I started about 20 tomatoes for my friends and myself. With our long cold springs, starting them indoors is our only hope of a crop. Last year, I only tried to grow 3 tomatoes for myself which I put in a new bed and they were a total loss. A gardener friend said she thought it was root burn, and since I'd added horse manure that hadn't decomposed as much as I'd expected, I was prepared to accept that.
However, this year the problem has affected all my tomato seedlings, usually starting when they're about to produce their 2nd or 3rd true leaves. I started them in my own soil mix with just enough sterile commercial "dirt" on top to stop damping off. My soil mix is calibrated by the "that looks like enough" method. To fairly well rotted horse manure, I add some soil, perlite, vermiculite, coir, wood ash, year old chicken shit from the brooder(ie mixed with wood shavings) and greensand. I stir it up as best possible in a wheelbarrow and download it to buckets. I'm thinking that I may be too generous with the wood ash, or possibly despite it's age, there really is too much nitrogen. Before I put the dirt into a paper pot, I normally add a little egg shell so lack of calcium shouldn't be a problem.
Your tomato plants appear to be suffering from excessive nitrogen & other fertilizer (chicken & horse manure) and possibly also not enough light. From your description, it sounded to me like horse manure was the base (largest percent of ingredients) that other parts were added to. Using your listed ingredients, my suggestion would be equal parts soil, perlite, vermiculite, coir, and plant the seeds in that. Seeds contain all the nutrition they need to germinate and sprout, they only need water. Once the seeds germinate and start growing their first set or two of leaves, add a light dressing of the well rotted horse manure to the surface of the soil. My suspicion of what happened is a case of trying to provide the best you can for your plants but inadvertently overdoing it.
"Study books and observe nature; if they do not agree, throw away the books." ~ William A. Albrecht
Some of your plants don't look so bad. Im guessing your suffering from a combination of things, the main one being acidity. Wood ash is extremely alkaline, and 1/2 teaspoon per gallon of water is more then enough to buffer pH, doing just a normal watering, assuming you even needed a bump. Then your eggshells have a pH buffering ability too, so besides calcium you get more alkalinity. Tomatoes like to be slightly on the acid side, I prefer to keep them around 6 pH. You need to test your soil, and know with certainty what your doing. Test for pH now, and in the future, you can run nutrient test too. So you know if you need extra calcium. Yes extra light can help, you may have a light issue, with that one photo in particular, lets call that plant Curly...lol! Proper moisture can help too, verses improper moisture exasporating pH and or salt accumulation problems. Speaking of salt accumulation, most waters have alkaline minerals which build up, cause salt accumulation and salt burn, on top of additionally increasing alkalinity. Reverse osmosis water or rain catchment is critical to avoid salt accumulation in potted plants.
Its not to late to get your soil right, and salvage what you have thats still looking half decent.. The plants without much issues should just be given some really good aerobic worm casting tea. That should hold them over till up potting or transplanting outside.
My advice for the future. 1, Don’t mix wood chips into your soil mix. 2, use as many of those soil ingredients as possible to feedcomposting worms; then use the worm casting only, with your coir, perlite, vermiculite and green sand. Then before planiting water your containers well with 1/2 teaspoon wood ash per gallon water for pH buffering of the coir. Wood ash has minerals, but you can use 1/2 teaspoon of sea 90 minerals per gallon of water, for a bioavail water soluble mineral boost when planting. Top dress with worm castings after planting.
You have wonderfully resources for worm food/bedding. Let the worms do the work for you. Compost down properly those maures, mix them in appropriate ratio once cooled, and use your eggshells or lime to zero pH. The saw chips make a respectable and reusable worm bet top dressing, and you have the best soil money can buy, with no issues at planting. Its nutrient rich and hassle free! If you wanna be creative and use some blood meal, bone meal, and kelp meal, when you mix your soil, well be ready to have your mind blown.
Some herbicides go right through horses and continue to work for years. If the horses ate hay or pasture treated with such herbicides that could cause extreme curling.
Western Montana gardener and botanist in zone 6a according to 2012 zone update.
