One of the most common ‘problems’ I see growing tomatoes is wilted leaves. As a result, one of the most frequently asked questions I see regarding tomato plants is, “Why are my tomato plants wilting?“
So today, I will cover all of the most common causes of tomato leaves wilting, from environmental factors to diseases and pests. I will start with the most likely causes, and end with some less common culprits of the issue.
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1. Hot Weather
Living in New England, the weather varies greatly throughout my growing season. From unseasonably cold weather in May, to early heat waves in June. When an unexpected hot spell comes through, wilting leaves are common.
In especially hot weather, with temperatures above 90°F (32°C), tomato plant leaves will begin to wilt. One of the defense mechanisms that plants use is to droop their leaves. This reduces the surface area on which sunlight can fall.
The effect is a reduction in your tomato plant’s overall temperature, helping reduce stress and keep the plant healthy and strong through the hot weather. In a sense, wilted leaves is a good sign that the plant is reacting properly to hot weather.
While the solution may seem simple (wait for the weather to cool down), there are a few things I do for my tomatoes during especially hot weather.
- Move potted plants to partial shade. If your tomatoes are planted in containers, simply move them to a shaded location during a heat wave. Shade can help reduce your plant’s temperature significantly by decreasing the amount of solar radiation that is being absorbed. This is most effective during the hottest part of the day, usually between 2-4 PM.
- Spray with cool water. Running water is usually cold thanks to underground piping. While I don’t often recommend it, I do sometimes spritz my plant’s leaves with cold water to help cool them off in a pinch. Watering should always be done at the base of tomato plants, but if your plants are especially heat-stressed, a quick solution is a spritz of cold water on the foliage (just make sure it is clean!).
Wilting tomato leaves are highly common in the hottest months of the year. However, it is even more typical to see when your plants are in the hardening off stage.
Another very common cause of wilted tomato leaves is dry soil. In other words, your plant just needs a drink of water! Many plant varieties can be overly dramatic when underwatered, wilting their leaves to conserve their remaining water.
After a full drink of water, a thirsty tomato plant will perk back up within an hour or two. Although this is a simple fix, do not intentionally allow your plants to reach a wilted state between watering!
Try to water before wilting happens, as this cycle of dry soil to wet soil can lead to cracked tomatoes and even blossom end rot.
Remember, during hot weather, tomatoes (and other plants) use a lot more water than when it is cool. This is due to increased transpiration through the leaves. Be proactive if it is hot and water before wilting occurs.
If a simple drink of water doesn’t recover your wilted tomatoes, you may have to continue searching for a cause.
3. Improper Hardening Off
If you grow your tomatoes from seed like me, you’re probably starting them indoors to elongate the growing season. This means that at some point, your plants have to make the transition from inside to outside.
Tomatoes are very touchy when it comes to changes in light exposure, and rushing the move to outdoors can lead to sun scald and extreme leaf wilting. To avoid this, simply follow my guide to properly hardening off tomatoes >
Essentially, the goal is to slowly acclimate your indoor plants to the direct sunlight, wind, and precipitation. I always start this process on a cloudy day, or at least in a shaded spot. After 20-30 minutes of outdoors time, I’ll bring the plants back indoors and start again tomorrow.
After 2-3 days of cloudy weather, I’ll allow the plants to get some sun, just 15-20 minutes at first. Each day moving forward, the plants get an additional 20-30 minutes of sun until they are fully acclimated.
Tip: Never rush hardening off! It can be hard work moving plants in and out daily, but it will prevent sun scald and plant stress, leading to bigger, healthier plants in the long run.
4. Borer Insects
Insects that bore into the stems or fruits of tomatoes are known has “borers” and can devastate your plants. If your wilted tomato leaves are accompanied by small holes in the stems, this is likely the culprit.
Borers use your plant as a host to lay and feed their larvae. To help reduce the problem, mulch the base of your young tomato plants to prevent the insects from laying larvae in the lower branches. Once the plants are larger, the mulch can be removed or simply left for better water retention.
