This is the time of year I"m glad I belong to the oppressed minority of people out there who don't like eating fresh, homegrown tomatoes. Because awful things happen to tomato plants in summer. Here are five of the most common problems and what you can do about them.
Awful Thing #1 -- Cracked or Split Tomatoes (above) Sign of trouble -- Cracks form in concentric circles around the stem end of the fruit or the skin splits down the side.
The culprit -- Too much rain. When the plant absorbs water to quickly, it pumps it into the fruit faster than the tomato's skin can grow. So the skin cracks or splits. Fortunately, if you pick these tomatoes before they rot, they're still edible (albeit ugly).
What to do -- Move to parts of South America's Atacama Desert where rainfall has never been recorded. As an alternative, try mulching around the bases of your plants to get excess water to drain away. Or grow in raised beds or containers where drainage is better.
Awful Thing #2 -- Tomato Hornworms (above) Sign of trouble -- One day, your tomato plant looks fine. The next, it's missing most of its leaves and there are all these dark green pellets around.
The culprit -- Huge, green, 5-inch long caterpillars hanging upside down on munched stems. Ordinarily, you'd spot these monsters right away, but they're the same color as tomato foliage. They're the larvae of sphinx moths that buzz around flowers like hummingbirds. The pellets are poop.
What to do -- Don't spray. When caterpillars get this big, spraying does no good and who wants to eat pesticide anyway? Instead, pick off the caterpillars (don't worry, they don't bite or sting), put them in a jar, and go fishing.
Awful Thing #3 -- Blossom-End Rot (above) Sign of trouble -- A black, sunken spot appears on the end of the tomato and keeps getting larger and larger.
The culprit -- A lack of calcium causes cell walls to break down. Either your soil lacks sufficient calcium because it's too acid (a pH around 6.5 is ideal) or poorly drained, wet soil is preventing the plant from absorbing calcium that's already there.
What to do -- Right now, pick off and chuck the rotting tomatoes. Then mulch around your plants to try to promote more better drainage. In the fall, add lime to the soil to raise the pH. This takes time to work, so doing it now won't help this year.
Awful Thing #4 -- Early Blight (above) Sign of trouble -- Brown spots appear on the lowest leaves and then move up the plant. The spots get bigger and develop concentric gray and brown rings. Leaves turn yellow and drop. Eventually, the plant croaks.
The culprit -- Early blight, the most common fungal disease of tomatoes. It likes warm, wet weather and crowded plants. It spreads when water splashes spores from leaf to leaf.
What to do: Pick off any spotted leaves and throw them out with the trash. Don't wet the foliage when watering plants. Give each plant plenty of space for air to circulate freely. Spray plants according to label directions with a safe, nature-based fungicide, such as Bonide Copper Fungicide, Safer Garden Fungicide, and Espoma Earth-Tone Garden Fungicide.
Awful Thing #5 -- Mockingbirds (above) Sign of trouble -- Every single time a tomato reaches its peak of ripeness, you discover a hole in it and it rots.
The culprit -- A bird, probably an eagle-eyed mockingbird who wants to torture you.
What to do -- Hang strips of aluminum foil on your plants. The flashing from the strips will scare the birds. That's the theory, anyway.