Garden Basics with Farmer Fred

208 Abiotic Disorders of Tomato Plants

July 05, 2022 Fred Hoffman Season 3 Episode 208
Garden Basics with Farmer Fred
208 Abiotic Disorders of Tomato Plants
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

This is the time of year when you may be wandering in your garden and your drawn to some funny looking aspects of your tomato plants. What is that brown leathery spot on the bottom of that tomato? What are all those cracks along the top of the tomato? What is that white spot on the side of the tomato? Why are the leaves curling? All of those are abiotic disorders of the plant. You can’t attribute the problem to an insect, animal or a disease. It’d due to any number of things in the natural world: an imbalance of nutrients in your soil; too much water, too little water, too much sun; too little sun; smog; wildfire smoke; and plenty more, that you can’t blame on an insect, disease or your dog. But you might have to blame yourself. Today, America’s favorite retired college horticulture professor, Debbie Flower, delves into the world of abiotic disorders of tomato plants.

We’re podcasting from Barking Dog Studios here in the beautiful Abutilon Jungle in Suburban Purgatory. It’s the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast, brought to you today by Smart Pots. And we will do it all in under 30 minutes. Let’s go!

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GB 208 TRANSCRIPT Abiotic Disorders of Tomato Plants

Farmer Fred  0:00  

Garden Basics with Farmer Fred is brought to you by Smart Pots, the original lightweight, long lasting fabric plant container. it's made in the USA. Visit slash Fred for more information and a special discount, that's

Welcome to the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast. If you're just a beginning gardener or you want good gardening information, you've come to the right spot. 

Farmer Fred 

    This is the time of year when you may be wandering in your garden and your drawn to some funny looking aspects of your tomato plants. What is that brown leathery spot on the bottom of that tomato? What are all those cracks along the top of the tomato? What is that white spot on the side of the tomato? Why are the leaves curling? All of those are abiotic disorders of the plant. You can’t attribute the problem to an insect, animal or a disease. It’d due to any number of things in the natural world: an imbalance of nutrients in your soil; too much water, too little water, too much sun; too little sun; smog; wildfire smoke; and plenty more, that you can’t blame on an insect, disease or your dog. But you might have to blame yourself. Today, America’s favorite retired college horticulture professor, Debbie Flower, delves into the world of abiotic disorders of tomato plants.

We’re podcasting from Barking Dog Studios here in the beautiful Abutilon Jungle in Suburban Purgatory. It’s the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast, brought to you today by Smart Pots. And we will do it all in under 30 minutes. Let’s go!


Farmer Fred

it's summertime and you may be having problems in the vegetable garden. Abiotic disorders. What the heck is that? Debbie Flower is here, America's favorite retired college horticultural Professor. Debbie, what I like to say when it comes to abiotic disorders, and, of course, these are disorders that aren't caused by a disease or an insect or some other four legged pest. It's I like to say a iotic disorders are usually operator error.

Debbie Flower  2:16  

Okay, yeah. Or it could be cultivar susceptibility.

Farmer Fred  2:20  

Yep. Then again, that's operator error, because you chose the wrong varieties for your area.

Debbie Flower  2:25  

I was trying to get people an out. well, darn.

Farmer Fred  2:29  

Anyway, abiotic disorders of tomatoes. There are plenty. And I can always tell the season when we get these questions. And of course, the questions have already come in about  "What's this brown leathery spot on the bottom of my tomato blossom?" Blossom end rot. And the reasons are legion, none of which are what you're going to see in most literature, because they're gonna say it's a calcium deficiency. Well, yes, and no, it's not because your soil lacks calcium, it's usually because there's something else keeping that calcium from being absorbed by the plant.

Debbie Flower  3:11  

Right. Which can be irregular watering, so the roots can't absorb anything, or there's too much water and the roots shut down and aren't absorbing anything. Or it can be that fertilizers of the wrong types have been applied that have tied up the calcium.

Farmer Fred  3:29  

We should define what blossom end rot is, on a tomato. 

