Gardening

Ugly Tomatoes

Cat-facing on a heritage Beefsteak tomato: ‘Big Beef’. Photo: MJ Guilbault

Question: There is something wrong with my tomatoes and I don’t know the cause, so I’ve sent you a photo. The plants appear healthy, so it’s probably a pest. Is this something you’ve seen before? If so, what should I do?

MJ Guilbault

Answer: This is a condition called cat-facing because the deformity is sometimes said to resemble a cat’s face … something I would certainly take umbrage with if I were a cat! It’s a physiological condition, not a transmissible disease nor are insects usually involved, although fruit damaged by insects can sometimes develop similar scar tissue.

Dimples, lines of scar tissue… yep, it’s cat-facing! Photo: http://www.eatortoss.com

The problem occurs when the fruit is inadequately pollinated. This causes parts of the fruit to develop more quickly than the rest, leading to dimpling and cracking and that results in scar tissue. Often the damage originates at the blossom end of the fruit. Subsequently, however, diseases or insects can take up residence in the openings, giving the impression that they are the cause.

Cat-facing is generally linked to abnormal temperatures, either too hot or too cold, both of which prevent normal pollination. When temperatures above 86 ° F (30 ° C) or below over 55 ° F (13 ° C) occur just as the flower is opening and ready for pollination, that can lead to pollen that sticks poorly to the stigma. That’s one reason cat-facing often seems it to appear a few weeks after a cold spell or a major heat wave.

Other factors involved are irregular watering and excessive nitrogen-rich fertilizer (one where the first of the three numbers on the fertilizer label is greater than the others).

Note that the cat face is generally limited to extra-large tomatoes, especially Beefsteak, and to heirloom varieties. It is rarely seen in cherry tomatoes or modern tomatoes of more modest size.

Yes, You Can Eat Ugly Tomatoes

Yes, you can eat this tomato…. but I suggest removing the scar tissue first. Photo: photos.hgtv.com

Fruits suffering from cat-facing remain edible and tasty: you just have to remove the scar tissue with a knife, which adds a bit of extra work to their preparation. Ugly tomatoes have little market value, though.

Prevention

This problem is most easily avoided by choosing varieties that are resistant to it … and that would include most tomatoes other than Beefsteak tomatoes and some of the heritage varieties, so you have plenty of choice. 

If big, beefy tomatoes are your thing, though, one way you can help reduce the problem is by delaying planting tomatoes outdoors in the spring until the soil and air are warmer: over 55 ° F (13 ° C).

There isn’t much you can do about extreme summer heat, other than to mulch. Mulch helps keep the soil cooler and therefore tomato roots as well.

Mulch also helps keep soil more evenly moist and that also helps prevent cat-facing. It further helps if you don’t wait until the leaves wilt before watering and, when you do water, if you water thoroughly. Quick, shallowing watering will only make things worse.

You can pollinate tomato flowers with your electric toothbrush. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

Finally, anything that will help ensure thorough pollination will be useful. For example, you can also plant a wide range of pollinator-friendly flowers near your tomatoes or pollinate the tomato flowers yourself with an electric toothbrush if you’re not seeing a lot of bumblebee action. And likewise avoid the use of insecticides that are harmful to bees and other pollinators.


Cat-facing: it’s easy to avoid … unless you just can’t live without those huge Beefsteak tomatoes!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. After studies at the University of Toronto and Laval University where he obtained his B.A. in modern languages in 1978, he succeeded in combining his language skills with his passion for gardening in a novel career as a garden writer and lecturer. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He is a regular contributor to and horticultural consultant for Fleurs, Plantes, Jardins garden magazine and has written for many other garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening, Rebecca’s Garden and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 50 other titles in English and French. He can be seen in Quebec on French-language television and was notably a regular collaborator for 7 years on the TV shows Fleurs et Jardins and Salut Bonjour Weekend. He is the President of the Garden Writers Association Foundation and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. An avid proponent of garden tourism, he has lead garden tours throughout Canada and to the gardens of over 30 countries over the last 30 years. He presently resides in Quebec City, Quebec.

1 comment on “Ugly Tomatoes

  1. Cat face happens to be an arboricultural term as well. It refers to angular cavities on trunks, often near the ground, but distinct from common triangular basal cavities. They are common on madrones.

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