Controlling basil downy mildew in the greenhouse

Basil downy mildew (BDM) can cause significant losses in the greenhouse. Once introduced into the greenhouse it can be very difficult to manage and eliminate. In the past few years, a vast amount of research has been done on understanding BDM biology and controlling it in the greenhouse using different cultural practices. Before we get to control strategies, let’s review what we know about the pathogen.

by Andy Wyenandt and Jim Simon, Department of Plant Biology, Rutgers University

First, basil downy mildew is an obligate parasite – meaning it needs a living host to survive. As long as basil is in production in the greenhouse there will be a potential source of inoculum. Sources of inoculum can include fresh intact leaves, but also leaves discarded and fallen on the floor or in an open garbage container. This is important for greenhouse growers who produce basil year round or growers who are looking to extend basil production to later into the fall or earlier in the spring. The simplest method to break the disease cycle would be to stop growing basil for a short period of time and keeping your greenhouse as clean as possible. This would help break the disease cycle by removing the host. Sporangia produced by BDM are short-lived. Without a host their survival is only a few hours to a few days depending on the temperature and environmental conditions. The latent period (the time between infection and symptom development) can range from 5 to 10 days depending on the temperature and environmental conditions. This informs us that plants which appear uninfected may actually be infected without symptom development. Therefore, it is critically important to remove all plants from the operation before restarting production (especially if BDM is already present). A good time to stop greenhouse production (i.e., in the mid-Atlantic region or more northern regions) would be after the first hard freeze in the fall – after the freeze kills all potential sources of inoculum that could come from sources outside the greenhouse.

Control strategies using cultural practices in the greenhouse

Reducing relative humidity in the greenhouse
Basil downy mildew requires high relative humidity (>95%) for 7.5 hrs and at least 4 hrs of leaf wetness for sporulation. Sporulation has been shown to be significantly reduced, or not capable when relative humidity is less than 85%. Thus, maintaining relative humidity below 85% in the greenhouse can significantly help reduce spore production. If this is not possible interrupting the dew cycle (i.e., leaf wetness) with 10 minute periods of drying via fanning/venting every 2 to 4 hours can help reduce spore production.

Control using light
Research has shown that infected plants kept under 24 hours of continual light are unable to sporulate, this was also shown to be temperature-dependent. The type of lighting is also important. Incandescent light was fully inhibitory at 15 to 25oC, but not 10oC. Narrow band LED illumination with red light has been shown to be more inhibitory than blue light. Thus, lighting basil during the night every few hours at short periods of 10 minutes can help reduce sporulation.

Control using fanning and ventilation
Continuous fanning during the night has been shown to dramatically reduce BDM development by reducing leaf wetness (i.e., dew) and reducing relative humidity (keeping it below 95%). Recommendations from Israel are to initiate fanning when relative humidity reaches 70% in the greenhouse and to stop it when it is below 60%.

The key to controlling and mitigating BDM development in the greenhouse is controlling relative humidity and periods of leaf wetness to help reduce potential sporulation. Using a combination of cultural practices mentioned above can help reduce BDM development, but it will come at a cost to you in the form of additional hardware, temperature and relative humidity monitoring equipment and the cost of electricity. The first step in this process involves understanding where the initial source of inoculum may be coming from. Evidence for BDM being seed-borne is mixed. During the spring-summer-fall, greenhouse basil production will always be at-risk from infections coming from an outside source, including diseased seedlings you may be purchasing. Successfully breaking the BDM disease cycle (without the use of chemical inputs) in greenhouse operations has limited opportunities (e.g., in northern regions where freezing weather occurs). This can only occur in the fall, after freezing weather which can kill all outside sources of inoculum and by not carrying over infected plant material into the winter season, thus the need for a basil-free period during the production cycle. This is especially important in small greenhouse operations that produce basil organically or without the use of chemical input.

These management practices should significantly reduce your BDM problems though will require more of your attention and potentially additional equipment and supplies. Coupling best management practices with new downy mildew resistant basil varieties will further provide protection to you. Try the new basil downy mildew resistant varieties including Rutgers Obsession DMR, Rutgers Devotion DMR, Rutgers Passion DMR, and Rutgers Thunderstruck DMR or other DMR resistant sweet basils such as Prospera, and see which ones work best for you.

For information on Rutgers DMR sweet basils, where to purchase seed, as well as control strategies, and ongoing research efforts please follow the Rutgers basil downy mildew breeding program on Instagram at #Rutgersbasil.

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