Debbie Flower  3:35  

yes, it's the bottom. it's the bottom. So when the the flower is is fertilized, the ovary that swells into the tomato is behind the flower, closer to the stem. And that's what swells up and becomes the tomato and the petals fall off. And where the petals were attached was the blossom end and that is the bottom. So a lot of these abiotic disorders, meaning non-biotic ,meaning meaning biological, the term blossom and stem and are used to talk about where the symptoms are. So blossom  is the bottom and stem is the top where it's attached.

Farmer Fred  4:11  

And in most cases it's a watering issue, too much or too little. And you can't water by the calendar. You have to water by the weather. And the type of soil you have. 

Debbie Flower  4:28  

Absolutely, absolutely, if you can solve that you can probably solve most of the blossom end rot problems. Correct  watering can solve 90% of the problems with plants.

Farmer Fred  4:31  

right. And with tomatoes, if it's a paste tomato variety ...Well, chances are, you're gonna get blossom end rot.

Debbie Flower  4:39  

Yes, different cultivars have different susceptibility. I use the term cultivar to mean "cultivated variety "because most of these tomatoes have had a human hand to cultivate the variety, to create that variety. However, heirlooms are just varieties, they've just occurred spontaneously and continue to do so.

Farmer Fred  4:57  

The reason why irregular watering affects calcium uptake, there's this thing called root suberization. That goes on when roots of a tomato plant are subject to boom and bust cycles of water. And basically the roots get corky and they can't absorb the calcium. That's why you want to do regular watering. Another reason I didn't realize that can cause that lack of calcium uptake into the tomato is, if you use too heavy of a nitrogen fertilizer early in the season.

Debbie Flower  5:31  

Mulch is always good to use in the garden because it slows down the heating up of the soil and the cooling down of the soil and the evaporation of water from the soil so things stay more even in the root zone.

Farmer Fred  5:43  

Right. And as the University of California points out, since blossom end rot is not caused by a disease there are no pesticide solutions, correct. There is nothing you can buy at a nursery to cure blossom end rot. 

Debbie Flower  5:57  

a nursery will try to sell you some form of calcium. don't buy it. It won't get into the plant if the problem is water.

Farmer Fred  6:04  

And this is why we will never work at a nursery. 

Debbie Flower

I've been there done that. 

Farmer Fred

Well that, and there's a very easy solution to blossom end rot. When you pick the tomato, just cut off the damaged portion and throw it away. Your friends won't notice the difference. It's still edible.  It is just a cosmetic disorder.  the bigger it is it may go up a little bit further into  the piece of fruit. But still, you can just cut it off right and use the rest of the fruit. Haven't you ever heard of a chopped tomato salad? Come on. All right, blossom end rot, an abiotic disorder. Another thing that people may see on their tomatoes, and I think we're going to be seeing a lot more of this just because of the intense sun and heat we are having... it's called cat facing. And yeah, I guess if you look at it, it looks kind of like the face of a cat.

Debbie Flower  6:55  

My cats are insulted!

Farmer Fred  6:58  

It's a deformity caused during the formation of the flower that results in the fruit not developing normally. And basically, it's usually on the bottom. Again, blossom is on the blossom end. And there isn't that much known about cat facing except it's probably more than just one problem here. Sometimes if the temperatures go wacky - if you get cooler temperatures that occur about three weeks before bloom - that can increase the amount of cat facing some heirloom varieties. Beefsteak tomatoes, too, are prone to cat facing. And those are the ones that always look like Richard Nixon.

Debbie Flower  7:37  

Yeah, the ones with a protrusion? Yes. Yeah, the beefsteaks are not the best for our California, which has a very hot dry climate. They they don't produce a lot of fruit and then they're more susceptible to this cat facing. When you read a seed catalog, you they may see it says it is resistant to cat facing so that's the one you might want to choose.

Farmer Fred  8:00  

Yeah. another thing, and we go back to what I said about operator error, heavy pruning in indeterminate varieties has been shown to increase cat facing. you define indeterminate.

