Nothing compares to the taste of vegetables picked fresh from your own garden. For many growers, the first vine ripened tomato is the best of the best. Most will also tell you that while they require a little extra attention and care, homegrown tomatoes are well worth the effort.
Tomatoes grow on vines, and like many vines, the tomato plant grows rapidly. These plants can be troubled by blights, infections, and voracious insect pests. One problem you are likely to run into that sounds much worse than it actually is is blossom end rot.
When tomatoes reach the half-grown stage, fruits that may seem fine otherwise begin to develop hard brown spots on the bottom. These gradually grow in size and turn leathery and black by the time the fruit ripens into redness. This symptom, which can also occur on related members of the nightshade family, such as peppers and eggplants, is usually a condition known as blossom end rot (BER), sometimes referred to as tomato blossom end rot or tomato end rot.
Despite the name, blossom end rot is not a bacterial rot, nor is it a disease. It is a condition caused by a calcium deficiency in the plant when the fruit is forming and will often resolve itself as additional fruit begins to set. Calcium is the nutrient necessary for forming the skin of the fruit. Deformity results when the plant is unable to deliver the necessary calcium at the crucial phase of growth.
How to Identify Blossom End Rot
The first sign is a light brown discoloration near the bottom of the fruit. These spots grow and darken until they cover up to half of the tomato, and the rotting fruit becomes vulnerable to secondary bacteria and fungi. Your tomatoes will be turning black/brown on the bottom, with dark sunken craters forming—it will look like they are rotting on the vine.
What Causes Blossom End Rot
Although calcium deficiency is what causes blossom end rot, it is fairly rare for this to be caused by soil that is lacking in calcium. Instead, it results when various environmental conditions prevent the plant from taking up and transporting the necessary calcium. Although it is sometimes recommended that you add calcium to amend the soil, in most cases the soil already has plenty of calcium in it.
In precise terms, there are two reasons for blossom end rot:
- The plant grows so fast that it is unable to take up sufficient amounts of calcium to keep up with the fruit development.
- Stress factors render the plant unable to process the calcium the plant does take up from the soil.
These two causes are most commonly due to insufficient watering, particularly with container gardening. If the soil gets too dry, the plant doesn't get the calcium it needs to produce healthy fruit. At the same time, if the plant gets too much moisture, the same thing can happen. This often occurs when overeager gardeners water their tomatoes too frequently.
Blossom end rot can also be the result of over-fertilization during early fruiting. This, too, is often the result of an overeager gardener making a mistake through good intentions.
How to Treat Blossom End Rot
If you're growing indeterminate tomatoes (those that set fruit all season) and you have a few tomatoes with blossom end rot, it doesn't mean that all your tomatoes will be affected. Even without treatment, most of your later season tomatoes will likely be fine.
If you have tomatoes with blossom end rot on your plants, remove the damaged tomatoes—they'll keep growing and use the plant's energy, which is better put to use producing new rot-free fruit.
Prune away the affected tomatoes. Even though the tomatoes are turning black on their bottoms, blossom end rot does not spoil the entire fruit. It is fine to cut away the affected portion of a tomato and eat the rest.
Your best bet for treating blossom end rot is to adjust your watering to make sure you are using good watering practices. Don't let your tomato plants dry out; keep the soil moist, but not wet. Water your plants at ground level and avoid overhead watering as this can invite soil-borne disease that weakens the overall plant and affects both growth and yield.
How to Prevent Blossom End Rot
While adjusting feeding and watering rates to levels that encourage steady, moderate growth of the plant can somewhat reduce the occurrence of blossom end rot, it is difficult if not impossible to prevent it entirely, since garden conditions are so variable. There are several ways to prevent blossom end rot from happening in the first place.
- Plant tomatoes in the right soil. Soil that is well-drained and adequately amended with organic material, such as compost or peat moss, makes it easier for the roots to take up the crucial calcium as the fruit is just developing.
- Test soil pH. Most vegetables do well in soil with pH levels of 6.2 to 6.8, but vegetables prone to blossom end rot need a pH level of at least 6.5, which frees up more calcium in the soil. If a soil test indicates a pH level that is too low (too acidic), take measures to raise the pH level. Working fast-acting agricultural lime into the top 12 inches of soil is a good way to do this.
- Plant at the right time. Gardeners that are too eager often put their tomatoes in the ground when the soil is still too cold for the roots to adequately develop. This again deprives the plant of calcium at the critical growth period. If you are growing seedlings, harden them off slowly with gradually increasing periods of outdoor exposure before subjecting them to soil conditions.
- Don't over-fertilize, especially with a high-nitrogen fertilizer. This accelerates the development of leaves and diverts energy away from fruit development.
- Don't under-fertilize. Tomatoes are heavy feeders, and potting soil, unless it is pre-fertilized, doesn't provide all the nutrients tomatoes need.
- Lay mulch on the soil around tomatoes. This can help retain moisture in the soil, allowing for a steadier growth rate that makes blossom end rot less likely to occur.
- Use a calcium spray solution. Commercial calcium spray products applied directly to the plants two or three times a week when the blossoms first appear may supply tomatoes with the calcium they need. However, this effectiveness of this treatment is limited.
- Add epsom salts at planting time. Dig a fairly deep hole and remove the seed leaves and lowest leaves of the plant. Tomatoes need to be planted deep with about a third of the plant buried in soil. Mix 1-2 tablespoons of epsom salts into the soil used to fill the planting hole. This allows the plant to establish a good root system with early uptake of nutrients for consistent growth.
Adding Calcium to the Soil
Although calcium deficiency in soil is rare, it does sometimes occur. Adding crushed eggshells, limestone, or calcium carbonate to the soil is worth trying if blossom end rot persists after other methods have failed. Additional calcium won't hurt plants and, in some cases, may reduce the occurrence of blossom end rot.
Problems in an Earth Box
Blossom end rot sometimes occurs even in tomatoes grown in the popular EarthBoxes, which allow for consistent supplies of water and just the right amount of fertilizer and dolomite.
What Is an EarthBox?
The EarthBox® Gardening System is planter with a built-in irrigation system. Marketed as a container garden for fruits, vegetables, and herbs, it has an aeration system and a water reservoir that allow it to self-water.
Normally, this supply of water, fertilizer, and dolomite should provide all the calcium the plants need, but in an EarthBox, blossom end rot is probably caused by unusually rapid growth—the plant can't take in enough calcium quickly enough. For those who experience blossom end rot in an EarthBox, mix 1/4 cup of lime with one gallon of water, and pour it into the reservoir. Do this only once—it should fix the problem.
Prevent Blossom End Rot in Tomatoes. University of Georgia Tattnall County Extension