Tomatoes won't blossom :(

BrittB(6)July 7, 2011

This is my first year as a successful gardener... and by that I mean less than 50% of what I planted died, lol. This year I grew about 30 tomato plants from seeds, which I thought was an amazing accomplishment since my mom can't even do that and she's like a gardening goddess. I gave half to her, and the rest remain with me. I started them in early March, so most of them are pretty big. They're all in large pots since I live in an apartment and don't have enough room in the ground. I've babied these things so much to make sure they survived. I've given them good soil, fertilizer specific to tomatoes, and just enough water to keep them from getting droopy. Yet after all this time they haven't produced one bloom. None of them. I work at Lowe's in the garden center and I see these little tiny tomato plants half dead and half the size with tomatoes already on them - what gives?

Today I pruned them lightly. I took off 2 arms off each one, hoping maybe a little stress might encourage them. Their water, like I said, is just enough to keep them from getting wilted and I dare not give them any less with how hot it's been and since the air conditioner units outside blow even more hot air onto them.

My mom says that her grandmother used to actually whip them lightly with a switch or wire, or anything about that size, but I'm just afraid it would damage them too much, and I don't know if that's true or just an old farmer's myth.

Please help! I would actually like to enjoy the fruit of my labor this season!

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Okiedawn OK Zone 7


The heat is the problem. Although the exact temperatures that impede pollination and fertilization can vary slightly from one variety to another, the danger zone is generally high temps above roughly 92 to 95 degrees and/or low temps above roughly 72 to 75 degrees. Once the temperatures are in that range, more often than not, blossoms fail to fertilize and fall off the plants without setting a tomato. This is a problem commonly referred to as 'blossom drop' and you also can have blossom drop when low temperatures are 55 degrees or colder. In Oklahoma most years, we have a fairly narrow window of opportunity when low temps are above 55 and below 72. So, it is especially important to get your plants started early so they are blooming during that time frame. The 'blossom drop' heat effect is most common on varieties that produce large slicing or beefsteak types and less common on varieties that produce bite-size tomatoes, whether the bite-sized types are shaped like cherries, pears, plums, grapes or currants.

There are a few varieties bred to produce fruit at slightly higher temperatures, including Heatwave, Sunmaster, Sunleaper, Heat Wave II and Merced (which was great but was dropped from the market several years ago). Unfortunately even these heat-setting types often won't set fruits when high temps are as high as ours are now.

As for why the tiny tomato plants in the store have fruit, it could be they have been kept somewhat cooler than the ambient outside air temps, or sometimes a plant that is really stressed will set fruit as a defense mechanism---attempting to set seed to perpetuate itself before it dies.

That doesn't mean you won't get fruit. All you need is one day when the temperatures fall into the right range at the same time you have blossoms producing viable pollen.

Heat and high humidity can make pollen 'sticky' so that it fails to move around inside the flower and achieve fertilization, so you can employ any sort of method to shake up that pollen a little, from thumping each individual blossom with your finger to gently shaking a limb or the whole plant. Just don't shake or thump anything so hard that you're knocking the flowers off by force or breaking limbs on the plant.

Removing limbs likely won't help and could hurt. Every leaf on a plant conducts photosynthesis, and you need for photosynthesis to occur and continue occurring to keep your plants healthy and growing. Also, if fruits do set, you need the leaves to protect them from sunscald.

Be sure you aren't feeding the plants too much nitrogen especially early in their life because it can slow down their flowering cycle.

I'm about 120 miles south of you in far southcentral OK and I started my seeds about a month before you this year. I got great fruit set very early---probably in the last two weeks of March and first two or three weeks in April before it got too hot here. Had I started my seeds as late as you did, I likely wouldn't have had many fruit because it got hot so early here this year.

In a normal year, there's really nothing wrong with someone in your part of the state starting seeds in early March and transplanting the plants into the ground in early to mid-April, but this year we went from 'too cold' to 'too hot' so very quickly that tomatoes have struggled to set fruit. Seems like that happened last year too.

