Tomatoes are one of the most commonly-grown garden vegetables in America… but unfortunately they’re also one of the most problematic ones to grow. Tomatoes are susceptible to a variety of diseases and pests, and for first time and seasoned growers alike, the results may be disheartening. As daunting as this may seem, basic good gardening practices are a good way to start. Make sure your tomato plants (whether in a container or in a garden bed) have access to full sun during the day along with well-drained soil. Shade and too-wet soil are an open invitation for all kinds of disease and pest problems. Also be sure to practice crop rotation with your tomatoes (don’t plant them in the same place the next year), as this will help keep away a lot of issues that have to do with your soil. If you are unable to rotate your crops, you can practice container gardening. Just be sure to use good, clean potting medium, as well as a large enough pot (at least 12 inches in diameter). Some tomatoes can grow up to 6 feet tall by the end of the season! Make sure to keep your tomatoes consistently watered. If they go through long dry spells and then get soaked with water, this can cause cracks in your beautiful fruits! Always try to water directly at the base of the plant, as wet foliage can be the cause of all kinds of diseases. If you do have to water the foliage, be sure to do so before noon, so the leaves have time to dry during the day.
Most Common Tomato Problems
Cracking: Cracks in the skin of your tomatoes are a result of receiving too many nutrients and too much moisture all at once. Keep your waterings and feedings consistent by sticking to a schedule and you should avoid seeing these splits in your fruits.
Early and Late Blight: If your leaves are looking yellow, brown, spotty, mottled or otherwise disfigured, you may be dealing with some form of Blight. Unfortunately, there is no quick cure for Blight, so prevention is key. Make sure your potting medium is rich in nutrients and disease free, and be sure to keep good air flow around your plants. Also try to keep your foliage as dry as possible, focusing on watering the base of the plant or watering earlier in the day so that the foliage has a chance to dry in the sun.
Blossom End Rot: If you’re seeing dark brown or black spots on the bottoms of your tomatoes, you’re dealing with a case of end rot. This is caused by a severe calcium deficiency in the soil as well as fluctuating moisture levels and overly hot conditions with no water at all. Before you plant your tomatoes, make sure that you are incorporating a good amount of nutrients into the soil, such as composted manure or bone meal, to keep the calcium level up to par. Keep your waterings steady and consistent.
Verticillium and Fusarium: If your leaves wilt and turn yellow before turning brown, you may be dealing with one of these two diseases. Good air flow and keeping your foliage dry will prevent these diseases from taking hold. If you catch it early, you can simply remove the few diseased leaves to keep it from spreading to the rest of the plant. However, there is no cure for these diseases, so preventing them from ever taking hold is the only way to go.
Tomato Hornworms: Talk to any tomato gardener, and you’ll find that these big green worms are the bane of their existence. They start very small and hard to see, but grow very rapidly by devouring the foliage of your tomato plants overnight. They tend to hide on the underside of leaves during the day, and are more active at night. The best way to rid your plants of these fiends is to pluck them off by hand and either squash them or dump them into a bucket of soapy water. If you have chickens, you can feed them the little green monsters and they’ll be VERY grateful for the tasty snack! The bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or BT, is another effective way to kill off hornworms; simply spray the foliage of your infested plants and pay extra care to the underside of the leaves.
Follow these simple steps to start your tomatoes off strong, and keep them growing until the season is done!
Feed the soil FIRST: Many tomato gardeners make the mistake of trying to make up for under nourished soil by force feeding their plants extra amounts of fertilizer. The over feeding can stress the plants and cause cracks in the skins of the fruits, and the under nourished soil can cause blossom end rot. Make sure your soil is full of nutrient rich compost containing good amounts of calcium, potassium, and phosphorus BEFORE planting.
Plant them deep: Tomato roots thrive when they’re settled down deep in the soil, allowing them to grow strong and sturdy. When your seedlings are ready for transplanting, dig a 4-5″ trench for them and pluck the leaves off the seedlings up to the top set of leaves, burying almost the entire stem in the dirt. The cooler soil that is down deep will help the tomatoes retain moisture and survive hot weather.
Keep them mulched: To keep their soil moist, mulch around your tomato plants with dried grass clippings, straw or even fallen leaves. This also prevents weeds from sprouting! Be sure to mulch only after the soil has reached 65°, as the mulch will keep the soil too cool and you don’t want to stress the plants.
Pick off the first flowers: Many experienced tomato growers insist that plucking off the first set of flowers that show up on your tomato plant is a way to make sure the root system and leafy canopy of your plant is well structured and hardy. By plucking the first set of flowers off, you’re forcing the plant to divert its energy into building up its root system and canopy as opposed to trying to produce fruit at first.
Keep them off the ground: The best thing you can do for your plant is to make sure that it grows up and not out. By gradually tying your tomato plants upward to a trellis, cage or pole, you’re keeping up the airflow between the leaves and fruit, and preventing any soil-borne diseases or pests from attaching onto the foliage.