Debbie Flower  8:13  

There are two basic ways that tomato plants grow. one is called determinate. And one is called indeterminate. The determinant ones genetically have sort of a predetermined size the plant will grow up to, a certain size. They flower pretty much all at once, produce the fruit pretty much all at once. If you keep the plant in the ground, you will continue to get more flowers and fruit, but they're good for canning or sauce making because you get a lot of fruit all at once. They're used typically in commercial production because they can harvest a field all at once, fix the soil and replant again and get another crop. The indeterminate ones just keep growing. They can get huge, they can get six , 8,10 feet tall, it has nothing to do with the size of the fruit you can get indeterminate cherry tomatoes that produce very small fruit you can get indeterminant beef steaks that produce very big fruit and they definitely absolutely need to be caged or staked and those are the ones that if pruned severely, can end up with cat facing.

Farmer Fred  9:13  

Alright. let's turn the tomato over. we've been looking at the bottom of the tomato. there are abiotic disorders that happen to the stem in the top of the tomato. It is not uncommon and you usually see this mid to late summer on tomatoes, you'll see cracks or you'll see concentric rings.

Debbie Flower  9:31  

Right. the cracks will start at the stem and move down toward the blossom end. And concentric rings will go around that stem.

Farmer Fred  9:38  

Sounds to me like somebody's been pruning away foliage.

Debbie Flower  9:43  

Right . Too much sun. it can again be the cultivar because some there was one cultivar I grew for a school once it was called "Shady Lady" and everybody thought it grew in the shade. Oh, it doesn't grow in the shade. It produces so many leaves that the fruit are in the shade.  if you read a catalogue, they'll talk about potato leaf tomatoes, those tend to have more shade over the fruit.

Farmer Fred  10:07  

And when you have shade you have less sun issues of which cracking and those concentric rings can be susceptible to.

Debbie Flower  10:17  

Right . and this one is due to the inside expanding faster than the skin.

Farmer Fred  10:22  

Now that brings us right back to watering. if you have irregular watering and then there is more susceptibility to cracking. and as you pointed out, the varieties differ greatly. Regarding their susceptibility to those problems: it's like the old Henny Youngman joke: "Doctor Doctor, it hurts when I do this." "Well then, don't do that." If you get a variety that's always cracking, you don't plant it. There's plenty of other children that need homes.

Debbie Flower  10:50  

 It may be watering and it may be climate if you have a irregular climate, you have a period where it is not as suitable for tomato growing very, very hot temperatures, or very, very cold temperatures for several days. The message to the plant is: you're done making fruit. you better mature this fruit so that you get viable seed. Because the plant's job in the plant world is to make more of itself, to make seed that will grow. So finish maturing that inside of that fruit and the skin so that the seeds have a way to travel and be done with it. And then all of a sudden, the weather gets better. And the tomato inside continues to grow. But meanwhile, the skin has gotten so tough that it can't handle that and it has to crack to accommodate the inside growth.

Farmer Fred  11:35  

if you're going out to the garden to pick tomatoes for your tomato salad dinner, and you're going to be chopping up tomatoes. Choose the ones with cracking, concentric rings, you can just cut off the affected portions and chop up the rest of it. Be on the lookout for mold though.

Debbie Flower  11:50  

Yes or somebody living in in the big cracks. 

Farmer Fred  11:54  

Well, that's protein, but basically all tomatoes are useful in one way or the other. 

Debbie Flower  11:59  

Yes, it Is still edible.

Farmer Fred  12:01  

Yeah, exactly. So again, that's an a biotic disorder. 


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Farmer Fred

Now, there are some tomatoes that may look a little strange or have strange flattening of stems or several adjoining stems have fused. Fasciation.

Debbie Flower 14:16  

 I'm fascinated by fasciation. Nobody really knows, of course, what causes it.

Farmer Fred  14:23  

That's why it's abiotic.

Debbie Flower  14:24  

It can be caused by a micro organism, the bacteria, virus, or fungus . but nobody's ever isolated them or rarely isolates them to find out what it is. So it looks flat. I've seen it in sunflowers. Have you seen it? it's very noticeable where instead of the head being round it becomes sort of like an eyeball, like a cat's eyeball, where the iris is the dark center and the yellow petals are around the outside. So it changes the shape and you can see it in either. So many plants that get fasciation, including roses. It is unclear what's causing it in each particular case. And so the recommendation is that you treat the fasciation as if it is an abiotic disorder. In most cases it's not. And so you cut it off and dispose of it.

