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What’s Wrong with Your Plants? – Take Tomatoes for Example

If you’re like me, you hate “complicated.” When it gets to be too complex, my eyes tend to glaze over.

When I first started gardening, I knew nothing except for the fact that the earth had been growing things for thousands of years without the help of chemical companies. I had complete faith that if I planted and tried to follow nature and use her principles, I’d be successful.

I was.

Falling Prey to the Usual

After a few years, when I finally had access to “reading material” on organic gardening, I fell prey to what most all gardeners fall prey to at one time or the other. I became obsessive about trying to find a name for what was wrong with every plant that had an imperfect leaf. I’d search high and low for the possible “cause.”

Quick Fixes

Once I thought I had what I deemed to be the answer, I set about trying to “add” to my soil what was necessary to fix the problem.

Human nature being what it is, I guess “quick fixes” have always been popular. You know what I mean: “Add a little of this and it’ll cure that and your plants will be fantastic!”

It took me about 10 years of all that to finally realize that it was totally unnecessary. (You can read my story about one of the things that turned the tide for me (fusarium wilt) in my post post,Organic Gardening Keep it Simple, Because It Is.

For a while, I totally lost track of the fact that plants in the real world are not always picture perfect. Only in the world of marketing and selling garden products does a plant seem to look perfect every minute of its life – if you use the product being sold.

Nature is all about perfect balance and unless you really know what your soil needs you’re just guessing when you use a little of this and a little of that. Many times, you’re just making matters worse.

If you absolutely feel the necessity to add something, find out if you need it before you add it. (You might want to review my post post, Soil Test – The Pros and Cons.

The Best Way is Not Usually the Most Popular Way

Although the long term answer to any gardening question is not always the most popular, especially in today’s society, it’s most often the best answer.

The best way to have great plants is by having healthy soil.

The best way to have great soil is by consistently adding a diversity (variety) of organic material. Diversity is needed to make sure your soil gets everything it needs. (Keep in mind that cover crops can play a big roll in speeding up accomplishing the goal of great soil.)

The great thing about this simple way is that nature will do all the complicated stuff (the balancing) for you. You don’t have to be a scientist to figure it out.

Most Asked Question

The most asked question by gardeners is probably, “what’s wrong with my plants?” (Remember I mentioned previously about “trying to find a name for what was wrong with every plant that had an imperfect leaf.”)

Sometimes, there really is something wrong.  And sometimes, the answer is simple.

Other times, because of the many variables and unknowns, there is no way to tell what’s wrong instantly.

And still other times there is nothing wrong and time will resolve the issue as the plants works through the problem (if there is any.)

Stories from My Experiences to Consider When Your Tomato Plants are a Bit Yellow and You’re Wondering What’s Wrong

 # 1 – From Pot to Garden

I started my tomato seed April 1st this year.  The seedlings looked fabulous as late as the second week of May, probably because I’d found the time to give them at least one drenching with fish emulsion.

I still have about 6 tomato plants sitting in pots.  They’re lanky. They’re turning yellow.  (Do I really have to tell anyone why?)

No, this is not the ideal way to treat seedlings.  It would have been much better if I had had time to transplant the seedlings to a larger pot and nourish them and keep them at their very best.  It’s always to our advantage to keep seedlings at their best and not put unnecessary stress on them. Then when unavoidable stress comes, they can take it even better.

Am I worried?  No.

Why? Because I already know what will happen:

I’ll transplant them into my good garden soil this week.  They may get to looking even worse while they’re establishing themselves.  For example, I have several out in the garden that I transplanted a week or so ago. They turned mostly yellow and pale green after transplanting. But I can see the growth at the tops turning lush green.

Becoming one with the soil and soil life doesn’t happen instantly. I know they’re “taking hold” when that new growth starts turning a deep  green.  Some of the lower stems will stay yellow.  I’ll just take those off.

#2 – Different Rates of Growth

I have tomato plants in the garden from 6 inches to 18 inches.  Even if I planted several at the same time, it’s not unusual for one to stay small and one to quickly grow taller.

The reason? It could be any number of things: A different variety of tomato.  The soil could be better in one spot than another.  Or perhaps  for whatever reason the tomato plant that is growing more quickly is the stronger plant.

It really is not something that concerns me at all, because I’ve seen it so many times over 35 years and know the outcome. And that is: all the plants will get huge and give me lots of tomatoes.

#3 – Putting Tomato Plants in When it’s Too Cold

When I started gardening I knew nothing about tomatoes not liking “cold” spring weather.  When the end of March or the first of April came and I saw tomato seedlings in the garden center, I bought them.  I thought (as I’m sure many do) that if the garden center had them for sale, it must be time to plant.

