Here's how to keep your plants healthy and productive. Plus, what to do about leaf spots, wilts, and other problems.

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Juicy, perfectly sun-ripened tomatoes are among the easiest vegetables you can grow in your garden. Part of taking good care of your tomato plants means keeping an eye out for diseases caused by fungi, bacteria, and viruses such as leaf spots and blights. Temperature, nutrient levels, and moisture levels can also cause problems that can ruin your harvest (and your dreams of enjoying a homegrown tomato on your next BLT sandwich). You can keep these potential problems from destroying your tomatoes by familiarizing yourself with their symptoms and using a few simple strategies to keep diseases at bay. With a little effort on your part, your plants can stay healthy and productive all season long.

tomato 'Moskvich' variety
Credit: Scott Little

How to Control Tomato Diseases

Selecting disease-resistant varieties, spacing plants properly, using mulch, and watering at least 1 inch per week are some of the most important actions you can take to keep your tomato plants healthy. Many common plant diseases and pests lurk in the soil, which is why it's always a good idea to rotate where you place your tomatoes so they grow in the same ground only every four years or so. These diseases also can spread when leaves get wet, so avoid crowding your tomatoes too close together. This helps air circulate better through the plants to dry off leaves faster. When watering, aim at the base of your tomato plants if possible to minimize splashing onto the leaves. Also, water in the morning so wet leaves have time to dry before cooler evening temperatures arrive.

Even when following all these best growing practices, you're still likely to see some diseases pop up. For those caused by fungi, bacteria, and viruses, it's almost impossible to completely cure your plants once they're infected. If you catch the problem early, you can try to slow down the spread by removing and destroying leaves or whole plants that are showing symptoms. You also can try to prevent the diseases from taking hold in the first place by regularly treating with a product labeled for controlling diseases on vegetables such as Bonide Liquid Copper ($15, The Home Depot) or Dr. Earth Final Stop ($17, The Home Depot), both of which come in easy-to-use spray bottles and are rated safe to use in organic gardens.

The Most Common Tomato Plant Diseases and Problems

Tomatoes are usually vigorous growers that will reward you with a bumper crop when grown in full sun with plenty of water and nutrients (these plants tend to be heavy feeders so they do best in rich soil with supplemental fertilizer). But it's almost inevitable that these plants will end up with a foliar disease or blemished fruit. Here's what to look for so you know what you are dealing with.

septoria leaf spot on tomato plant foliage
Credit: Denny Schrock

1. Septoria Leaf Spot

A fungus causes septoria leaf spot, creating small, circular patches with a grayish-white center and dark edges. Tiny black spots may show up in the center of each blemish. Affected leaves turn yellow, wither, and fall off. Long periods of warm, wet weather help this disease flourish, and splashing water quickly spreads spores to other leaves.

anthracnose tomato plant fungus disease
Credit: Denny Schrock

2. Anthracnose

This fungus shows up as a small, circular, indented area on tomato fruits. Eventually, rings surround the original spot. The flesh of the fruits may rot completely through, especially on overripe tomatoes, so keep fruits picked as they ripen. Spores are spread by splashing water, and the fungus is most common during warm, wet weather.

3. Fusarium and Verticillium Wilt

These wilt diseases are caused by fungi in the soil that enter through young roots, then begin to plug the vessels that move water to the roots and stems of the plants. Without enough water, the plants begin wilting on sunny days, although they'll appear to recover at night. Tomato wilt may first appear in the top or lower leaves of the plant, causing them to lose color, then die back from the tips. The process continues until the entire plant is affected.