Gardening on lakebed sediments with 7 inch silty clay loam topsoil, 7 inch clay accumulation layer underneath, have added sand in places.
I'd hazard a guess of too much nitrogen and not enough light. I also have to start toms off really early in order to get a crop and have to grow them in the GH at that. I use commercial potting mix when I start them off and never give any fertilizer until a week after I transplant them into three inch pots. Then it is only a dilute amount. They will go from three inch pots to either gallon pots or the final growing space depending on the weather and whether or not I can open the GH up and keep it warm enough at night. This year we've been blessed and I've opened my GH up about a week earlier than typical. Your toms look like they got too much N and are getting leggy looking for more light. Next year try using coir mixed with perlite or just straight coir, give them more light and feed sparingly with a dilute mix of your favorite fertilizer, whatever that may be.
One detal I missed before my first post was the progression of photos, that show the change, and thats a critical detal of fact which gives relevant information to deduction. Nitrogen burn from my experience doesn't twist and disfigure the plants like that. Nitrogen burn kills back roots and kills back the leaves, often starting at the edges, and working inwards. It turns the leaves brown and black, and as mentioned, typically starting at the tips in symptom on set. It can in many ways resemble salt burn depending on progression. PH can twist leaves, and if its not a severe pH issue, the twisted leaves will look like the pictures on the bottom half of you initial post, where the first set of leaves have a half twist. The only other thing you mentioned that may be relevant is the fact not all your horse manure was composted. Uncomposted manure can produce ammonia as it goes through the process of breakdown, and that ammonia could create effects that look like chemical damage, but ammonia isn't nitrogen burn, though some people call it the same thing. Personally I've never seen anything organic like hot manure, twist the leaves like that in your top picture. The closest thing to the extream curl in the first photo I've seen, does resemble herbicide damage as a previous poster had mentioned, and the sudden on set of symptoms would fit only if a introduction of exposer happened after germination. Is there anyway they could have caught over spraying, or been contaminated with herbicide between the photos where they don't look so bad, to the extreem curl? If the herbicide was in the soil, the symptoms would have been more obvious in photos taken prior to the extreem curl. And your photos from before they got bad suggest your pH was only mildly off. Yes pH could be altered by the introduction of ammoinia through break down of nitrites into nitrates, but I'm not familiar with the results of ammonia exposure to plants. To trouble shoot whats happening, and know for certian, it will take more information, and a willingness on your part to get to the bottom of things. Guesses, speculation, and assumptions, typically cause more problems then solutions especially in soil science, so following the scientific process is critical to a solution. Everyone has opinions, but only facts will solve the problem and create a actual solution.
My suggestion, gather factual information, not personal opinions. Follow the scientific process, and study up on relevant unknows, like results of ammonia exposure on tomatoes. If that doesn't fit your symptoms, test pH, and nitrogen levels to eliminate those factors as culprits or calculate potential contributions from those factors. Also it may be relevant to figure out if your lighting changed by increased cloud cover or a bulb going out, in the time frame between pictures where they look alright and the one with extreem curl. Different light levels can change symptom display, so if you had changing light levels, it may be an important factor to consider when comparing the symptoms of your plants, to various documented casses of conditions, while trouble shooting a diagnosis.
Thats my best suggestion at this point, and I apologize for missing the important details in your photo captions about progression of symptoms.
Thank you everyone for your posts:
James: You could be quite right – much of the soil available to me is heavily contaminated with invasive weeds which I’m trying to out-compete in situ and not inadvertently spread. The composted horse manure is relatively light and easy to work with. I’m not having any difficulty getting the seeds to germinate, but in the past when I used just potting soil, the seedlings just sat there and did nothing. Since using my own mix underneath seed starting soil, the plants have generally grown well and gotten large enough in their little paper pots that I could drop the pots right into holes in the garden. I’m generally only starting a small number of any particular plant, so not having to do multiple transplanting steps combined with not disturbing the roots when they go into the garden has balanced the up-front effort.
R. Steel: I think that you are correct and that I was too generous with the wood ash. I generally water seedlings with our house water which is a deep well, heavily mineralized and with lots of calcium – in other words, probably basic? I will switch to rain water for the tomatoes in particular. I’ve started kohlrabi, cabbage, and lettuces this spring which did well, but they were mostly started with last year’s bin of mixed soil and in retrospect I’m sure I added less ash.
