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Plants And Poor Soil

( Originally Published 1920 )

WHEN a soil is sick, either because its beneficial bacteria do not perform their functions properly, or because of abnormalities in its chemical or physical properties, careful treatment and proper cultural methods may restore it to health. But when a soil becomes sick and unproductive because parasitic forms gain a foothold in it, much greater skill and knowledge are required to cope with the problem. Its solution is of the greatest economic importance to the gardener and to the greenhouse man.

Parasitic fungi, upon finding their way into a soil, do not necessarily interfere with the work of the beneficial bacteria, such as the ammonifiers and nitrifiers, for instance. Nor do they always influence the chemical or physical nature of the soil. Many of them directly attack the crop itself, causing serious diseases in the plants.


This disease is very familiar to every grower of plants. It is peculiar to seedlings or tender plants, and is very prevalent in the greenhouse, the hot bed, the cold frame as well as in the field. It is induced by the presence of definite parasitic fungi, which thrive best in overwatered soils, and when the greenhouse is kept at a comparatively high temperature with poor ventilation. Damping off is also favored by thick sowing and too much shade in the seed bed.

Symptoms of Damping Off. Every experienced grower knows the disease when he sees it. Seedlings freshly damped off are soft and water soaked at the base of the stem. If they are pulled they often break off easily. A more careful examination shows that the root system is entirely decayed, although the upper part of the stem and leaves may still be green, and also possibly fresh. The degree of prostration in the seedlings is determined by the amount of moisture in the soil. If it is slight, the seedlings will become flabby and wilted before they topple over. With a high moisture content, they are more firm, but become prostrate as soon as infection sets in. The trouble usually begins in spots in the bed, thence spreading in every direction. Damping off is usually caused by several fungi, the chief of which is Pythium de Baryanum Hesse. The organism was first named and described by Hesse in 1874. Ward found it to be a very prevalent parasite in the garden soils of Europe. In America the fungus was first recognized as of great economic importance by Atkinson. The seedlings of most greenhouse plants may become subject to damping off by Pythium. When examined under a compound microscope, Pythium de Baryanum is seen to be made up of coarse non-separate, highly granular, irregularly branched hyaline vegetative threads or mycelium. The younger growing threads are more finely granular. The oldest are coarsely granular or more often empty. These threads penetrate the cells of the host, where they obtain its food.

Pythium de Baryanum does not often fruit on the dead seedlings. The fruiting is better observed when the fungus is grown in pure culture. Under normal conditions it produces two forms of spores, conidia and oogonia. The summer spores, or conidia, are swellings formed at the tip of the hyphæ (fig. 3, a.). These swellings readily break off from the mother threads and germinate by sending out a slender tube. This tube penetrates the seedling tissue where it grows and develops and after due incubation reproduces the disease. The oospore, or sexual spore, is the stage which is most commonly found. The female organ (oogonium) first develops as a terminal enlargement which is cut off by a septum from the mother thread. Next or adjacent to it a slender tube is cut off from the mycelium by a septum. This tube performs the function of the male sexual organ and is known as antheridium. The latter then comes into close contact and empties all its content into the female oogonium (fig. 3, b and c.). Fertilization thus takes place, and a mature egg, or oospore, or winter resting spore is formed.

The latest investigations have not yet disclosed whether or not Pythium de Baryanum is carried over from year to year by its oospores. It is apparently able to propagate itself indefinitely by its vegetative mycelium.

Of the other fungi which are capable of producing a damping off in the greenhouse or seed bed may be mentioned Sclerotinia libertiana Fckl., Phoma solani Halst., Colletotrichum sp., Fusarium sp., Sclerotium rolfsii Sacc. and Rhizactonia solani Kuhn. Each of these, except the last, will be taken up separately in connection with the study of their respective hosts.

The fungi which cause damping off are introduced into the greenhouse, primarily with sick soil used in the compost, and also with infected manure. The practice of dumping diseased plants and all other infected material in the manure pile cannot be too strongly condemned. Sometimes very lightly infected plants with no visible symptoms of disease in the seed bed may nevertheless act as carriers, and like-wise infect the greenhouse soil.


Greenhouse men are often troubled with a damping off of cuttings. In specific cases this is brought about by parasitic fungi which, however, will be taken up at length under the discussion of the various hosts.


