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Causes Of Small Tomatoes – Why Does Tomato Fruit Stay Small

Causes Of Small Tomatoes – Why Does Tomato Fruit Stay Small


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By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer

Even seasoned gardeners can sometimes experience problems with fruits and vegetables that they have grown successfully for years. While blight diseases and insects are common tomato problems that most of us have faced at one time or another, some less common problems do occur.

One such problem that we receive many questions about here at Our site pertains to tomato plants that produce abnormally small fruit. If you’ve noticed that your tomatoes are too small, read on to learn some reasons why tomato fruit won’t grow to an appropriate proper size.

Why Does Tomato Fruit Stay Small?

The most common cause for small tomatoes is stressed plants. When plants are experiencing stressing circumstances, such as extreme drought or heat, insect infestation or disease, they oftentimes stop sending their energy into flower or fruit production. Instead, the plants will focus their energy on the roots, so that despite what is happening to the aerial parts of the plant, the roots will ride it out and survive. Flowers and fruit may stop growing and eventually drop off the plant when stressed.

Lack of water from drought or improper care is the number one reason tomato fruit won’t grow. It is recommended that you never allow your tomato plants to wilt. The soil should be kept consistently moist or the plants may show signs of stress such as wilting, leaf drop or tomatoes that are too small. Many gardeners grow tomatoes in self-watering containers to ensure proper soil moisture for fruit development.

Additional Reasons for Small Tomatoes

Other factors can result in tomatoes that don’t get big. In southern regions, extreme heat has been known to cause small tomatoes. It may be necessary to provide some protection from intense afternoon sun so that tomato plants can fruit properly. However, too much shade can also result in small tomato fruits.

Too much nitrogen or fertilizer is also another common cause of poor fruit production. Nitrogen rich fertilizers promote green leafy foliage but too much can lead to small tomatoes.

Poor pollination will also cause a lack of fruit or small tomato fruit. Most tomatoes that gardeners grow are self-fertile, but increasing pollinator activity near the garden can ensure proper pollination.

Wild tomatoes are not self-fertile. It may be necessary to hand pollinate such plants. Wild tomatoes are also known to produce much smaller fruit than common tomato hybrids.

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Common Mistakes Growing Tomatoes in Containers

Growing tomatoes in containers is almost always an adventure. It can be incredibly rewarding or flat out disastrous.   Sometimes epic failures can happen for reasons beyond your control like tomato blight or a ridiculously wet or cold summer. However, if you avoid some common mistakes, you will vastly increase your chances of successfully growing tomatoes in containers.


Section 2a:

Option 1: Starting your tomato seeds indoors

Part 1. WHEN TO START YOUR SEEDS

6-8 weeks before your last frost date is the ideal time to start your tomato seedlings indoors if you want to get an early jump on the growing season and get the largest possible yields. (You can find your last frost date here.)

If your last frost-date has already passed, no problem! You can easily direct sow your tomato seeds into your garden as long as you have around 3+ months of warm weather ahead of you. Smaller-fruited tomato varieties need a minimum of 50-60 days to produce fruit, whereas larger varieties require 90+ days to produce.

GPart 2. SOWING YOUR INDOOR TOMATO SEEDS

Sowing depth: Sow your tomato seeds 1/4″ deep in your choice of organic seed starting mix or potting soil (see recommended products below).

Don’t fill your seed cells with soil from your garden, since this tends to harden into an impenetrable brick. Instead, we recommend that you buy a ready-made organic seed starting mix or a light potting mix like Fox Farm potting soil.

Experienced gardeners or gardeners starting large numbers of plants often prefer to mix their own seed starting mix. If you want to make you own DIY seed starting mix, here’s our recipe.

We recommend starting your tomato seeds in one of the following:

No matter which of these three options you use for your tomato seedlings, be sure to put a solid plastic seed tray or an old cookie sheet underneath them to keep water from dripping onto your floor or furniture.

And don’t forget to label your cells with plant markers so you can keep track of which variety is which!

Part 3. GERMINATING CONDITIONS

Warmth:

The ideal temperature range for tomato seed germination is 75° – 85°F.

