By Kathy Widenhouse, award-winning writer and owner of Tomato Dirt, a leading online source of for growing tomatoes in the home garden.
You discover a wilting tomato plant in your garden - or two or twelve. And your heart sinks.
Just a day or two ago, the plants were healthy and vibrant. Now, wilting tomato leaves droop over the edges of the cage … or the tomato plants are dying from the bottom up or from top down … or just one side of a plant sags.
You wonder why. And you desperately want to fix it.
There are several reasons why your plant may suffer from drooping leaves and foliage malaise. With answers, you can learn whether or not your plant is salvageable. And if so, you can know how to revive the tomato plant and get it back on track to producing juicy, flavorful fruit.
Take a look at these 7 common reasons your tomato plant is wilting and what to do next.
The simplest reason for drooping: your wilting tomato plant may need water. And this is also the easiest wilting problem to fix. Your tomato plants need 1-3 inches of water a week, either through rainfall or manual watering. If they don’t get enough water then leaves droop, blossoms drop, and production fades.
Monitor the amount of rainfall your plants get by using a rain gauge. You can also set up a water usage meter to measure how much water you provide to plants through irrigation. Still unsure whether or not plants are getting enough water? Use a soil moisture meter. That way you’ll know if your tomato plants are satisfied … or if they’re under watered … or if they face another problem that leads to wilt: overwatering.
Can your wilting tomato plants be getting too much water? Yes. And wilting tomato leaves are just one indicator. You may also see yellowed leaves, bumps on leaves, and leaves falling off the plant.
But you can tell if your plants are overwatered in at least two other ways. First, check the soil around the plant. Insert your finger. If the soil moist, that’s a check in the “overwatered” column.
And second, you can use a trowel to dig deeper and look at the tomato plant’s roots. Are they dark? Are they slimy? Healthy tomato roots are light in color and they don’t ooze sludge or muck.
If your tomato plant is overwatered, take steps to dry it out.
If your wilting tomato plant shows signs of yellowing and drooping on one side of the plant, whether one branch or several – then it may have contracted fusarium wilt, caused by a fungus. The symptoms move up the plant as the fungus spreads. The wilted leaves dry and drop prematurely. If the plant doesn’t die, it will be weak and produce inferior tomatoes.
While there is no chemical treatment, you can prevent fusarium wilt in tomatoes at the beginning of the season by rotating crops and choosing disease-resistant varieties. If your plant contracts fusarium wilt, remove it from the garden and destroy it immediately. You’ll help prevent the fungus from spreading.
Are your tomato plants dying from the bottom up? Or maybe your wilting tomato plant droops during the day but recovers at night. In either instance, your plant may have contracted verticillium wilt, another tomato fungus.
Lower leaves on affected plants turn yellow, then brown, and then fall off – in a V-shaped pattern – and symptoms progress up the stem. Interior of main stem (when split) shows discolored streaks about 10-12 inches above the soil line, the result of plugged water-conducting tissue. Verticillium wilt in tomatoes progresses more slowly than fusarium wilt. And it thrives in cooler temperatures.
As with fusarium wilt, there is no chemical treatment, but you can prevent the fungus in tomatoes by rotating crops and choosing disease-resistant varieties. If your plant contracts verticillium wilt, remove it from the garden and destroy it immediately. You’ll help prevent the fungus from spreading.
If your wilting tomato plant droops and dies quickly, it may have bacterial wilt.
The pathogen lives in the soil and works its way up through the plant’s roots or stem, most often where plants have been cut, injured, or weakened. Bacteria clog the water-conducting tissue in the stem. Water and nutrients can’t reach branches and leaves, starving the plant. The plant dies.
Unfortunately, there’s no chemical treatment for bacterial wilt in tomatoes. But the disease thrives when temperatures are above 75ºF and growing conditions are wet, and the soil has a high pH. You can help prevent its spread by rotating crops, choosing disease-resistant varieties, and ensuring that your soil has an optimum pH for tomato growing – about 6.5-7.0. in wet conditions, and when soil has a high pH.
If your wilting tomato plant is dying from the top down, it may have tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV). Affected plants wilt and die within a few weeks. But they will give off other signals early on: red and yellow concentric rings on the fruit, stunted growth, bronzed leaves or spots on the leaves, curling leaves, streaks on the stems – even deformed or distorted fruit. Ugh!
To date, there is no chemical treatment available for TSWV. You need to destroy infected plants immediately. But the good news is that more recent hybrid varieties have been specially developed to resist the virus. You’ll recognize them because they have TSWV on the label and you can choose these for your garden.
You can also prevent TSWV by controlling weeds in your tomato garden. Doing so prevents thrips from taking up residence … and those nasty pests spread the virus.
While walnut wilt mimics fusarium wilt, verticillium wilt, and bacterial wilt, the easiest way to identify it is by proximity to walnut trees. Affected plants growing next to a walnut tree abruptly wilt and die. Tomato plants growing a short distance away may not die, but become flaccid and stunted.
And while no chemical treatment is available, you may be able to save tomato plants if you act quickly. Transplant your plants to containers filled with sterile potting mix and move them to at least 50 feet away from walnut trees.
It’s not unusual for tomato plants in pots to droop. The likely reason: under watering.
These tomatoes grow in a contained space. Their roots can only reach down so far to find water. And while tomatoes perk up after watering, excessive wilting stresses them.
Solution: water container tomatoes every day. If tomato leaves repeatedly wilt in late afternoon sun, move containers to a different location. Or you can solve your container watering problem permanently by using a self-watering planter.
What if your wilting tomato plant is just a baby? Check these three ways you can help wilting tomato seedlings.
In some instances, no.
If your plant is suffering from fusarium wilt, verticillium wilt, bacterial wilt, tomato spotted wilt virus, or damping off, then don’t prolong the agony. Pull out that plant and destroy it. Otherwise, the problem will simply perpetuate and even extend into next season.
But if watering mistakes are the culprit, then your wilting tomato plant can recover!
That’s great news for you, your plant, and all the luscious tomato fruit it will bear. By all means, save that plant.
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