Farmer Fred  15:11  

Another issue that we're seeing more and more of here. And if you live in a hot climate, you may be seeing it, as well. It is a lot of internal white tissue inside the tomato. When you cut it open, you're seeing white stuff, where is that coming from?

Debbie Flower  15:27  

If you're not seeing holes on the outside, it's an abiotic disorder, nobody, no creature creature has been involved in creating it. And it's just really high temperatures.

Farmer Fred  15:37  

Especially long bouts when you get five days in a row of 100 degree plus temperatures and you got your tomato plants in full sun, you're seeing more and more of these abiotic disorders, like the internal white tissue. And this is why, especially for people who live in hot climates, you may want to think about planting some of your tomato plants in an area where it's getting some protection from the hot afternoon sun.

Debbie Flower  16:00  

So when I lived in Tucson, I had tomatoes and peppers in my garden, and they faced south. And they were against a block wall. But I had a mulberry tree at a distance that intercepted that setting afternoon sun and my tomatoes did just fine. Without that tree, I would have had fried green tomatoes on the vine.

Farmer Fred  16:21  

Well in Tucson, though, don't you plant your tomatoes in January? 

Debbie Flower

Yeah, but it's still hot and dry. 

Farmer Fred

Yeah. And you're done probably by May? There has been some research shown that internal white tissue issue may be managed with adequate potassium fertilization. that could reduce symptoms, but may not eliminate them. And again, some varieties just get them more than others. 

Debbie Flower  16:45  

I wouldn't go around throwing potassium around. No, because you really don't know without a soil test if you need it. So get a soil test before you spend the money and throw it around. it could become pollution and mess up your whole system. So don't do it without a soil test.

Farmer Fred  17:01  

And frankly, getting a soil test is just good business for your garden. And if you've never done a complete soil test , had one done on your soil, it can't hurt to get one done. So if you are lacking especially, in the micronutrients, you'll have an idea of what to know about that. Yeah. All right, another tomato abiotic disorder. And we've certainly seen that here, is leaf roll. the curling or rolling of tomato leaves. There's a lot of reasons for that, too.

Debbie Flower  17:30  

Yes, there are, but often it has to do with the weather.  the first thing to do is categorize it. Is it on the old leaves. They'd be at the bottom. Is it happening to the new leaves, the ones at the ends of the branches and the top of the plant? or is it on all the leafs and are they rolling upward? Or are they rolling downward? And  are there other symptoms? Do you see things on the fruit ? do you see spots on the leaf, something like that?

Farmer Fred  17:57  

Usually, when those leaves get a little crisper hard and they get kind of leathery, you can have that upward roll, especially if it's a wet spring.

Debbie Flower  18:08  

Also drought, root damage, transplant shock, can all lead to leaf rolls. Typically, there's no long term damage. It's a reaction of the plant to its current conditions. Leaves don't remake themselves. So they may stay curled, even when the condition is corrected. But the new leaves coming out will be normal. If the conditions are corrected.

Farmer Fred  18:32  

This is one of my favorite ones to have a problem. Because, you just walk away. Can't do anything about it. Just walk away. The one when the weather settles down, it'll probably go away. Maintain a consistent soil moisture level. As always, don't apply too much fertilizer. 

Debbie Flower

Add mulch. 

Farmer Fred

Yep, and and don't damage the roots during cultivation. That's important too. We don't talk enough about that. When it comes to weeding your vegetable garden. If you start yanking weeds, I think that's okay. But if you take a hoe or another digging tool and start chomping underneath it to bring that weed up, you're gonna bring roots up, and that's not healthy.

Debbie Flower  19:13  

Or you're gonna cut roots by chomping.

Farmer Fred  19:15  

Exactly. So maybe water the garden thoroughly and then pull those weeds. They will come up much easier.

Debbie Flower  19:21  

Or use mulch and you'll you won't have as many weeds and pull the weeds when they're very very young.