You can also remove insects from your plant by slitting the stems vertically and taking the bugs out. This is not a pleasant process, but it can prevent further damage by the insects.
There are also natural insecticides that can help reduce populations and make your tomatoes less attractive to borers. I spray my infested garden plants with a neem oil solution to smother the adult insects and interrupt the life cycle. This also help with aphids and other sap suckers.
5. Wilting Diseases
There are several diseases that can cause tomato foliage to wilt. These include Verticillium Wilt, Fusarium Wilt, and Southern Blight.
- Verticillium Wilt is a soil-borne pathogen that is common in temperate regions of the world. It is especially problematic if you water your plants improperly. I always recommend watering at the base of your tomato plants to avoid splashing soil onto the leaves.
- Fusarium Wilt causes wilting, but presents differently than other diseases. Infected plants will often show one-sided yellowing on the leaf branches. It can sometimes affect just one side of the entire plant as well.
- Southern blight is caused by a soil-borne fungus and can wipe out entire tomato plants. It is more common in hot weather, and tends to spread more slowly in the cooler autumn weather.
Tip: Plant disease resistant tomatoes to avoid these issues in the first place.
Any disease can be a major problem. I recommend identifying the very specific symptoms of your plant (aside from just wilting) to diagnose the problem. Many diseases are more common in certain regions, so take your location into account, too.
If you are having disease issues with your tomatoes, first make sure you have ruled out other potential causes. There is nothing worse than assuming you have a disease without confirming it!
Once you have confirmed the disease, it is usually best to discard the entire plant, as most pathogens can be transmitted between plants. Many diseases can also spread from tomatoes to other common garden crops, like peppers and squashes.
Tips for preventing disease in tomatoes:
- Prune sucker shoots. Pruning tomatoes is essential for consistently healthy plants. For indeterminate varieties, I always prune sucker shoots as soon as they are pluckable. For determinates, I typically leave them on to get the largest possible harvest. Learn more about pruning tomatoes here.
- Bottom prune. Regardless of the tomato type, bottom pruning is always beneficial. This process involves removing a few of the lowest branches from your tomatoes. I do this every year to prevent soil from splashing onto the plant foliage during rain or other types of irrigation.
- Mulch around base of plants. An additional step I like to take to avoid soil splashing is to mulch my tomato plants. This will dampen the fall of rain, and again help prevent soil-borne pathogens from getting onto the leaves. I use straw or grass clippings for a simple, cheap mulch.
- Improve airflow. Spores are everywhere, so it is impossible to prevent them from getting on your tomatoes. However, it is possible to make the environment less hospitable for the pathogens. Moist, stagnant air is usually the perfect breeding ground for pathogens, so try to avoid this around your tomato plants. Proper plant spacing along with pruning suckers and other unnecessary foliage is the easiest way to achieve good airflow.
- Plant disease-resistant varieties. Aside from proper plant care, you may simply wish to simplify the issue by planting disease-resistant tomato varieties. Take advantage of the many confirmed disease-resistant types of tomato. Breeders and scientists are always improving plant varieties to reduce these issues for commercial growers. Thankfully, we home gardeners can enjoy the benefits, too!
Diseased plants can be discouraging, especially after months of care. However, I always try to remain positive and look forward to how I’ll prevent the problem next year.
Will Wilted Tomato Plants Recover?
Since wilting can be caused by so many different factors, recovery will be dependent on the symptoms. The most common causes of wilting are environmental, so making simple changes can usually lead the plants back to health.
In short, wilted tomato plants usually recover, as the most common cause is underwatering or hot temperatures. However, wilting caused by disease will not recover and may lead to further wilting if not dealt with quickly.
If you are able to revive your wilted tomato plant, I recommend that you do your best to avoid letting it happen in the future. Wilted leaves, regardless of the cause, are a sign of plant stress. It is best to keep your tomatoes happy at all times!
I hope this article helped you find the reason for your tomato plants wilting. It is usually nothing serious, but in some cases you may need to take some action. Let me know if you have any additional questions below.