Caused by Rhizoctonia solani Kuhn.

Although not so virulent as Pythium, Rhizoctonia is a frequent cause of considerable failure in green-house culture. The fungus causes a damping off of seedlings and cuttings and a serious root rot.

Symptoms. The symptoms of Rhizoctonia rot or wilt do not differ materially from those produced by Pythium de Baryanum. On older plants, however, Rhizoctonia produces cankers or deep lesions which are very characteristic. These are formed on the roots as well as on the base of the stem. The lesions are reddish brown and extend into the cortical or vital layer as well as into the woody tissue. There is perhaps no other parasitic fungus which is so widespread and which is capable of attacking such a variety of hosts as Rhizoctonia. The work of Peltier shows that the following greenhouse crops are susceptible to Rhizoctonia: beet, bean, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, egg plant, horseradish, lettuce, muskmelon, pepper, radish, tomato, sweet alyssum, amaranthus, ornamental asparagus, china aster, begonia, candytuft, carnation, coleus, dianthus, lavatera, lobelia, pansy, poinsettia, sweet pea, violet.

Cuttings of the following hosts are also reported by Peltier to damp off from Rhizoctonia: Abutilon hybridum, var. lavitzii, Acalypha wilkesiana, var. bicolor, A. wilkesiana, var. tricolor; A. wilkesiana, var. marginata, Ageratum mexicanum, Alyssum odoratum; Coleus, Cuphea phatycentra, Tresine, Petunia, Piguerua trinervia, Lautolina chamoecyparissus, Sedum spectabile, Althernanthera, Vincia major.

The Organism. In the United States the first extended account of Rhizoctonia was given by Pammel. Many other excellent accounts by American workers have appeared from time to time, to which we shall have occasion to refer later.

The genus Rhizoctonia includes several forms of sterile fungi, all of which are distinguished by the manner of growth in pure culture, and by its mycelium. Young hyphae of R. solani Kuhn are at first hyaline, then deepening in color from a yellowish to a deep brown. The young branches are somewhat narrowed at their point of union with the parent hyphæ and grow in a direction almost parallel with each other. A septum is also laid down at a short distance from the point of union with the parent mycelium (fig. 3, d and e.). There is another form of hypha which is made up of barrel shaped cells (fig. 3, f.), each of which is capable of germinating like a spore. In pure cultures R. solani produces sclerotia which are first soft, whitish, and which later become hard and dark. The fungus is, carried over from year to year as sclerotia which are able to withstand the effects of heat, cold, drought, or moisture.

Next in importance to Rhizoctonia is a group of fungi which belong to the genus Fusarium. Soils infected with these species of fungi become unfit for tomatoes, sweet peas, etc., thereby causing great financial losses to the greenhouse man. Individual difficulties will be taken up in studying each of these crops separately. As an illustration of a typical Fusarium sick soil let us consider the wilt of sweet pea. The cause of this trouble is a soil inhabiting fungus, Fusarium lath yri Taub.

Symptoms. The first symptom of the disease is a sudden flagging of the leaves, accompanied by general wilting and collapse of the seedling. Usually upon sowing the seeds a fair percentage germinate and reach the height of about 8 to 10 inches before they are attacked by the fungus (fig. 7, b.). If the collapsed seedlings are allowed to remain on the ground, the stems will soon be covered with the sickle shaped spores. Eventually the decayed tissue rots and is soon invaded by small fruit flies which now begin to distribute the fungus from place to place by carrying its spores.

The Organism. The mycelium of Fusarium lath yri is hyaline, septate and branched. At an early age the mycelial cells round up into countless numbers of chlamydospores. Old cultures are practically one mass of these resting bodies. The spores are of two sorts, the macroconidia which are sickle shaped, 3-4 septate, the microconidia are one celled, minute spherical to elliptical.


Some soils are made sick by the presence of minute forms of animal life. A striking instance of this is the root knot, a disease produced by a little worm generally known as nematode, or eel worm.


Caused by Heterodera radicicola (Greef) Mull. Although root knot is most prevalent in light soils, it may sometimes be found in heavier lands. The trouble is most widespread out of doors in the South-ern States, where the winter is mild. In the North the worm is usually unable to winter over in the open unless it is protected by trash or dead weeds. It is, however, prevalent in greenhouses and is undoubtedly introduced with sick soil brought in from the field.