If I were you, and I wanted to raise plants from seed next year, I'd start the seed the last week in Jan. or the first week in Feb. and try to get the transplants into the pots by mid- through late-March. Your goal should be to have plants that are large enough to start flowering in mid-April because that increases your chance of getting good fruit set. In a normal year, we usually are able to get good fruit set at least through the end of June, but this year we were having July-type temps in May and August-type temps in June, so our tomato plants are paying the price.

Don't give up on your plants. Just try to keep them happy and healthy and hope for a cool spell that will drop temps enough to allow fruit set.

Next year, to help improve your chance, be sure you select tomato varieties with DTMs of less than 75-78 days. One of my favorites for early production is a Burpee variety (you have to order it from them) called 4th of July. They named it with the intention being that the average grower in the USA could get fruit from it by the 4th of July if they transplant at or shortly after their average frost date. In zone 7 here in Oklahoma, if you put it into the ground in earliest April, you often will have ripe fruit from it by Memorial Day. Some other early varieties that tend to set fruit pretty early here include Cluster Goliath, Glacier, Sophie's Choice, Mountain Princess, Husky Red Cherry and Black Cherry. Early Girl is never early for me so I don't plant it as a early. For me it is great for late summer and early fall tomatoes.


    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 5:20PM
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Dawn has covered the issue very well. The one question I have is you say you haven't had one bloom. I can understand you not having any fruit set. But if your plants aren't producing any blooms I don't understand that. My plants will bloom during the extreme heat. They just don't set many if any most of the time. If you actually have no blooms I would like to know what you are fertilizing and feeding them with. If it was me and they weren't producing any blooms I would get a good blooming rooting foliar feed. There are several mentioned on another thread on this site.Make sure the middle number(P) is high. I like a Fertilome product because the middle number is high and the N number is lower. There are several more good ones out there. I use it as a transplant feed also. And almost all of my plants are producing lots of blooms. Hope you have a good harvest. I really watch what I fertilize with. Too much N and you get lots of pretty foliage and little if any blooms and fruit set. Jay

    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 6:45PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Jay, That's a good point.

Britt, I forgot to ask if the plants are getting at least 6 to 8 hours a day of sunlight now.

I still think the issue is mostly heat-related, though Jay's point about whether you are ever getting any blooms at all is an excellent one, but now what I'm wondering is if they are too shaded to set blooms.

Jay, I have to add that during the last two weeks I have some plants that haven't set a single bloom since the temps cranked up over 100 virtually non-stop. Some other plants have plenty of flowers, and it is mostly the bite-sized ones with flowers and anything that produces larger fruit isn't flowering at this point.

I have a lovely collection of other blossoms--okra, lima bean, muskmelon, watermelon, squash, blackeyed pea, peppers, cucumber, etc. and of those, only the summer squash and southern peas are setting fruit well, and the okra and peppers are sporadically setting fruit. Lots of blossom drop of all kinds. We've hit 106 the last couple of days, and I feel like dropping too.


    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 6:59PM
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Before resorting to the switch I would tell them how dissapointed I am in them, how hard I have worked , how much I have sacrificed and how ungrateful they are. ( It helps to cry a little at this point.) If they don't straighten up cut off the cell phone and internet.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 9:57PM
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I forget what brand exactly, but the numbers were 4-10-6. It's a granular feed. Other than that they're in miracle grow potting soil. Upon closer inspection tonight I saw that ONE of the plants has a single bloom beginning to form, so yay for that!

They get morning and a little afternoon sun from 7am until 3pm.

Also, the variety of my tomatoes are quite diverse. This year I did Buck's County, Baxter Early Bush Cherry, Pink Grapefruit, Homesweet, Gardener's Delight, Hybrid Gold, Early girl, Chocolate Cherry, and Amana Orange. All of them from Hirt's Garden on Amazon - one of my favorite sellers of seeds. As to which ones grew, I can't say. Idiot me forgot to label them, haha.