The plants do get supplemental light. I’ve got 48” LED plant lights that run from 5:30 am to 10 am and again from 4 pm to 9:30 pm and which I raise out of the way during the day if it’s not too dull. Unless the break is an issue (could the plants think it’s two days?) the over-all hours of sunlight should be OK. On heavily overcast days I often push the timer override button and leave the lights on.
I admit I feel like a total failure in the composting business. My current compost bins are heavily shaded and don’t have a ready water source. The additions tend to come in fits and starts resulting in compost that sits there doing a very slow rot. Our farm tends to have too much nitrogen (chicken shit and fresh greens) and the only plentiful browns are wood chips or shavings. I have difficulty getting the moisture level correct consistently through it and don’t have a system set up where I can turn it by shovelling from one bin to the next. This results in compost which is high in residual woody material and probably still too high in nitrogen. Last year, I started using organic coffee sacks in the brooder in an effort to remove the wood shaving issue from composting. (Once out of the brooder, all our chickens are pastured so the field worms are responsible for processing the manure in situ.) The downside is that until those sacks break down there isn’t really any easy way in the current location to turn the pile. I try to use the fresh greens to attract the local worms but a warmer location would really help. Thus, the suggestion of using worm castings or worm tea isn’t easily available right away.
William: Herbicide residue is a fear, but my source of horse poop also uses it on her garden and she claims her plants have all been fine. The coffee sacks I’ve been using are supposed to be organic, but one can’t always be sure how good foreign controls are. Considering the tomatoes are doing very poorly, but cabbage and lettuce family crops have been happier, I’m thinking pH and nitrogen are probably larger issues.
Walt: I would sooooo…. like to have even a small greenhouse. In the short term, I’ve reseeded all the tomatoes using a commercial potting soil (which unfortunately has a slow release fertilizer in it – so much for my permaculture principles) because time is running out.
No one has suggested I’m dealing with some sort of disease process which is a relief. The soil I have mixed can still be used to top-dress plants that need a boost or are heavy feeders but I may still try to extend it with a low nitrogen acidic material. I have tended to think of tomatoes as heavy feeders, but maybe that is really only true once they start producing fruit. I will make more of an effort to move my compost to a warmer location and do more research on worms. I’ve tried to do some research on soil testing. (https://www.gardenmyths.com/soil-ph-testers-accurate/) Our soil has been highly disturbed over its short and long term history, so I’m not convinced any test will be accurate over a meter or two of distance so commercial testing isn’t a viable option. I will search the permie’s posts on the subject. I do think a good quality pH tester might help me, but I’ll need some sort of test for nitrogen that’s easy to repeat often as even within a single compost bin I suspect it varies considerably.
If your adding the wood chips to your compost in green brown ratio, thats fine with poultry manure, but horse manure already has the perfect mixture of greens and browns. There won't be enough greens in horse manure if you add many browns to it. The wood shavings or chips for poultry manure in appropriate green brown ratio is fine, just let it compost properly before use. If you use the woodchips for deep bedding method with poultry, and change it out every year. Then let it compost for an additional year to insure its ready ready for use in soil mix. If your unsure its ready, only use it as a top dressing on your gardens. It will be fine if you keep the woodchips on top, untill they break down. Try any type of tarp or vapor barrier, will help to keep moisture in your compost piles, if your compost is drying out. Also a shaded area may help keep it more moist in summer, especially if you bring it a little water. Watering compost can be important, and when its onthe extreem ens of being ready, composting worms will move on in by themselves. If tarping in summer, you can uncover the tarp in the wet season to let moisture in, or keep it tarped to stop to much moisture getting in.. Proper composting is important, and if you have enough material available, I would suggest composting in windrows. As it makes it easy, and lets you harvest from one finished end, while adding to the other. There are great composting videos on you tube, and DIY Gardener channel, even put together a Playlist about windrows for composting.
Keep up the good work my friend, hope I've helped in some small way!
