Tomatoes: leaf problems

Although easy to grow and very rewarding, tomatoes can suffer from a range of leaf problems, many of which are easily preventable.

Save to My scrapbook
Tomato leaf showing magnesium deficiency. Credit:RHS/Tim Sandall.

Quick facts

Plants affected: Tomatoes
Main causes: Imbalances of temperature or nutrient deficiencies
Timing: Summer

What is the problem?

Inappropriate levels of water, light, temperature and nutrients can all cause problems with the leaves of tomato plants. These are physiological disorders - problems that are caused by the growing conditions rather than by pests or diseases.

Some pests and diseases, described in the advice pages on the links below, can also cause leaf problems in tomatoes:

Tomato viruses
Tomato blight
Aphids
Tomato leaf mould
Glasshouse red spider mite
Glasshouse whitefly

Symptoms and causes

Curling leaves

This is usually caused by variable temperatures at night, or aphid attack.

Twisted and distorted leaves, often with a much reduced leaf area

This is often caused by hormone weedkiller contamination, but other cases may be caused by tomato viruses. See our advice on tomato viruses for further information. Mild cases may be caused by variable light and temperature conditions.

Purple or yellow areas between the veins of older leaves

This is often caused by a lack of nutrients, usually magnesium deficiency. When present only in the older leaves, there is no cause for concern.

Lumps and nodules appear on the foliage

This occurs when the plant contains more water than it can use, resulting in swollen water-filled areas on the leaves. This is called oedema and results from excess atmospheric humidity and/or too much moisture at the roots. Adjust watering and humidity accordingly to remedy the problem.

Biology

Tomatoes are particularly prone to what are known as physiological disorders: abnormal growth caused by non-infectious factors. This is partly due to the difficulty of controlling the sensitive requirements of tomatoes for temperature, nutrients and light levels. Outdoors, the plant is equally vulnerable to lack of warmth and variable temperatures.

Tomatoes need warmth and will not thrive at temperatures of below 12°C (54°F). Although it is easy in summer to keep temperatures raised in glasshouses, outdoor tomatoes may still require fleece or other additional protection.

In early summer, the nights can be cold and the days very warm. This fluctuation of temperatures is the main cause of what can sometimes be a very alarming degree of leaf curling. The plant is unable to cope with the accumulation of carbohydrates that occurs if nights are too cold for plant physiological functions to occur normally. Fortunately this does not seem to be a serious cause of loss of crop and usually disappears of its own accord as the nights begin to get warmer in late summer.

Small greenhouses and polythene tunnels used by home growers are much more liable to fluctuating conditions than larger greenhouses.

Mottling and discolouration of older leaves usually indicates a deficiency of nutrients, especially magnesium, and is a less serious problem providing the plant is otherwise vigorous.

Tomatoes are particularly sensitive to hormone weedkillers. Even the vapour emitted from loosely-capped bottles, or bags of lawn ‘feed and weed’, is sufficient to cause damage, especially under hot conditions. If this problem is suspected, remove all sources from the vicinity and if hormone weedkillers were the cause, the plants will produce new, normal growth. If symptoms persist the weedkiller residues may be in the compost (from contaminated manure or composted green waste) or the problem could be caused by virus. These two possible causes of distorted foliage are otherwise very difficult to distinguish without specialised tests for viruses.

Control

Non-chemical control

Control temperature and sunlight levels carefully to avoid extremes, using combinations of heating, ventilation and white greenhouse paint as appropriate. A maximum-minimum thermometer is a very useful tool in managing temperature levels in greenhouses.

Avoid erratic watering and if plants do become too dry, do not flood them, but bring the soil moisture level back up again gradually. If oedema occurs, do not remove the damaged leaves, as they are needed to shed surplus moisture.

Do not store hormone weedkillers or lawn ‘weed and feed’ products in the greenhouse. Avoid bringing tomatoes into contact with lawn clippings (e.g. in garden compost) if the lawn has recently been treated.

Chemical control

Pesticides are not required to treat physiological problems as no pest or disease is involved. There is therefore no chemical control.

Gardeners' calendar

Find out what to do this month with our gardeners' calendar

Advice from the RHS

You may also like

Get involved

The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.