My First Tomato That Doesn't Count And Other Tomato Growing Questions Answered

Many novice gardeners are growing the Queen of the Vegetable Garden, tomatoes, for the first time this season, and may have some questions about everything from hornworms to entering the May Dreams Gardens Annual Tomato Contest.

Here are some of the more popular questions and answers:

How will I know if I have tomato hornworms on my tomato plants?

It is generally not a question of if you have hornworms on your tomatoes, it is more a question of how can you can find them before they do too much damage. The best way is to look for the tell-tale signs of caterpillar droppings on the ground – yes, you can see them with the naked eye, the droppings are black and about the size of a broken off pencil lead. Also, look to see if any branches on the plant are suddenly leafless. Once you see those signs, you have to look closely to see the tomato hornworms which will blend in with the plant, even though they can be up to three – four inches long. Don’t give up; keep looking until you find them. If there are droppings and bare branches, they are there!

Once you find a tomato hornworm, if it has white appendages coming off of it, remove it from the plant but don’t kill it because it is being attacked by a parasitic wasp which will kill it for you. That’s a good thing! If it is alone, pick it off or cut it off with the branch it is on and stomp it or squish it.

I had a beautiful tomato but when I looked at the bottom of it, it was all brown and leathery. What happened?

Blossom end rot happened. It generally only happens to the first few tomatoes that ripen but it is very disappointing when it does happen. It is usually a result of the soil getting too dry in between rains or watering. This causes a short term calcium deficiency, but adding more calcium to the soil to prevent it won’t help. The best way to prevent blossom end rot is to water the tomato plants when it doesn’t rain enough.

That reminds me, we haven’t had rain for about a week, I need to water my tomato plants or I’ll be whining big time about blossom end rot.

Should I stake or cage my tomatoes?

Stake them. That’s my preference, but I am willing to consider that those who cage their tomatoes might not be all bad people, especially after I saw that one of my uncles had some good looking tomato plants and they were caged.

Where can I find out how to grow the best tomatoes?

Gardening is local. How you grow tomatoes in places like Austin, Texas, where MSS at Zanthan Gardens is, and how you grow them in my zone 5b garden in Indianapolis, Indiana does vary. A great source of information is your local cooperative extension service. They are likely to have written one or more pamphlets or bulletins on how to grow tomatoes, specific to where you garden, with information on what problems you might encounter and even what varieties do well in your area. And the best part is it’s free information!

Should a tomato from a store bought plant that already had blossoms on it count as the first tomato of the season?

No, I don’t believe so, unless you are only growing store bought tomato plants. As for me, this evening, I picked an ‘Early Girl’ tomato off a plant that I bought with a few blooms on it (pictured above). Now after mostly having all seed-raised plants and recording the date of the first tomato grown on those, it seems quite wrong to record a first tomato on June 30th, nearly three weeks before my previous first tomato picking date. I feel like I cheated! So, this ‘Early Girl’ will be my "my first tomato that doesn't count", FTTDC. I’m going to let it sit out on the counter to continue to ripen for a day or two before I eat it.

Did you know that you can pick tomatoes when they are not quite ripe, and they’ll continue to ripen for a few days after picking? If you are competing with critters like squirrels, rabbits, or possums to get to the ripe tomatoes, you might try to pick those ‘maters a few days early and ripen them inside, where they will be safe.

(By the way, my store bought tomato plant looks terrible compared to my seed-raised tomato plants, even though the seed raised plants were much smaller when I planted them in May.)

What are the rules for this year’s tomato contest sponsored by May Dreams Gardens?

The International Rules Committee for Tomato Growing Contests and Rituals (IRCTGCR) is still giving careful consideration to the rules for the 2009 contest. Unfortunately, developing these rules and ensuring that they are fair and balanced takes time, so it could be several more weeks until they are published in draft form. The rules will not be finalized until I’ve sized up my own tomatoes and determined what kind of contest they might win.

If anyone else has any more tomato questions, just holler out the back door. I’ll be out in the garden looking for hornworm droppings and watering my tomato plants.


  1. AAAAAAAACCCCK! I knew it. You won't post the rules until YOU can win.

  2. I would also add that you can get really good local gardening advice by finding gardening blogs based in your geographic area. I have learned quite a bit from bloggers in RI, MA, and CT that is very applicable to my southern CT growing conditions.

  3. Great post, and some great info too. I'll be on the lookout for those hornworms and their wasp killers.

  4. MA, you're just now realizing that the odds are dramatically, heavily, seriously, overwhelmingly stacked in Carol's favor????!!!!

    HOWEVER, since a friend dropped off some of her homegrown tomatoes for me yesterday, I'll throw down the gauntlet and say that I win the best tomatoes grown by a friend contest!

    As usual, I'm catching up on blogs while at work. I've read your last 3 posts, Carol: thanks for the reminder that I need some Bert's Bees repellent and congratulations you on the beauty of the night blooming cereus.

  5. Thanks for all the excellent advice on growing tomatoes, Carol. I've never looked for hornworm droppings before--I suppose they're smaller than rabbit pellets or when the dog decides to do her duty next to the vegetable garden? As for watering, I suppose those few sprinkles we got today don't count; sure wish those gray clouds would release some rain.

    "Ensuring that the rules are fair and balanced"...yeah, right:)

    LOL, the word verification is "vicargaz." Perhaps a vicar should gaze upon the various tomato entries:)

  6. Thanks for the shout out.

    As for blossom end rot, it's a big problem in Austin where we can go from drought to flood in hours.

    This year I employed three strategies and didn't have a problem...but now I don't know which strategy worked or whether it was a combo.

    I kept my tomatoes consistently watered. I added eggshells to the bottom of the hole when I planted them. (This is suppose to provide the calcium--which is common advice down here --whether or not it works.) I added dolomite lime halfway through the season (provides lime and magnesium).

  7. Great information Carol. I've noticed that if I put eggshells in the bottom of the tomato hole at planting, I don't have as much trouble with blossom end rot.~~Dee

  8. I am on the lookout for the WUT and have some early contestants in an heirloom tomato variety. Cages are for lazy gardeners which is why I use them, plus they were there.

    Perhaps we should have a pounds grown per plant contest division or most ripe tomatoes harvested in a single day. I feel confident.

  9. OK, I'll bite...why the egg shells in the ground at planting time? (And does it matter...seed or plant?)

    We did pick our first ripe tomato yesterday, but I confess that yes, I cheat. My tomatoes from seed experience didn't pan out this year!

  10. If you can't find the hornworm but know it's there, just gently mist the plant with water...they usually move at that point and give themselves away.


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