Tomato – One Tough Plant But Still Subject to Nature’s Variables

If I had to name what I’ve found to be the toughest plant in the garden over the 37 years of growing them, I’d have to say it’s the tomato. It’s also one of the easiest to grow.

Some years back (2012) friend and reader Sandra wrote to me saying that she was having problems growing tomatoes. Only one year in ten would she manage to get enough.

The wonderful punch line to her request for help was that her 4 year old planted some tomatoes and grew much better tomatoes than she did.

As it turns out, Sandra had read all kinds of conventional advice about gardening as well as growing tomatoes and had followed it all to the letter.

Her 4 year old daughter didn’t. But rather, she planted her tomatoes in some piled up soil over what had previously been the compost bin. They didn’t get much water and didn’t get ANY “fertilizer”.

I answered Sandra with an extremely detailed post on growing tomatoes, but one simple thing I recommended was for her to forget everything she “learned” and begin looking at how her daughter’s tomatoes were grown.


Like everything in the garden and your flower borders, tomatoes are still subject to variables. In other words: changing conditions, even if they’re so subtle you’re not aware of them, can change how your plants produce and perform.

As you probably know if you’ve gardened any length of time, things can change quickly. As variables like weather and temperatures change, so does the garden. And then there are the dozens of other variables that we don’t even know anything about. But they change our garden nonetheless.

This year has been the most unusual year I remember since starting to garden 37 years ago.

On a positive note, I’m glad it was not my first year of gardening as I might have been tempted to think this is what I should expect every year.

Unknown Variable Made This Difference

I guesstimate that production is down from the norm of the past 36 years by at least 65%!! What a shocker!

I’ve had plenty of tomatoes to eat, but had I needed to restock with tomato “paste” (my roasted tomatoes) I would not have had enough. Fortunately, there’s enough in the freezer to get me through till next year.

Another Unknown

From about mid July until late August I noticed tomatoes rotting on the vine even after things turned hot and dry. (Sometimes in extremely wet weather, tomatoes will rot.)

(If you read the post in reply to Sandra’s problem, you’ll recall that having tomatoes rot was one of the problems she experienced.)

It’s something I’m sure no gardener feels comfortable with.

In addition to just rotting, some of tomatoes got that white mold or whatever it is that is associated with decaying fruit.

After Harvest

I keep my tomatoes in a large flat basket on top of my washing machine. I’ve always been able to keep a ripe tomato for weeks without it going bad. For the first time in 37 years I was not able to do that in July and August.

I’d put tomatoes in the basket one day and they were bad in two days.

In the last three weeks, things are back to normal. The tomatoes look perfect and are keeping for long periods of time.  The ones in the picture have been inside for more than two weeks.

These Mortgage Lifters were ripe when I picked them and they've been inside over two weeks and still look great.

These Mortgage Lifters were ripe when I picked them and they’ve been inside over two weeks and still look great.

Was it something in the air? I can only guess.

And Yet Another Unknown

As I’ve mentioned in several posts, I usually see a total of about 6 hornworms a year. And the braconid wasp takes care of them for me.

After my August 15 post, I had an outbreak of hornworms, the likes of which I didn’t think was possible. Rather than a total of 6 hornworms for the season, I had at least 6 or more hornworms for every plant I had.  And I have about 20 plants.

Hornworm with cocoons of braconid wasp.

Hornworm with cocoons of braconid wasp.

On the bright side, it was a banner year for my army of braconid wasps. They took care of 99% of the worms and I killed the rest.

A reader (who lives in this area) told me she also had a lot of hornworms and that someone else she had spoken to about 30 miles from here also experienced the same thing.

I sure would like to know what caused all that. I guess I never will.

For the last two weeks I’ve only seen dead and decaying hornworms on the plants. The cocoons are open.  Thus, I know my “army” has more soldiers to fight my battles again.

Tomatoes – It Ain’t Over ‘Till it’s Over

We had some extremely hot weather sometime back. Tomatoes won’t set fruit when temperatures get up to 95 and above, so for almost a month my tomatoes didn’t produce any baby tomatoes.

After I harvested all the larger ones I had plants with no blossoms and absolutely no green tomatoes. To some extent I experience this every summer, but not this late in the season. That makes it a bit scary if you (like me) have your heart set on those tomatoes for late fall.

After these tomatoes ripened and were harvested in August, I didn't have ANY tomatoes on the plants. But not they're starting to make fruit again.

