportant. At earlier stages, if any cutworm damage is seen, dig around the stem, find and kill the cutworms.
Blister beetles can cause trouble later in the season, skeletonizing leaves and spreading a wilt. They contain cantharadin, which can cause blisters on the skin of unwary workers. Blister beetles can be trapped in crops of chard or beets next to the potatoes. The beetles are easier to see and catch in the trap crops than in potato foliage. If there aren’t too many it may be worth putting up with them, as their larvae are carnivorous and eat grasshopper eggs.
The potato tuber moth damages both foliage and tubers during growth, but the biggest losses occur in storage. Larvae inside the potatoes can continue their development in storage, filling the tubers with frass and letting in decay organisms. When commercial infestations are high, the crop is not worth harvesting because of labor costs to cull out the infested tubers.
Nematodes can be deterred by choosing appropriate preceding cover crops, or by applying 1-2 tons/ac (2240-4480 kg/ha) of crushed mustard seed meal to the soil before planting. This will also reduce early weeds and act as a fertilizer.
Before a plant can become diseased, three conditions must exist: a susceptible host, a disease organism, and a suitable environment for the pathogen. The choice of the disease control method should be based on an accurate identification of the pathogen and the disease.
Late Blight (Phytophthora infestans) is by far the worst disease to afflict potatoes. This is the disease that contributed to the famine in Ireland (caused by the profiteering of the English land-owners, who sold the barley and left the tenant farmers to subsist almost entirely on potatoes). The disease is caused by a species of a fungus-like oomycete or water mold (previously considered a fungus, now reclassified as protozoa) that blows in on the wind. It is worse in warm wet weather with cool nights. Late blight starts as “water-soaked” spots on the leaves. These expand into gray-black “scorched” areas, sometimes with a dotted white mold growth, especially on the underside of the leaves. Cut stems reveal a dark circle of infected tissue. The disease spreads rapidly, turning plants black, as if badly frosted, and can kill an entire planting in ten days unless stopped by hot dry weather.
The best defense is to always remove volunteer nightshades from your fields and compost or bury all crop debris. The disease spreads via cull piles, nightshade plants and petunias — it needs live plant material to survive. If you find volunteer potato plants popping up in early spring, it is best to pull them up! Spores survive winter in warmer climates and then blow north and uphill. Preventive action may be taken with sprays every five days of (toxic) copper products, hydrogen peroxide, Bacillus pumilus or Bacillus subtilis products.
If Late Blight occurs late enough in the season, you can save your crop by mowing off the foliage, raking it off and disposing of it, and leaving the field untouched for two weeks before harvesting whatever potatoes have grown. This prevents the spores getting into the soil and infecting the tubers. Disposing of large amounts of blighted foliage is no easy task. When I had to deal with Late Blight, back in the 70’s, we made a fire and gradually added more tops as the previous ones burned. This was a very smoky fire, polluting, and no doubt contributing to global warming. Digging a big hole and burying it all is probably better.
Early Blight (Alternaria solani) is a common fungal disease, which mostly affects stressed or older plants. It starts as small brown spots on the lower leaves, which conglomerate into brown blotches that are restricted by the leaf veins, and so they can be angular in shape. The lesions have a bullseye appearance – concentric circles with a yellow halo around each one. During warm humid conditions, the fungus steadily defoliates the plants, reducing yields. The disease is seed-borne, soil-borne and airborne, surviving on plant debris and nightshade weeds. Early blight (Alternaria solani) can appear late in the season, not just early, despite the name. The manifestation of blight symptoms can be minimized by growing strong healthy plants, supplying sufficient water, and spraying with compost teas. The beneficial fungus Trichoderma harzianum can give good results.
Black Scurf or Stem Canker fungus (Rhizoctonia solani) is worst in cold wet soils. Early in the season it can cause sprout death. On older plants, red-brown stem lesions develop into cankers, and the infection can spread to the tubers, which then become cracked and misshapen, and may have dead tissue at the stem end. There may be firm black sclerotia (small dried reproductive bodies) on the tuber. In future, get disease-free seed potatoes and wait for the soil to warm a bit before planting.
White Mold (Sclerotinia sclerotiorum) on the vines. If you want to prevent this in future, you could dust the seed pieces with the commercially available fungal antagonists Trichoderma viride and Trichoderma virens.
For a chart with about 30 potato diseases, see The Potato Association of America, Commercial Potato Production in North America 2010