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Tomato Plant Wilting (Drooping) Causes and What to Do About It

From his early days, Brandon helped his grandmother in her garden. He has always been passionate about tomatoes.

Why Is My Tomato Plant Wilting and Drooping?

Tomato plants wilt and droop for many reasons—some are serious problems caused by disease, while others are absolutely nothing to worry about.

  • Transplanting: After transplanting a tomato plant, you may notice it start to droop. Give it a day or two, and the problem should resolve itself.
  • Too Much or Too Little Water: Another common reason for wilted leaves is a lack of water in the soil. But don't reflexively water whenever you notice wilted leaves, because overwatering is also a cause.
  • Pests or Disease: There are instances where drooping leaves result from pest attack or disease. It is important that you identify the cause and address the problem (see troubleshooting tips below). Resolving it quickly can help save your tomato plant and the plants around it.

This article will cover the main causes of wilting or drooping in tomato plants and help guide you to help your plants recover.

Drooping leaves on tomato plants are not always a cause for worry.

Drooping leaves on tomato plants are not always a cause for worry.

5 Main Causes for Wilted Tomato Leaves

Let's take a look at some of the common and not-so-common causes and their associated symptoms.

1. Sun Stress When Plants Have Not Been "Hardened"

Many people find their recently transplanted tomato plants to be droopy after their first day out in the sun, as mentioned. This is caused by sun-stress when you have not sufficiently hardened a tomato plant before placing it in direct sun. Hardening is basically the process of getting your plant used to the sun by placing the container in the sun for a few hours each day before transplanting. Please read my article on transplanting tomatoes for a detailed guide on the topic.

2. Root Damage During Transplanting

Another possibility would be because of root damage when they are transplanted. If you did not use the entire root bundle but instead dug up the plant from a growing container, some of the secondary roots were likely lost. The reduced root system means there's less capture area for water to get into the plant system. This problem will fix itself in a few days, but you should notice the plant getting better day-to-day.

3. Watering Inconsistencies

Another reason could be that after transplanting, you water with the same amount of water as you did before. The soil is likely drying out a lot quicker due to the heat of the sun and the outdoor environment. Your plant, therefore, does not have access to sufficient water.

  • Under-watering: If you notice a droop and thin, somewhat dry, and paper-like leaves, the droop is likely caused due to under-watering the plant. To confirm, check to see if the soil is dry one to two inches (5 cm) below the surface. If it is, then water the plant. Under-watering often happens if you are growing a new variety or planting in a new soil or environment. As long as you don't under-water too often, you should be fine and your tomato crop won't be harmed. Using your favorite kind of mulch helps retain moisture.
  • Over-watering: Your plants may also droop if there's too much water. In this case, the leaves would appear droopy but completely hydrated, not dry or paper-like. Check the soil: If it's wet to the touch even an inch or two below the surface, let it dry out.

4. Environmental Causes

It is well-known that growing tomatoes near black walnut trees or leaving them out during a frost will cause the leaves to wilt. In both circumstances, the plant may not grow very well, and it is best to avoid these two scenarios.

5. Pathhogens

Below, you will find a list of six possible pathogens to watch for.

How Often to Water Tomatoes

Watering your tomatoes is the most important task for several reasons. When you splash water onto the plant, you may create the perfect condition for pathogens. Inconsistent watering during the fruiting stage can cause ripening tomatoes to crack or blossom end rot. I have written a complete guide on watering tomatoes, for those interested.

Water Wilt

Six Types of Wilt Caused by Pathogens

When people talk about wilt, they are almost always referring to the symptom of a disease (either fungal, bacterial, or viral). You must identify whether your plant is wilting due to physiological conditions or due to a pathogen. If a pathogen causes the problem, it is almost always best to uproot the plant and dispose of it carefully to prevent the problem from spreading to your other plants.

Fusarium wilt often affects the lower branches of plants and trees first.

Fusarium wilt often affects the lower branches of plants and trees first.

1. Fusarium Wilt

Fusarium wilt is a soil-borne fungal infection that enters the plant's vascular system through the roots. It is seen in regions with warm and moist weather. As the fungus spreads and grows, it clogs the vascular system, blocking the flow of water to entire sections of the plant at a time—this lack of water results in the symptoms of yellowing leaves, stunted growth, and wilting.

What It Looks Like:

You will notice the lower leaves begin to turn yellow. Often, just one side of the plant or certain lower branches are affected first before it spreads, causing the death of the plant.

Cure:

Destroy the infected plant and do not compost it, as the fungus can remain dormant for a few years. If your soil is prone to fusarium wilt, you should opt for resistant plant varieties, which are marked with an F following the name on your seed pack.

2. Verticillium Wilt

Very similar to fusarium wilt, verticillium wilt does not kill the plant but reduces growth and production. This fungus prefers cool, moist environments.

What It Looks Like:

Typically seen towards the mid or end of the growing season, this pathogen makes itself known by causing V-shaped yellow discolorations on the lower leaves before it spreads throughout the plant. Plants that suffer from verticillium wilt often don't appear droopy in the evenings. Verticillium wilt begins on the lower leaves, and you will notice that the leaf wilts, which is not the case if it is a potassium deficiency.

Cure:

This fungus also lives in the soil and can be dormant without a host for a few years. If you know that your region is prone to this fungus, it is best to buy varieties of tomatoes that have a resistance (marked with the letter V).