After these tomatoes ripened and were harvested in August, I didn’t have ANY tomatoes on the plants. But now they’re starting to make fruit again.

Now that temperatures have cooled in the last few weeks, I have all kinds of tomatoes from dime size to plum size. Those are the ones I’m depending on for fresh tomatoes through December.

Final Thoughts

If your plants have new growth and blossoms, don’t pull them up if you want more tomatoes before the cold sets in.

Assuming the weather holds, we should have plenty of time to bring in another harvest of tomatoes for late fall use. (At least in zone 7 and even warmer zones.)

And remember, in the garden it ain’t ever over ’till it’s over!

September garden

My garden in September.

Related Posts:

Growing Tomatoes – Addressing a Readers Problems

How to Make Tomato Sauce or Tomato Paste the Easy Way

Discrepancies in IDs – Hornworms – Eggs or Cocoons

Organic Pest Control – Is It Just About the Soil?

Garlic and Mulch – A Reader’s Experience


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  • I have several hornworms on each tomato plant too. But…I also have the braconid wasp cocoons on each one. I went back to one of your posts on this wasp and found interesting information–I thought those were eggs and I couldnt imagine how eggs could kill the hornworms. Your article answered all my questions. Thanks Theresa.

  • My tomatoes did well until about the end of July too and then seemed to rot on the vine. I was pulling them and feeding them to the chickens but quit. I’ve neglected them and let the pumpkin vines take over. This article makes me want to go pick off any bad fruit, pull away the pumpkin vines and see what happens!

    PS: I just harvested my sweet potatoes. The half of the bed where I trimmed back the vines produced far more potatoes than the half of the bed where I let the vines run helter skelter!

  • Hi Theresa,
    As much as I’d like to use straw for mulch, I’m afraid of killing my soil with herbicides. I know where I can get small bales, and I’ve thought about testing them by soaking some of the straw in water, then using the water on a couple of plants I would not miss if they died as a result. (Although I hate to kill anything. Even thinning is a little difficult for me. LOL) I have plenty of leaves that I can use though.
    How is it that you can use straw successfully?

  • Loretta, it’s great that you have braconid wasp working for you! Glad my post about this little guy was informative.

    Betty, thanks for the “rest of the story” about the sweet potatoes! Now we know how they will produce more.
    I was glad to hear how the post affected you. Hope you’ll let us know what happens with your tomatoes.

    Frank, Leaves are great! I’d love to have enough to just use leaves for mulch rather than straw.
    I think my post will answer your question. If you read it and still have a question, let me know.


  • This year (I’m in zone 5 and live near the sea so don’t get as nuch heat as further inland) I had my tomatoes in a small greenhouse which I didn’t vent much. The basil loved it but I’ve already pulled the tomatoes as there were no fruit (and so I could plant my winter salad greens). Now I know it wasn’t the lack of pollinators getting in or the fact that I didn’t prune the indeterminate plants. It was too hot for fruit! Not a problem I’ve had before, ha ha. I’ll do better next year. Meanwhile I’ll make up some pesto to freeze. 🙂

  • How interesting to read about your outbreak of hornworms! For years I always had a few hornworms on my tomatoes until we added 5-6 birdhouses around the perimeter. Now for several years I attributed absolutely NO hornworms to the increased bird population – until this year. Around the end of August I discovered hornworms had stripped all the foliage off one pepper plant, lots of damage to tomato plants, eggplants and even potato plants. I have never seen such large numbers of them but there are also quite a few the wasp have taken care of. It has also been a very bad year for bean beetles so I had to remove all my plants and burn them.

  • Hi, I am new to this site. I love it.
    I planted 12. 6 different varieties and they were a bit slow to grow, but since late July they went insane.
    Hundreds of GREEN tomatoes, 2 or 3 red ones. They are so dense, I can not get inside where the red ones are, without breaking huge branches off. There are still blossoms on these plants . Should I cut them off?
    It’s now Sept on the Prairies, still unusually hot but frost and snow on the way.
    Should I just forget them? I have never had this problem before.
    Thank you 🙂

  • Iceni, welcome to TMG.

    I don’t know where you live or what your growing season is,
    but if you have tomatoes and/or blossoms and have a couple of
    months before the cold sets in — then just wait and see what happens.

    If you couldn’t get to the middle to pick the fruit you should have pruned
    a little to make the room.

    If you have lots of green tomatoes when you expect the first frost and/or freeze you can pick them and let them turn red.
    These two posts will tell you more:


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