There is *no* way the plants were exposed to any pesticide/herbicide after germination as they’ve been safely sitting on my window ledge. This is part of my confusion. Why do they look happy for the first week or so and then they start putting out these curly leaves. I could understand if the cotyledons looked fine, since they come from the seed, and the first true leaves were curly. Is it possible that even the first true leaves get most of their strength from the seed? I would believe that with a pea or bean, but a tomato seed is pretty small. If anything, tomato variety seems to be affecting my results. I’m not a tomato expert, but I have observed that the San Marzano and the Paul Robeson seemed to produce more normal leaves before succumbing to the problem than the Juliette’s or the Sasha’s. The photos are of different plants, not the same plant over time, and the group of 3 plants are much younger. That said I believe they are showing signs of the problem in just the last 2 days.
I agree in principle about taking the scientific approach, but that’s never easy with a really small sample size. I'm thinking I should take one Sasha's, remove the paper and most of the dirt and transplant it carefully into commercial potting soil. Take the second Sasha's and leave it in the paper pot, but tear the bottom off where the eggshell is that could be lowing the pH further, and put it in the potting soil. I already tried transplanting the San Marzano with its paper pot still in place. In the short term I’ll leave the Paul R. alone. That gives a slightly different treatment to each of 4 plants, but doesn’t control for variety. What do you think? To some extent, I don’t have much to lose. If it’s a disease problem and not a nutrient problem I need to figure that out and I’m not sure how.
What you described sounds like about the best scientific approach you'll be able to take, testing your seedlings, but keep in mind, simple test kits would be better and faster to determine whats happening. Also new seed starts under optimal conditions, may out grow and compete a older stunted seedling struggling with soil issues, even if you correct the soil issue asap. The stress can cause stunting that lingers. Can you afford a simple pH test kit or meter? Can you afford a more complex soil test kit that does pH and nitrogen levels? Better find some kits with good ratings and results, and get them. You may have better luck using those test kits to creat a new soil, or ballence out your current mix, that is within the appropriate guidelines. Rather then do controlled tests on your curling plants, just get them in soil that you know will work well. Even if you buy organic soil, its often partially uncomposted waist that needs adjusted pH wise anyway. If you run your experimental test, thats fine, but i would at least get some bottom heat, use some tested and adjusted soil, and start some new seedlings just in case. If you target your pH to be 6, you should do well with wiggle room on both sides. The organic soils I've used, have always been to acidic, and just need a thorough soaking with the 1/2 teaspoon wood ash per gallon water to hit the sweet spot. I always use fresh worm casting though, and those symbiotic bacterium and fungi will create there own pH around the plant roots. So it may be hard to duplicate my recipe without worm castings. I also use a 1/2 teaspoon epsom salts and 1/2 teaspoon sea 90 minerals per gallon water, and give them just a little bit to soak the top layer in the pot,, right after the ash water has drained off. Once your soil is set, and planted with bottom heat, your seedlings will be germinated in less then seven days, and should grow quickly. For soil mixes, i would use like 5 parts organic soil mix, 2 parts peat moss, 2 parts perlite, and one part fresh worm castings. If the mix wasn't for seedlings, I would measure out bone meal blood meal, and azomite appropriate to the volume of soil and mix that in to. After treating the soil with the ash water, and sea 90/ epsom mix, I would top dress all pot or seeds with worm castings. Sometimes once a week, acte6r they were developing normal leaves, I would give a dose of orchid food like a 30-10-10, which is a very dilute mixture of high nitrogen fertalizer. The reson I used orchid food is for one the high nitrogen ratio, and two, orchids cant handle high salt loads, so the mixture doesn't kill the probiotic organisms in the soil, if you do half the recomended mixture.
Im not sur if any of that is possible, but at least look into the test kits. PH is a huge factor if your starting out seeds that haven't established a symbiotic relationship with the soil, and soil that hasn't grown plants is often void of them. Which is why fresh worm casting are so valuable for seed starting in sterile commercial potting mix, or quickly made compost.
I got my pH meter for around 15 bucks on amazon. Some people have complained in reviews about it, but it works if you dont missuse it and follow the directions.