Farmer Fred  19:26  

Yep, yep. And it's amazing. Mulch solves a whole host of problems, as well. Here's a question that I know is going to pop up soon. And not just with tomatoes but with squash as well. And beans. "Where are they? I don't have any. Why does everybody else have tomatoes? Why does everybody else have squash? I don't have anything." Oh, be patient.

Debbie Flower  19:49  

It's the weather. It's the weather. When  night temperatures get below 50 degrees and it's sustained , or day temperatures are above 90, a lot of these plants just don't set fruit.

Farmer Fred  20:01  

The big difference between poor performing tomatoes and poor performing squash is a pollination issue. Tomatoes, that's not that big a problem because it's wind pollinated for the most part. Squash, on the other hand, does need the male flower and the female flower to be growing at the same time. and it's early on in squash season. I noticed my zucchini out there, there all little boy flowers.

Debbie Flower  20:30  

 Yeah, they come first.  They're lonely. But the girls wait. Yeah, they're a little shy. But in time... I love to go out in the morning and check my squash. I've been very lucky because there's been lots of bee activity, lots of insects inside the flowers. And the flowers, you can tell the girl flowers because they are behind the flower. The stem looks like a baby squash, whatever kind of squash it is going to be or pumpkin or melon. They're all the same in that . the girl flowers have a bigger bottom,  and it's shaped like the adult mature fruit will be. and the males are just on a stem. and you want to see them open at the same time. the pollen is only ripe in the morning. And the female flowers are only receptive for the pollen in the morning. So if you're not getting bee activity or insect activity to move that pollen from the boy to the girl, then you have to do it yourself by taking the flower off the boy flower off the plant diag strip the petals if I have to be just easier to get to the pollen in there and then touch the pollen which was a yellow protruding thing in the center on to the yellow protruding thing in the in the female flower center.

Farmer Fred  21:46  

And you do that early in the day. I would early in the day right? And to I don't panic when I see ants moving around. Same here. Zucchini flower over squash flower because they're pollinate Yes, yeah, exactly.

Debbie Flower  21:57  

They're getting what they need to but they're pollinating

Farmer Fred  21:59  

so parents if it's time for the kids to have the first birds and the bees lesson, it pays to have some squash flowers. Yeah, and Kapha squash plant you kind of explain things. And they ask the question, Well, do you need to ants to have babies? You're on your own.

Debbie Flower  22:17  

They will never kill an ant again.

Farmer Fred  22:20  

All right, but getting back to tomatoes, the poor fruit set in tomatoes again, low nighttime temperatures. 

Debbie Flower  22:27  

That happens with high daytime temperatures, too.

Farmer Fred  22:28  

 It's like if it's below 55 or above 90.

Debbie Flower  22:33  

This is me and my mother: "I'm cold." "Put a sweater on." "But mom, it's only 70 degrees."

Farmer Fred  22:38  

Yeah, the flowers are going to drop. It's just the way it is. And they're picky. Usually there is a period of time when the weather was conducive. And we're coming up to this stretch of weather here locally where it looks like it will stop being 100 degrees every afternoon and be in the 80s for like a solid week.

Debbie Flower  22:59  

We will get great fruit set on all these, not just tomatoes, but squash and beans as well.

Farmer Fred  23:05  

Yep. And, again, choose varieties that are right for your area.

Debbie Flower  23:09  

Yes. Not enough light. Yeah, you can have too much light on a tomato, especially if it's reflected heat. reflected light causes heat. But you need enough light, six to eight hours a day, to produce the fruit .  And too much nitrogen fertilizer. If you're out there applying fertilizer on a regular basis. Typically, nitrogen is the highest content. It's the first number on any fertilizer bag. And you'll end up with a beautiful plant with lots of green leaves. But no fruit.

Farmer Fred  23:43  

Yeah. And again, I would still urge planting tomatoes where they're gonna get some afternoon shade from the highest temperatures. And you're still gonna get six to eight hours in our climate .

Debbie Flower  23:54  

In our climate, Yes. In New Jersey, where I went to undergraduate school and grewtomatoes, we grew them in full sun, and we pruned them to a single stem and staked them to get fruit in a shorter summer than we have here in California. So it depends on where you live.