I’d buy 6 plants to get started early.  (I had not yet discovered my winter sown method of starting warm weather crops.  I would sow tomato seed in a flat and put them under the cold frame and wait for temperatures to be warm enough for them to germinate. The 6 purchased tomato seedlings gave me an earlier start.)

No matter how cold it was, I planted the tomato plants within a day of getting them home.

I remember they always took a turn for the worse almost immediately.  Not surprising. First, those plants were raised on chemicals and when I got them home I’m sure they started suffering from withdrawal.  Secondly, it was cold!

Most years the plants turned a bluish-purple. (A sign of their being too cold.)  Then the leaves started to yellow.  They sat there and didn’t grow for about a month.  When the temperature warmed, they started growing.  In spite of their poor beginnings, these sad little plants developed into huge plants and gave me hundreds of tomatoes through November and sometimes into December.  (We lived closer to the river then, and the heat the river held kept frost away almost a month longer than where we live now. )

Nowadays, I generally wait until it warms to put my tomato seedlings into the garden.  This year I got anxious and put two in at the end of April. Still too cold.  They looked awful until just a few days ago.  I picked the yellowing leaves off and they’ve totally renewed themselves with lush growth just in the last few days.

Leaves of Tomato Seedlings Turning Yellow

No one knows your plants and your situation better than you. So just ask yourself what is happening to make the leaves of your tomato plants turn yellow? Then after you determine what the reason might be, ask yourself it you can do anything about it or do you need to wait it out.

Here are the reasons most often responsible for yellowing leaves:

  • Overwatering.

Wait until potted plants are dry before you water again.   If plants are in the ground, don’t water until the ground is dry at least 2 inches down.

  • Not getting proper nutrition.

If seedlings in pots are turning yellow, more than likely they’re not receiving proper nutrition.  Plant them into good garden soil that has lots of organic matter.  It will take them a while to establish themselves and grow lush.  Be patient.  It won’t happen instantly.

  • It may be normal

It’s a regular occurrence in my garden for the lowest stems on tomatoes to turn yellow.  Nip them off.

  • If you use “fertilizer” and “quick fixes” – these can often make your leaves turn yellow.

Unless you REALLY know exactly what you are doing, I suggest my approach: consistently add organic matter to your soil and let nature balance it for you.

  • And of course, later in the season it could be something like early blight that I have covered in previous post.

In most cases, if your garden soil is healthy, your plants will recover and still produce a good crop for you.

Conditions for the Most Perfect Tomato Plants

The ideal situation for the most perfect tomato plants are to start them in season (like right now).  They’ll grow very quickly and can be transplanted quickly.  Most often they’ll never miss a beat and be the healthiest tomato plants in the garden.

Another Question That I’m Often Asked

The minute folks have a problem they don’t understand, they want to know if they should pull the plants out?

If there were some kind of dread disease, then pulling something out would be appropriate.  But that is seldom the reason for the problems most gardeners experience.

In answer to this question, I usually recommend LEAVING the plants in the garden until all is said and done.

The reason?  You learn to be a better gardener from watching your plants and determining what they do and under what circumstances they do it.  If you pull them out, you’ll never have the benefit of that hands-on experience and thus, the resulting knowledge.

Example:

Jack, friend and reader in New Jersey, tried growing onions from seed for the first time last year.  He became discouraged in the middle of the summer because they were not growing as he thought they should. He wrote to me and said he was going to take them all up and put something else in that space.  I encouraged him to leave them.  He did.

Want to hear the happy ending?  His onions from seed finally caught up with and in some cases surpassed his onions from transplants.  He was thrilled with the beautiful onions he got from the seed he started.  Needless to say, he was  glad he left those onions in the ground! He never would have know what he could do (or what they would do) if he had pulled them up.

Final Thoughts

We all want to learn how to be good gardeners and good stewards of our land and plants.  But in the process of improving and learning, our plants can look less than perfect.

Try to observe more and don’t obsess over the imperfections.  Keep it simple. Work towards healthy soil and things WILL improve.

Armed with some of my experiences and yours, your approach to quick fixes and yellowing leaves may be a bit different in the future.

_______

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13 comments to What’s Wrong with Your Plants? – Take Tomatoes for Example

  • Theresa

    After I put this post up, I went out to the garden.

    We had a nice rain last night. Lots of lightening too.
    I was absolutely AMAZED at the difference in the tomatoes. Most grew at least an inch and put on the deepest, nicest shade of green. The few yellow leaves that remain, I removed.

    I guess nature’s watering and nature’s nitrogen (the lightening) was just what they were waiting for.