To help control these tomato plant diseases, plant tomatoes bred for disease resistance. They should be labeled V (for verticillium), F, FF, or FFF (for fusarium variations). If one of these tomato wilts occurs, avoid using the location to grow tomato, eggplant, potato, and pepper plants for 4-6 years, because the fungi that cause the tomato wilt can remain in the soil that long without a new host to infect.

early blight alternaria plant disease on tomato plant
Credit: Peter Krumhardt

4. Early Blight (Alternaria)

Another tomato plant disease fungus, Alternaria, causes early blight. Lower leaves show brown or black spots with dark edges, almost like a target. Stem ends of fruits may be attacked, showing large, sunken black areas with concentric rings. This fungus usually strikes after plants set fruit.

single tomato leaf with 3 dark spots of late blight disease
Credit: Scot Nelson

5. Late Blight

The fast-spreading tomato plant disease late blight, caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans, occurs during periods of cool, rainy weather that may come at the end of a growing season. It looks almost like frost damage on leaves, causing irregular green-black splotches. Fruits may have large, irregular-shaped brown blotches that quickly become rotten. This plant disease also affects potatoes and can be transferred from them.

6. Mosaic Virus

Mosaic virus attacks many kinds of plants and is common in tomatoes. While mosaic virus doesn't kill the plant, it diminishes the number and quality of fruits. The virus gets its name from the markings that resemble a mosaic of light green and yellow on the leaves and mottling on the fruits of affected plants. Leaves may also grow in misshapen forms, resembling ferns.

Because the virus enters through cuts in leaves and stems, avoid handling the plant as much as possible. This virus also attacks tobacco plants, and can be transmitted from them if you've handled cigarettes or other tobacco products recently. So if you're a smoker, wash hands thoroughly with soap first and wear garden gloves when you're working with tomatoes.

7. Blossom Drop

Brought on by temperature extremes, blossom drop occurs when temperatures rise above 85°F or drop below 58°F. The temperature extremes destroy developing tomato blossoms. Often, you won't notice that there was any damage until you have fewer tomatoes to harvest at the end of the season. Prevent blossom drop by using row covers to raise night temperatures. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do about hot day temperatures; just maintain healthy plants so they'll set new buds after the heat wave passes.

blossom-end rot on immature tomatoes on plant
Credit: Cameron Sadeghpour

8. Blossom-End Rot

Caused by a lack of calcium usually brought on by fluctuating water availability, blossom-end rot is a common tomato problem that impacts the fruit. It appears as a sunken, dead area opposite the stem (the blossom-end of the fruit). The area will expand as the fruit matures. Prevent blossom-end rot by promoting steady, stress-free plant growth. Water plants regularly to maintain moist, but not waterlogged, soil. Spread a 2-inch-thick layer of mulch around plants to conserve soil moisture.

9. Damping Off

A frustrating fungal disease, damping off causes sudden collapse of seedlings, or failure to germinate. Presoak seeds to speed germination and don't plant them in cold soil. If planting seeds in potting mix, always use a fresh bag and sterilize your containers first with a 10% bleach solution (add one part bleach to 9 parts water and mix). Allow the top of the soil to dry between waterings.

10. Sunscald

Essentially a sunburn on a tomato, sunscald causes a section of the fruit to become soft, light in color, and dry. Prevent sunscald by maintaining enough foliage to shade fruits or shade fruits artificially with a shade cloth.

Understanding the Tomato Plant Disease Code

Disease resistance has been bred into many tomato varieties. The letters behind the names are codes showing what diseases and insects the tomato plants are bred to resist, including:

Verticillium wilt

F Fusarium wilt

F Fusarium wilt races 1 and 2

FFF Fusarium wilt races 1, 2, and 3

Nematodes

Alternaria alternata (stem canker or early blight)

T Tobacco mosaic virus

St Stemphylium (gray leaf spot)

TSWV Tomato spotted wilt virus

For example, the label on Big Beef VFFNTA Hybrid tells you that it is bred to resist verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt races 1 and 2, nematodes, tobacco mosaic virus, and Alternaria, and early blight.

Comments (1)

Better Homes & Gardens Member
September 7, 2019
There's an easier way to avoid blossom-end rot. Get powdered milk (us oldsters used to have to drink it and called it "blue milk") and sprinkle about 1/4 cup around the base of every tomato plant as soon as you plant your seedlings in the garden. Water it in gently. The powdered milk offers immediately-available calcium and you won't lose any of the fruit to rot. It's a good idea to supplement that with crushed egg shells, but that first dose should be powdered milk. And don't forget the cardboard collars to thwart the dreaded cutworms!