3. Southern Blight

I have never come across this problem although it is common in South Carolina. I am adding information based on research on this fungal infection for the sake of completeness.

What It Looks Like:

During the early stages, it is difficult to differentiate between southern blight and verticillium wilt or fusarium wilt because the yellowing and the wilted leaves begin at the base of the plant. During the later stages, the plant collapses.

However, you can determine the fungus to be southern blight by looking for white hyphae or mycelia, which show as stingy, mold-like substances near the base of the stem, on the roots, and the soil surrounding the plant.

Cure:

There is no way to treat an infected plant. The Beaufort county center suggests that you rotate solanaceous crops on a three-year rotation if your soil is infected.

4. Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus (TSWV)

The name suggests that the virus only affects tomato plants, but that's not true. Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus can infect various species of plants across the globe. The virus is spread by different species of thrips, tiny insects that feed on the sap of plants.

The symptoms differ depending on the stage of growth of the tomato plant. Unfortunately, this can happen at any time, even during the fruiting stage.

What It Looks Like:

Unlike the other diseases we have seen up to this point, this virus affects the tips of the plant—that is, the parts that are actively growing. When it affects fruit, unripe or ripening, ring-shaped marks are seen.

The virus may cause just the tips of the plant to wilt or, in extreme cases, to die back. Leaves that do grow out on plants that are not too badly affected can turn brownish or bronze. They may even curl upwards. You should not assume all upward curls indicate this virus, though.

It is very easy to misjudge yellowing and brown spots on your tomato leaves. If you are not quite sure whether you are suffering from TSWV or something else, you should take a look at my article on yellow leaves on tomatoes.

Cure:

Unfortunately, there is no cure for the TSWV, but if your garden is prone to this problem, there are pollinator-safe pesticides that you can use. You should consult your local gardening organization for more information on what you can use. The good news is that this is not a soil-borne disease and you, therefore, can safely plant a new crop in the same spot the next year without having to worry about the virus affecting your new plants.

5. Bacterial Wilt and Canker

If you have been reading closely, you noticed that wilt wasn't the main symptom in the case of the fungal and viral infections described above. However, in the case of bacterial wilt, wilt is the predominant symptom, and there is no discoloration of the leaves. Here, the leaves remain green, with the tips of the plant wilting far more than the base before the plant eventually dies.

Common in regions with hot and humid conditions and soil with slightly elevated pH, the bacterium affects the plants' vascular system, just like the fusarium and verticillium wilt fungi. It can stay dormant in the soil for a few years, too.

What It Looks Like:

Determine whether your plant is infected with fusarium or verticillium wilt by cutting off the stem and looking for brown regions of fungal growth. I did not mention this earlier because these fungi affect the base of the plant first, and to do this, you would have to kill the plant.

But with bacterial wilt, you can chop off upper branches and place them in a glass of water. If you notice a white substance draining from the stem, you can be sure that it is infected by Ralsonia solanacearum bacteria.

Cure:

Unfortunately, there is no cure, and the bacteria can be dormant in the soil for years. The best thing to do is plant resistant varieties. Infected plants should be removed and destroyed (not composted).

6. Nematodes

Nematodes can be very damaging, and they can spread around your garden, move into your neighbor's garden, or come in from theirs to yours easily. They are worm-like and feed on tomato roots. They damage roots and cause knots and balls, thereby reducing or preventing the roots from taking up water and nutrients.

What It Looks Like:

Nematodes cause the plant to wilt during hot conditions. The plant may recover during the evenings, provided it still has some healthy roots.

Cure:

There is no cure. Resistant varieties are marked by the letter N.

Tomato plant roots damaged by nematodes.

Tomato plant roots damaged by nematodes.

It Is Possible to Overcome Tomato Wilt!

As described, you can only recover a tomato plant from wilt if the cause is environmental. When the plant wilts because of a pathogen, it is almost always necessary to uproot and destroy the plant.

However, if you learn that your garden is susceptible to a certain kind of pathogen, you can always buy resistant varieties marked by VFN. Most resistant varieties are hybrids, and this scares people. You should know that hybrids are not genetically modified, and you can, without worry, plant them in your garden. My article on hybrid vs. heirloom tomatoes explains the difference.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on June 07, 2020:

Haha. No problem, it’s worth a shot.

Brandon Lobo (author) on June 07, 2020:

Good luck, just so you know I have never tried it :)

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on June 07, 2020:

Thanks Brandon, I will give it a shot. Looks like neem oil is readily available at Home Depot.

Brandon Lobo (author) on June 07, 2020:

I've seen this before, I don't recall if it was in my own plants when I was younger or someone else's garden. I did some digging and neem oil seems to prevent them from completing their lifecycle.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on June 05, 2020:

Great article, Brandon. Glad I discovered you here. I am from western Mass but currently in Florida and trying to grow tomato plants here. I seem to have an issue with the leaves turning white. It's almost like a white vein that spreads and eventually takes over the lower leaves. I fear it is spreading . I Googled the problem and it looks like it might be leaf miners. I've never heard of this insect or had to deal with this in Massachusetts. Any idea how to deal with this?

Brandon Lobo (author) on June 05, 2020:

Hi Liz, I probably could. It would then not be as easily available to the public :) I wrote this piece around a fortnight ago just had to wait on the final read-through before publishing.

Liz Westwood from UK on June 05, 2020:

This is an amazingly detailed and helpful article. I consider you to be an expert on tomato plants and my go to source for information. You could write a book on the subject.

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