Place your seed trays in a warm spot in your home (such as a sunny window). For best results, use a seed heat mat (which is also very helpful for starting other summer seeds like eggplants, ground cherries, peppers, etc.). We’ve had significantly better germination with our summer seeds since using a heat mat.

Tomato seed germination time: If the soil is kept damp and temps are maintained between 75° – 85°F, your tomato seedlings will germinate within 7 days.

If the temperatures are cooler than this, your seeds may take an additional 1 – 2 weeks to germinate. Too cold (below 65°F) and your tomato seeds will not germinate at all.

Water:

To help with germination, make sure your seed containers stay moist, but not wet. The moisture level should feel like a well wrung-out sponge.

Be sure to also use a gentle watering method such as a misting bottle or a watering can with a very soft pour to prevent the tomato seeds and soil from dislodging. It’s important that your soil mix be thoroughly moistened BEFORE your seeds are added, or you’ll have difficulty getting the soil moist without dislodging the seeds.

The frequency you’ll need to water your tomato seedlings on an ongoing basis varies. Start by watering your seed containers every 24 hours unless they stay really damp. If that happens, hold off and check on them again in a few hours.

Note: Your soil will dry out faster on seedling heat mats or under hotter temperatures.

Again, go for the happy medium of soil with a similar dampness as a wrung-out sponge. Seeds allowed to sit in puddles quickly rot whereas tiny seedlings in crusty, dry soil will soon die due to lack of moisture.

Part 4. ONCE YOUR TOMATOES HAVE SPROUTED

Indoor Light:

As soon as your tomato seeds have germinated/sprouted above the soil surface, place them in front of a sunny, south-facing window in your home (e.g. the window that gets the most sunlight throughout the day).

Do note that newer, modern windows block a lot of the light spectrum that plants need to grow, so if you have energy-efficient windows, you might want to consider getting grow lights for your seedlings. Here’s how to build your own DIY grow light system.

It’s crucial that your tomato seedlings get adequate light—an absolute minimum of six hours of direct light each day—otherwise they’ll quickly become weak and “leggy” (tall and spindly).

Tip: If growing in front of a window, periodically turn your seed trays so that the same side is not always facing towards the sunny window—this will prevent the side furthest away from the window/sun from getting leggy or stretching sideways towards the light.

Outdoor Light:

When the daytime temperatures begin to get into the 60s, you can start putting your tomato seedlings outside in direct sun. However, if you don’t “harden off” your seedlings before exposing them to direct, unfiltered sun, you risk them becoming sunburned.

You can read more about how to harden off your tomato seedlings in the Transplanting Outdoors section below.

Part 5. FEEDING YOUR TOMATO SEEDLINGS

The first two leaves on your tomato seedlings are called “cotyledon” leaves. The next leaves that develop are the first set of “true leaves.”

About 10-14 days after germination, your tomato seedlings will get their first true leaves. At this point, you’ll need to consider nutrition, depending on whether your seed starting mix did or did not contain nutrition.

When/if your tomato seedlings need nutrition (yellowing leaves or stunted growth are sure signs), you have two options:

  1. Use Organic Liquid Fertilizer – Start applying a water-diluted organic liquid fertilizer 1-2 times per week. (We like liquid kelp fertilizer.) Dilution ratios vary from product to product, but watering at half-strength (half of what the bottle recommends for feeding mature plants) is a good rule of thumb for seedlings. Be aware that over-fertilizing your plants can make them extra attractive to pest insects like aphids which can proliferate rapidly indoors since no predatory insects are around.
  2. Transplant Seedlings Into Larger Pots/Cells: This is also called “potting up” in gardening lingo. If your tomato seedlings need nutrition or are running out of space in their smaller cells, you can transplant them into larger, 3-4 inch diameter pots or cells using a seed starting mix that contains worm castings, compost, or slow release organic fertilizer.

Next, keep a close eye on your tomato seedlings to make sure they stay healthy: well-sunned, well-fed and well-watered until your last frost date has arrived. You’re almost ready for transplanting!


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