I might mention that my strawberries lost all of their blooms and fruit, and one of them is dying all together. Same with my sweet peas - they just shriveled up no matter how much I watered or moved them out of the harsh sun. This damned drought is really taking a toll on my plants :(

    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 1:14AM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7


Sweet peas (whether you're talking about edible peas or the flowering type of sweet peas) are cool-season crops. I usually start seed inside in paper cups or at least pre-sprout the peas in baggies in mid-February, plant them into the garden in earliest March, am harvesting peas beginning in late April and continue harvesting until the heat burns up the plants, which most years is late May but sometimes not until mid-June. That's why your peas are giving you trouble--they are cool season plants being grown in the hot season.

Some of the tomato varieties you planted do not necessarily have a reputation of producing well in our hot climate, and that may be part of the problem. They ought to be getting enough sun from 7 p.m. to 3 p.m. that I wouldn't think the problem would be a lack of sunlight. Tomatoes in containers often will not produce as well as those in the ground once the severe heat arrives. Their roots can just bake in the hot sun and that stresses them. However, I think it is most likely that the issue is mainly just the high temperatures and if you can keep the plants alive and healthy through July and into August, then you should get fruit this fall if not before.

Congrats on the first flower! I hope it is on one of the cherry types so that you have a chance of getting a ripe tomato this month despite the very high temperatures.

Do not become discouraged. This is an especially difficult year because of the early onset of very high temperatures. For many of us, our daily highs have been running 10-15 degrees higher than normal for over 6 weeks now, and keep in mind that even when temps are normal, fruit set can be sporadic because even normal temperatures here at this time of year are pretty hot.


    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 8:44AM
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Well I'm glad it wasn't me doing something wrong. I am very grateful for all the advice :)

Last year I lived in Altus, OK and attempted this same feat. In Jan and Feb we were still recoverying from ice storms and an overall extremely harsh winter. I had to start my seeds indoors, in a closet with a heater-fan and grow light because the house was so cold. When they were finally big enough to go outside, it was already well in the 90s there, and there was absolutely no shade for them. After hand digging a large garden for them, the sun just cooked them all to a crisp. So needless to say, this year I am happy to just have my plants alive and well.

I believe the flower is on one of the cherry varieties. It's a thicker, broader leaf than the others which I've always known cherries to have.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 2:42PM
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Any suggestions for bloom boosters? I have a few days of high ninety temps next week and cool night temps. Might be cool enough for my tomatoes to set a few fruit.
My eggplants and peppers could really use it, too.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 6:32PM
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helenh(z6 SW MO)

Did you plant several different varieties? I have a couple that are not blooming and others that have lots of green fruit under the same conditions. In my case it is the variety not suited to my conditions I think. My Earl of Edgecombe has lovely dark green foliage and no fruit. Mule Team is loaded with fruit. With all in pots you are depending on your soil less mix. Something could easily be out of balance. But I think Dawn is right about the heat. It is always hot in July , but June is usually a good growing month up here. This is a hard year in my garden.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 7:27PM
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I'm right in the center of the state, between Shawnee and Norman. In spite of what the climate has been doing, I've (finally) started getting a lot of bloom on my plants. It seems to be a lot later than last year, and I'm just now getting fruit to set. The Sweet 100 cherry toms seem to be doing a lot better than the big ones. The plants look good, but the setting crop is not at all what it normally is.

I never hold back the water on tomatoes. Keep in mind that they can be grown hydroponically. It's pretty hard to over-water them, so mine get a good deep soak every couple of days. Even though they have a good layer of mulch, they begin to get pretty droopy if I let it go any longer than that. Growing them in pots is even more critical. It doesn't take any time at all for the pots to heat up and dry out if they get any sunlight in this kind of heat, and the plastic pots are infinitely worse than clay ones for building a terrific amount of heat inside.

