Gardening Rookie: Tomato Trouble

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I was optimistic about my garden’s tomato outlook at the beginning of this growing season. I planted cherry and Roma in pots in front of my house, plus a Big Boy and two heirloom varieties in the ground down the street at my honey’s parents’ house. Then, long after these plants were busy growing, I rescued two tiny, limp heirloom plants from the greenhouse (practically free!) and planted them in big buckets in front of our house with the other potted plants.

While the tomatoes began growing, I dreamt of the overabundance I was certain I’d harvest in no time. I’d have more than I could handle for caprese salads, BLTs and homemade sauces. I’d pass along bags of beautiful, ripe, juicy orbs to friends and family to share the love. I’d even try my hand at canning a few. 

But then what is usually the beginning of a long, fruitful tomato season passed with nary a red tomato in sight. I lamented the fact I was an inexperienced grower who had botched my tomato gardening.

Only it wasn’t just my plants–long-time tomato growers in the area experienced the same plight, and even the pickin’s at the farmer’s market were slim. Those tomatoes that did appear on people’s vines tended to be a bit mushy, tinier than usual, and not nearly as tasty as a fresh-from-the-vine fruit is supposed to be. 

Part of the problem in our parts: this summer’s weather. I did a bit of research to try to figure out why it affected my tomato harvest this year: 

Late blooming

We had a few weeks of ridiculously hot temperatures early in the summer, and then cooler temps and a lot of rain at the time when the tomatoes really should have taken off. Long after plants around here should have been heavily laden with tomatoes, very few had even formed. This may be because lower night temperatures (below 55 degrees Fahrenheit) or high day temperatures (above 95 degree Fahrenheit) mean tomatoes do not set and flowers drop.

Although they look healthy, these tomatoes likely won’t taste as great as similar fruits in years past because they are taking so long to ripen. Photo By Julie Collins.

Slow growing

Even when the tomatoes did set, they grew incredibly slowly and took forever to show color. According to the University of Illinois Extension, tomatoes are highest quality when they ripen on healthy vines and daily summer temperatures average about 75 degrees Fahrenheit. With cool temperatures and way too much rain, colorful tomatoes were tardy. 

Slow-growing tomatoes are a problem in many parts of Illinois this year, due to weather fluctuations and wet conditions. Photo By Julie Collins.

Blossom end rot

The bottom of most of my Romas turned black and mushy early this season and continue to do so now. The problem, according to the Colorado Extension (which offers a handy chart for identifying the cause of your tomato troubles, by the way), is blossom end rot, which occurs due to a combination of cold temps or excessive heat during blossom set, plus fluctuations in water supply. This leads to a calcium deficiency within the plants.

Many of the Roma tomatoes on this plant were afflicted with blossom end rot due to temperature and water supply inconsistencies. Some of the tomatoes, however, were not affected. (And made for a tasty garden-fresh pasta sauce.) Photo By Julie Collins.

Yellowing leaves

Fusarium wilt and Fusarium crown rot are two possible causes of yellowing leaves. With Fusarium crown rot, older leaves yellow then often turn brown or black and wilt. With Fusarium wilt, the yellow leaves turn down and droop. Some of my tomato plants in pots are experiencing what looks like Fusarium wilt, but it may be my watering practices–over- and under-watering can mimic such disease symptoms.

The first tomato of the season is cause to celebrate–and this gardener looks forward to many more slices before the summer is out, despite early growing trouble. Photo By Julie Collins.

Despite these troubles, my tomatoes are coming around. I harvested quite a few of them last weekend and plan to pick more today. Sadly, they aren’t nearly as tasty as the tomatoes I ate all last season (when sometimes they didn’t make it past the cutting board before I devoured them). 

But I’m not quite ready to chalk this tomato season up to a loss yet. 

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