When to “Pull the Plug” on a Tomato Plant

discovered tomato plant, surprise tomato plant

It’s mid August and my tomatoes haven’t done very well this year. Weeds abound and tomatoes don’t. The other night I was weeding and discovered this tomato plant, hiding in the weeds. I had planted it very late. It looks feeble. It made me think of the question of when to pull the plug on a tomato plant. Should I just weed it out or should I weed around it and give it a chance? Most gardeners face this question frequently. How do you determine whether to “pull to pull the plug” on a tomato plant or to leave it and nurture it?

I can think of three good reasons to “pull the plug on a tomato plant.”

First: there is no longer time for it to produce.

Maybe you waited too long to plant or maybe the plant was buried in weeds and didn’t grow until late in the season. For whatever reason, the plant is too immature to make fruit before frost. If this is so, then I’d pull it and plant a cool weather or cover crop in its place.

Tomato flower, late tomato flower
Though late in the season, this little plant might yet produce some ripe fruit. It there’s room for it, why not try?

In the case of this plant, it is flowering and we have approximately two months before the first expected frost. Other than being a bit scrawny, the plant looks good. So I decided to keep it. There is time yet for it to bear.

Secondly: you might want to eliminate it if the plant has a serious contagious disease.

If a plant or plants has a serious disease, which can spread, then I might well yank it. Late blight would be a great reason to get rid of tomato plants ASAP. Early blight or Septoria Leaf Spot, while being diseases, may not be so severe that one pulls the plug on their plants right away. Sometimes one can wait and still pick fruit. If a disease isn’t virulent, then one needs to ask 1) how badly has it progressed?  2) if leaving the plant might allow it to produce a useful crop, and 3) if there’s a high or low probability of spreading the disease.

Another reason to yank a plant would be that it’s finished production and you need the space.

Determinate tomato varieties typically produce a crop and then, basically, quit. Roma, for instance, has fooled me into leaving it in place after its main crop is finished. The plants look good. There might even be a flower or two, but experience has taught me that after the main crop, 8 plants of Roma may produce eight tomatoes. So, when they’re done, they’re done. I pull them up. Indeterminate varieties, on the other hand, usually continue production indefinitely. It pays to know your varieties’ growth habits.

Okay, now lets think about some situations which may tempt a gardener to pull the plug on a tomato plant, but really aren’t good reasons.

You might NOT want to pull the plug on a tomato plant when…

The plant is producing fruit that rots on the blossom end or cracks a lot.

When the fruit rots on the blossom end, it’s known as blossom end rot. This is what I call an “un-disease.” It’s not really a disease. It’s due to conditions which can be corrected. See “Blossom End Rot, the Un-Disease” for more information. Don’t yank your plant. This is fixable and it’s not contagious. Cracking is similar, it’s a problem caused by uneven watering. Some varieties, though truly excellent, are more prone to cracking than others. Besides mulching and regulating moisture, crack prone varieties may be picked just as the fruit begins to “color up” and ripened on the counter. It’ll ripen and taste great with no cracking.

The plant has septoria leaf spot or early blight.

These problems are common, especially late in the season. See our discussion about serious contagious disease. No one likes these diseases, but they aren’t normally serious. So, especially if it’s late in the season and there are still tomatoes ripening on the plants, if they come down with spotty leaves, consider leaving them and letting them ripen what fruit they can. At the end of the season pull the plants, bag them and toss them in the trash, rather than in the compost heap.

When a tomato has gotten “mauled”

Sometimes a tomato plant gets “mauled,” chewed up really badly. Perhaps someone got out of line with a weed eater. Maybe the infamous hornworm struck. At any rate, your tomato plant looks awful. Okay, but unless it’s really quite late in the season, if the plant is not diseased, it may well recover and produce fruit. Just because it looks terrible doesn’t mean it can’t recover. It’s amazing how fast some plants grow during the heat of the summer, if given plenty of moisture.

Finally don’t lose heart if…

A tomato plant is green and growing, but has no flowers.

Unless it’s very late in the season leave that plant. There are a number of reasons it might not have fruit. Most of those reasons are likely to be corrected later in the season. So, until it’s simply too late for a plant to produce fruit, Generally it takes 30 days from flower to ripe fruit.



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