I automatically put in tomato fertilizer spikes when the plants go in the ground, and have found that they always seem to do a good job. The plants seem to be much more vigorous and productive than they are without them. It wouldn't be reasonable to do that with a large number of plants, but it works for my smaller garden.

Some of the reasons you may be seeing fruit setting on those pitiful plants in a nursery are more controlled climate (water, the pots are stacked in so closely that the roots are shaded so they don't get too hot, etc) and the fact that they have most probably been fed with something like Bloom for blossom and root development. It's a pretty standard practice for the big commercial vendors, and an indication is always when you turn the tiny pots over and see that they are already becoming seriously root-bound. Even when they are struggling to survive, the plants are putting all their energy into growing roots and producing blossoms instead of lots of growth and foliage. The result is easy to see.

It's a bizarre year for the vegetable gardens, but if you've put the toms into good, big, deep pots and planted them deep originally so that they can build a solid root structure, and given them a drink of a diluted liquid high P fertilizer, then about all you can do is keep them watered, protect the pots so the roots don't get cooked in the heat, and cross your fingers that you'll have home-grown tomatoes for your dinner.


    Bookmark   July 9, 2011 at 1:34PM
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Is there anything I should do to protect the pots themselves from direct sunlight? Perhaps put a skirt of some weed fabric over them, maybe? The pots are dark colored, but they never feel overly hot when I touch them during the day. We sell some green colored weed fabric at work that might be better at deflecting the sunlight rather than the black.

I have moved the plants a couple of feet away from our air conditioner unit, it seemed to be making matters worse on them as our temps just keep rising. Looks like we have another high of 104 today... yay *sarcasm*

More of the tomatoes are finally forming some baby blooms, but now as the days get hotter, their foliage is getting worse. I know there isn't much I can do about it. It's not turning brown or anything, the leaves are starting to curl a little bit.

Here are some pictures of the bigger ones.

And then my smaller ones that I probably need to put in bigger pots now, lol

I hope the bigger ones are in big enough pots. They've doubled in size since I put them in there last month. Those were pots I got from work from a bunch of dead hibiscus trees we threw away, so they're rather good quality - almost like a resin plastic. The drainage hole is about two inches above the bottom, so they can hold a little extra water in there. I don't think I could afford to buy pots bigger than these, and I was able to get these free luckily.

    Bookmark   July 9, 2011 at 1:59PM
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Sometimes I don't do anything to keep my pots cooler. I painted a few white and that seems to help some. Now like this year I have plenty of straw bales so I will put a bale on each side and fill in between them with straw. Anything that will keep the roots a little cooler will help. The smaller the container the more I feel it helps. Ideally bigger containers are better. But being that is what you have they will work. Your production might be a little lower. I can't tell the size of the bigger containers for sure. Are they the ten gallon size? It might take a little more watering and feeding them to maintain growth and production. The smaller the container the faster they dry out. Glad to hear they are starting to form blooms. Not sure how many of my blooms will set in this heat. Jay

    Bookmark   July 9, 2011 at 2:52PM
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Is there a reason you couldn't just put them in that ground right behind where you took the picture?

    Bookmark   July 9, 2011 at 3:23PM
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I can't put the big ones in the ground because that ground is about 90% red clay. Everything that I qave turned into garden was already that way from an old lady that lived here before me. The flowerbed is taken up with lettuce right now, so I can't put the smaller ones in there. Not to mention I'm in an apartment so I have no real gardening tools. Just a shovel and a hand spade. I really don't have the strength to dig into the ground where they are setting. It's never watered and is hard as a rock. I wouldn't dare put them in the ground there after all I've done to take care of them.

The big ones are in 5 gallon pots. I might try painting them white - hadn't thought of that before.

    Bookmark   July 9, 2011 at 4:37PM
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