Farmer Fred  24:10  

Wasn't that school named after a tomato variety? 

Debbie Flower  24:13  

No. Vice versa.

Farmer Fred  24:15  

Rutgers. Yes. Oh, okay. Another reason is too much smog and I will add to that, wildfire smoke. Yeah, that can inhibit a plant from developing. . So not too much you can do about smog or or wildfire smoke. I don't know where you'd move to avoid it. All right, but it's tough. Yeah, it is. But then again, that's again an abiotic disorder of tomato plants. Poor fruit set, but in time, it balances out. Yeah, then there's sunburn, sunscald. Again, lack of leaf cover. Yes. And what  sunscald look like, it looks like  skin cancer. Usually It will Have a leathery area on the side of the tomato and if you notice which side it is, it's usually the south side or the west side,

Debbie Flower  25:06  

The sunny side. Yeah, the sunny side where the leaf wasn't hanging over that fruit. The peppers get it too. Yes, they do. Yeah, and I think they're even more susceptible. 

Farmer Fred  25:15  

So, don't prune leaf cover from the plant, which can expose the fruit to sun. 

Debbie Flower  25:23  

maintain plant vigor, watch your pruning and make sure your plant has enough leaves. if you get  that nitrogen deficiency, the plant may thin out and it can happen slowly and you don't really see it going on. And then all of a sudden your fruit is just really exposed. So you're gonna get these blotches. they start out tan because it's just dead skin and they're not necessarily on any end. They're where the sun has hit the plant. and then over time, they often start to turn darker black, they might have black spots and that's because funguses and bacteria are moving in because it's a place that they want to hang out. So the fruit is still edible, just cut out that part.

Farmer Fred  26:00  

Sometimes when that fruit turns red, the leathery area remains white. sometimes it becomes covered by black secondary mold, which is very unappetizing looking but again, you can cut off effected portions of that. and we come back to to the Debbie Flower Institute of Old Umbrellas and the fact that providing some late afternoon shade if necessary can help, but you'd have to do that when the tomato plant is fairly young.

Debbie Flower  26:28  

Yes, when the fruit is on the vine but yeah, pretty young. 

Farmer Fred  26:32  

 abiotic disorders of tomatoes. There's plenty of reasons why but in most cases, if that fruit still edible, just cut off the affected portions. do better next time 

around, but enjoy what you can enjoy what you get and pray for good weather. All right, Debbie Flower, thanks so much. 

Debbie Flower

You're welcome, Fred. 


Farmer Fred

Perhaps, after purchasing a plant for your garden, you may have seen the instructions on the plant tag, “add a rooting hormone when planting.” That isn’t necessary. Nor is fertilizing a newly dug in plant. In fact, that might do more harm than good. In the next “Beyond the Garden Basics” newsletter, we present the case against using fertilizers and rooting hormones at planting time. America’s favorite retired college horticulture professor, Debbie Flower, will explain what rooting hormones are and what they should be intended for. And she’ll tell you why you don’t want to put any fertilizer in that planting hole when putting in new plants.

It’s in the next Beyond the Garden Basics newsletter. It’s out Friday, July 8th. Find a link to it in today’s show notes, or visit our website, Garden Basics dot net, where you can sign up to have the free Beyond the Garden Basics newsletter delivered to your inbox each Friday. Also at Garden Basics dot net, you can listen to any of our previous editions of the podcast, as well as read a transcript of the podcast episode you are listening to now. That’s at Garden Basics dot net. For subscribers, look for the Beyond the Garden Basics newsletter ion Friday, July 8th. Take a deeper dive into gardening, with the Beyond the Garden Basics newsletter. And it’s free. Find the link at garden basics dot net.

Farmer Fred

Garden Basics With Farmer Fred comes out every Tuesday and Friday and is brought to you by Smart Pots and Dave Wilson Nursery. Garden Basics is available wherever podcasts are handed out. For more information about the podcast, visit our website, GardenBasics dot net. That’s where you can find out about the free, Garden Basics newsletter, Beyond the Basics. And thank you so much for listening.

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