If you harvest a really funky looking tomato from your garden, it’s probably catfacing. This plant disorder stands out because of the oddly deformed fruit. It is not as destructive as other diseases that can befall your tomatoes and strawberries—catfacing does not affect the taste, and the fruit is still safe to eat–but it’s still a nuisance that you want to prevent. For commercial growers, catfaced produce is not marketable.
The term “catfacing” is used for tomatoes and strawberries because the deformities look similar. The causes and therefore the control methods are different.
Catfacing on Tomatoes
Catfacing becomes noticeable as the fruit grows. Large brown scars, crevasses and/or holes develop at the blossom end. In addition, the tomatoes may become extremely malformed.
Sometimes the tomatoes are so mishappen that the locules (the compartments inside the tomato) are exposed. Catfacing only affects the fruit, not the vines of the tomato, which helps distinguishing the problem from other tomato diseases. Catfacing is also different from tomato cracking and tomato splitting.
While there is only little research about catfacing on tomatoes, a few factors have been determined as possible triggers for an abnormal development of the tomato flower buds before blossoming, which then leads to catfacing.
The number one culprit for catfacing on tomatoes is cool weather. Temperatures dropping below 50 degrees F when the young tomato plants have already developed flower buds increases the likelihood of catfacing. Prolonged temperatures below 59 degrees F can also cause it, as do extreme temperature differences when spring days are warm but nights still chilly.
Catfacing occurs most often on the first tomatoes of a plant. That makes sense in light of the cold weather sensitivity of the young plants explained above. Catfacing mainly affects large cultivars. You will see it more on large beefsteak tomatoes than on cocktail tomatoes. Other possible triggers for catfacing is severe pruning of the tomato plants, or excessive nitrogen levels in the soil.
How to Prevent and Control Catfacing on Tomatoes
To avoid catfacing, follow the general rule for tomato transplanting: Don’t plant tomatoes in your garden too early.
Whether you started your own plants from seed or bought tomato transplants, wait until the day and night temperatures are consistently above 60 degrees F. The soil should have warmed up as well. This happens usually about two weeks after the last frost date in your area.
Heirloom cultivars (open-pollinated varieties) seem to be less affected by catfacing than hybrid tomatoes. If you have grown heirloom tomatoes in your garden and experienced catfacing, consider hybrids with a similar flavor profile and harvest time.
And do not go overboard when pruning your tomatoes—prune just enough to keep indeterminate tomato plants under control.
Also, make sure not to give your tomato plants too much nitrogen. Excessive nitrogen is problematic also because it can cause blossom end rot.
If you notice that your green tomatoes are catfaced, it is best to remove them because they will not ripen uniformly. However, if you don’t catch them early and they ripen, you can still use them as “ugly fruit” where looks don’t matter, such as for tomato sauce.
Catfacing on Strawberries
Deformities in strawberries are often referred to as strawberry catfacing because of the visual similarities. But catfacing on strawberries can also be caused by some other factors.
Extreme weather fluctuations in the spring, late frosts and unseasonably cold and wet weather can cause catfacing. Misshaped strawberries may indicate that your garden soil lacks micro-nutrient deficiency such as boron. Do a soil test to see if that’s the cause.
If the tips of your strawberries are misshaped, it may be due to poor fruit pollination. Bees are crucial for the complete pollination of strawberries so make sure that you have pollinator-friendly plants in your back yard.
The lygus bug (Western tarnished plant bug) is also known to cause catfacing on strawberries. The adults are greenish-brownish with a characteristic small, yellow or pale green triangle on their back. They puncture the strawberry seeds in the growing fruit which then stymies the berry growth in the area where the bug has fed.
There are different ways how you can organically control the tarnished plant bug, starting with weed control.