Symptoms. The disease is characterized by swellings or knots on the roots. These swellings may be variously shaped, and are often mistaken for the true nodules of legumes (fig. 22.). Infected plants become stunted, pale, and usually linger for a long time before dying.

The Organism. The nematode is a very minute worm, seldom exceeding one twenty-fifth of an inch in length. It is semi-transparent so that it cannot be easily detected by the naked eye. In searching for the eel worm, it is necessary to break a fresh knot (fig. 4, a-e.). Close examination will reveal two types of worms; a spindle shaped worm, the male, and a pearly white pear shaped organism, the female, firmly embedded in the gall tissue. The female is very prolific, depositing no less than 400 to goo eggs during her lifetime. The eggs are whitish, semi-transparent, bean shaped bodies, and too small to be noticed without the aid of a magnifying glass (fig. 4, f.). The time which elapses until the eggs hatch (fig. 4, f-u) depends largely upon weather conditions. In warm days the eggs hatch sooner than in cold days. Upon hatching, the young larvæ either remain in the tissue of the host plant in which they emerge, or, as is more often the case, leave the host and enter the soil. This is the only period during which the worms move about to any great extent in the soil, where they either remain for some length of time or immediately penetrate an-other root of the host. The nematodes in most cases become completely buried in the root tissue, establishing themselves in the soft cellular structure which is rich in food. The head of the worm is provided with a boring apparatus consisting of a sharply pointed spear, located in the mouth. This structure not only aids it in getting food but is also valuable in helping the young worms to batter through the cell walls before becoming definitely located. The two sexes during the development are indistinguishable up to fifteen or twenty days, both being spindle shaped. In the molting or shedding of the skin, there is a marked change in the case of the female, especially in the posterior region of the body, which no longer possesses a tail-like appendage. Fertilization occurs soon after this molt, and many radical changes occur in the shape and structure of the organization of the worm. The fertilized female increases rapidly in breadth and be-comes a pearly white flask or pear-shaped individual. At this stage it is far from being worm-like and may, therefore, be overlooked by one unfamiliar with the life-history of the eel worm. The young male is much like that of the young female larvæ, being spindle shaped in outline. The male does not cause as much damage to the root tissue as the female, and its purpose in life seems to be only that of fertilizing the female, for after this function has been performed, it is quite probable that the male worm takes no more food.

Omnivorous Nature of the Eel Worm. There are two hundred and thirty-five species of plants known to suffer from the eel worm. This number includes all the important families of the flowering plants. According to Bessey * the following are among the greenhouse plants subject to root knot: bean, beet, cantaloupe, cauliflower, cucumber, egg-plant, lettuce, radish, tomato. For methods of control, see p. 40.


Caused by Aphelenchus olesistus Rizema-Bos.

Beside the root knot disease which is caused by Heterodera radicicola there is another nematode which confines its injury to foliage only.

Of the greenhouse hosts affected by this pest may be mentioned the Begonia, Asplenium nidus-avis, Pteris serrulata avistata, Pteris wimeseth, Pteris tremula, and Pelargonium.

Symptoms. On the Cincinnati begonia the symptoms, according to Clinton, are manifested as numerous small indistinct discolorations limited by the small veinlets. In time, however, the tiny spots enlarge and unite, forming a conspicuous reddish-brown blotch. Frequently infection is manifested as long streaks along the rnain veins. Often isolated spots occur in the midst of the surrounding healthy tissue (fig. s, a.). On Asplenium nidus-avis, the trouble becomes conspicuous in dark brown areas from the base of the leaf near the midrib. These spread up-ward until the entire lower half of the leaf is killed. On Pteris, the spots appear as reddish brown bands reaching out from the midrib to the border, but limited sidewise by the small parallel cross veins.

The Organism. The nematode in question is a slender microscopical worm. The latter chooses the air chamber of the leaf in which to lay its eggs and upon hatching travels around in different parts of the same leaf or to the neighboring foliage. The worm can travel only when there is a wet film on the leaves.

Control. Immersing fern plants for five minutes in water heated to 122 degrees F. (50 degrees C.) does not seem to injure the ferns, but seems to kill the nematode. All infected leaves should be cut off and burned. Diseased plants should be isolated from healthy ones. Spraying with Bordeaux may also act as a repellant.

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