Tomato Troubles

Idyllic is the tomato harvest of perfectly round fruits shining in a glow of flawless red. But in the real world of vegetable gardening, bad bugs, diseases and physiological problems can produce less-than-pristine fruits. Listed below are four of the latter disorders and tips on how to deal with them.

Blossom end rot. This yucky, dark brownish blotch on the bottom of an otherwise pretty tomato comes from stress due to extended periods of wet-dry-wet-dry conditions. A 3- to 4-inch mulch and regular watering when the rains don’t come will help stabilize the ground moisture supply and prevent such ugliness from occurring. A shot of calcium will also slow down this problem. Powdered lime is a good source of calcium, but it reacts slowly with the soil. For quicker results, spray tomato leaves with a diluted solution of calcium chloride, which is available at most local garden centers.

Sunscald. It first appears as a yellowish, discolored spot on top of a tomato, and then eventually turns the afflicted area about as ugly as a bad case of blossom end rot. True to its name, the cause of this blemish is Ol’ Sol — too much sun. Sunscald usually happens on tomatoes that ripen on the upper branches of plants. With less shade, these fruits easily become overexposed to relentless rays. However, conservative pruning (especially in the top branches) and using a light covering such as cheese cloth over the plants will help prevent the sun from doing such damage to ripening ‘maters.

Cracking. This condition is marked by concentric, unappetizing rings circling the stem or vertical splits along the sides of the fruits. It is the result of tomatoes growing too fast and literally bursting out of their skins. This problem usually occurs when a big rain falls after a long dry spell. Too much water too soon becomes too much of a good thing, and it causes the tomatoes to crack. Mulching the plants will help steady the moisture supply, and watering regularly during dry spells will also prevent this disorder.

Catfacing. Have any disfigured or deeply scarred tomatoes? They are probably the victims of catfacing, so named because, with a lot of imagination, you can sometimes see cat faces formed by the odd shapes. This problem starts early in the development of fruit. Cool weather can cause abnormal growth in young tomatoes that magnifies as they get bigger, meaning early spring plantings are usually more susceptible to catfacing. So, if your first crop of tomatoes show signs of this weirdness, don’t worry — any fruit that follow should be free of this disorder as temperatures rise during the growing season.

L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener Magazine. Want to ask L.A. a question about your garden? Contact him by email at

To Do in the Garden


  • Any holes that remain in the flower bed can be quickly filled with heat-seekers such as sun coleus, celosia, nicotiana, portulaca and zinnia that thrive in the summer sun.
  • Now is a great time to add blooming magic to the backyard pond by dropping in a few tropical water lilies. Don’t forget to add specialized water garden fertilizer tablets to each of the plants’ pot, as these heavy-feeders need the extra nutrients for the best flower shows.
  • Pinched tomato suckers can produce this fall’s tomato crop. Place each sucker in a 2- to 3-inch container of potting soil and keep them moist in a lightly shaded spot. The suckers will quickly root and be ready to plant when you prepare your midsummer vegetable garden.
  • To encourage extended harvests, lightly side-dress fertilizer around any established vegetables that have begun to set crops.


  • When irrigating plants, water thoroughly and deeply to encourage roots to penetrate down, down, down into the soil. Plants with shallow roots are more susceptible to stress during the hottest and driest times of the summer.
  • Herbs are usually at their harvesting best just before flowering when they contain the maximum in essential oils. Pick herbs early in the morning before the sun heats the plants and reduces the concentration of oil in the leaves.
  • Houseplants vacationing outside should be watched for signs of bad bug mischief. Egg-laying could mean an infestation once the plants are brought back inside in the fall. Wiping the leaves occasionally with a damp cloth will help waylay egg-laying activities.

Timely Tip

Who says it’s too early for Halloween? Pumpkin seeds started by the middle of June outdoors should mature into hauntingly handsome jack-o-lanterns just in time for October’s spookfest.

Grow pumpkin plants in well-worked, heavily amended soil in a sunny location, and water them thoroughly when the rains don’t come. Keep the vines thickly mulched with compost, and add either a commercial time-release fertilizer at planting time or a diluted natural fertilizer such as fish emulsion or compost tea at least every three to four weeks.

For more symmetrical shapes, gently shift the bases of pumpkins’ contact with the ground once a week. Want to go big, big, BIG? For bragging-size pumpkins, after the plants set fruit, reduce the number of pumpkins to only two or three per vine.

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