    Just wanted to give you this extra example that is right up to the minute. 🙂
    Theresa

  • YahuahsHomeMaker

    This post is encouraging and very “soothing” (for lack of better words). I am new to gardening and have spent years reading but to me it is still a foreign language. This spring I dug right and am growing tomatoes, bell peppers, a variety of edilble flowers, corn, beans, cucumbers, pumpkins and watermelon – all in containers! I never thought I would love to be in the garden and the times when I miss my “big garden day” which is one day a week when I try to fertilize, sow, etc…I feel like something is missing.

    Anyways, as you know there are lots of books and websites that say you must do this or that, but I have found myself just watching the plants and trying to just be patient.

    We have a container garden so we moved them into the garage…but maybe the lighting would have been better for them too!

    Thanks-your wisdom is truly valued.

  • Theresa

    Yes, YahuahsHomeMaker, there are lots of thing you can, but not very many things you have to do.
    Glad you found the post encouraging.
    Theresa

  • Alice

    Thank you for the reminder…………..the key word for me is PATIENCE….As I walk the garden each morning, I check leaves (top and bottom), stems, buds, blossoms and if these parts look healthy, I am happy. However if a plant is not doing well; some droopy leaves, yellowing, spots or blemishes, I want to yank it out immediately so it will not harm my other plants. I have learned through your writings, my dear gardening friend, to be patient. Now I will cut off the yellowing leaves, check if the plant needs water, dig a little compost from my compost pile in around the plant, pet the plant and walk away. I may do some research to check for disease or bug infestation. If after some time the plant has not improved. Then it goes in the trash bag. My theory is that a plant wants to grow and thrive, that is it’s purpose and it is going to do that on it’s own schedule (not mine), I need to give it time to achieve it’s purpose.

  • Julie Martin

    Your posts have encouraged me to keep observing and more observing. I have eight square foot beds full of expensive box soil, and this year decided to plant potatoes in my compost pile (deep enough for potatoes). Potato plants are luscious and other beds are limping along. Guess where my compost grass and leaves are going now? Yep, the square beds.

  • Beverly

    Theresa, thank you, that post came at just the right time, letting me know I’m not the only one. I have a similar situation, three lanky tomatoes to put out. I know it’s worse for me here in the deep south, where many will be eating there tomatoes this month. I ordered 2 packets of strawberry seed from Annie’s, will need to do some reading, but am excited to try. Thanks for the info.

  • Great post and I totally agree! I will soon be sending you some pictures of this garden, which I’ve done following the advice in your book! Thank you so much.

  • Theresa

    Alice,your statement “a plant wants to grow and thrive, that’s its purpose and it is going to do that on its own schedule (not mine)” was perfectly stated. If we could all totally accept that we would be more relaxed and enjoy gardening even more.

    Julie, you’ll never regret the decision to put all the grass clippings and leaves right into those beds! Let me know how you do. I’m sure you’ll see excellent results.

    Beverly, you’ll get tomatoes and that’s the main thing!
    Glad you ordered the strawberry seed I suggested. I think you’ll have fun with them. Once they get started they really go to town. I’ve been very impressed with mine.

    Betty, I can hardly wait to see the pictures of your garden! You’ve got me excited. I’ll be waiting!
    Theresa

  • Sandra

    Ha Theresa, I laughed at your garden center experiences with tomato starts. I did exactly the same for years. And, YES!!! they were out regardless of weather the day after coming home. So funny – but sad also that we are more willing to listen to those who are selling something rather than our instincts about our own little plots. After all, who knows and loves them better than we do.
    Thanks for the laugh and the reminder.

  • Pat

    Theresa,

    I can totally relate to what you shared about your tomato plants. I left several of my starts way too long in their pots. When I finally transplanted them, some of them already had flowers. I just pinched those off, then cut off the lowest leaves and transplanted them deep in the garden – right into the rye stubble. They looked horrible for a week or more, and I was beginning to think I had done something wrong…. but now they are gorgeous! I just had to give them time to settle in!

    Thanks for sharing! You always make me feel better!

  • Theresa

    Thanks for sharing this Pat! It always helps folks to hear this.
    Theresa

  • Mary Eileen

    I’m having a problem with fungus on my tomatoes. What is the best way to treat? It attacks the leaves and stems (white)

  • Theresa

    Mary Eileen, I’d have to know a lot more about your situation to give you really good input.
    But I can suggest some basic things:
    1. Search my site for posts on tomatoes and read everyone for all kinds of ideas on keeping them healthy.
    2. Make sure you have good air ciculation around the plants.
    3. Continue to feed your soil and improve it continually.
    Theresa

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