R.Steele - don't worry, I re-started 17 tomato seeds two days ago, but I've only got room for 12 of them to have bottom heat. Ones that germinate will get moved under the lights and then I can move the others to the heat. I've used all commercial products but I don't like to rely on them. This thread is to figure out what I did wrong so I don't screw up next year! I'm working on getting a suitable way of testing the pH, but that will take a bit more research. PH tester probes need to be cared for and tend not to last well - according to my spouse this is a known characteristic of them - so I don't want to buy garbage or even a good one if its probe can't be replaced easily. I've read a way of using a pool pH test to test soil and have a friend who has one not being used, so that will be the next step. I will set aside some of my problem soil for testing, and then I was going to add peat moss to the remaining soil in the bin as that should both lower the pH and suck up some nitrogen if there's too much there. I will save some of the altered soil for testing also.
This thread was also an effort to determine whether my problem is soil nutrition, soil contamination, or some sort of plant disease. I feel I need to confirm this to get myself on the right path. I'm notorious for not measuring ingredients (in the kitchen as well as the garden!) but I do when I determine it's critical. I may have to get some sort of "scale" be it weight or bucket size to improve my soil mixing.
Thank you for all your input.
The problem with my friend's pool test kit is that it only tests from about 6.6 to 9 on the pH scale. That said, the consensus above is that my soil mix was likely too basic, so using the test kit would help to confirm that.
First I took 3 jars and put about 1/4 cup of dirt in each:
Sample 1 - the soil that upset my tomatoes
Sample 2 - the above soil still in the bin with a good couple of liters of wet peat moss mixed in and left for a couple of days
Sample 3 - the commercial potting soil I used to re-seed my toms
Second I added ~1/2 cup of dehumidifier water to each jar, shook well, and let them sit and settle as best they would in 2 hours (perlite just doesn't settle).
Third, my friend arrived with her test kit. We tested the dehumidifier water and it was approximately neutral pH. The kit clearly was only going to give us a rough feeling, but we pressed on!
Sample 1 clearly showed as having high pH. No wonder tomatoes were upset, and no wonder the cabbage starts fared better.
Sample 2 seemed to still be slightly basic. It's clearly still over 7, but possibly less than 7.5, so the addition of peat moss has clearly improved the situation.
Sample 3 seemed to be close to neutral. A little addition of peat (very acid) or coir (slightly acid) would probably make tomatoes happier than using it straight. Adding egg shell would be a good idea if I was starting something like the cabbage. That said, if I omit ash completely from my soil mix, set up a better composting system for the horse manure to make sure it's really finished, and figure out some way to set up a functional vermi-composting system (in that small greenhouse I really want to get built!), I think that next year I will be more successful at mixing my own soil. I will also continue to look around for a pH test method that I feel I can have some confidence in.
In the meantime, two of my re-seeded tomatoes are starting to poke up 5 days after planting. It may be hard to get the plants as large as I'd like before they need to go in the ground with starting this late, but hopefully they'll do well this time around.
Than you all again for your input on my problem tomatoes. I'll post again if anything more significant takes place.
Aquarium stores used to sell a PH test that was the paper strips you tore off a piece, from a roll, and dipped it and watched the color. I'd also suggest trying soil out of your garden. Don't add anything. If say you'd need to add lime to lower the PH, then I'd add it into the garden. I've added a layer of mushroom soil between two layers of peat. I used two 12 ounce foam coffee cups, the inside cups had a hole in it that I poked with my pinkie, a few stones, an inch or so of peat as a filter, an inch or so of mushroom manure, and then filled up with peat. The mushroom manure is not as hot as the composted variety as it's been used to grow two batches of mushrooms. It's been steamed at least twice.
I use the doubled cups so that I can tell if I'm over watering. But when I do water I occasionally check for water in the bottom cup and pour that into the upper cup. That is essentially manure tea, which helps the nutrition in the upper layer of peat. But the roots go down into and thru the manure layer. By the time they're ready to set out the roots will be thru the hole in the upper cup and into any water in the lower cup.
I grow these on a window sill and even with the manure they're still leggy. But since I plant deep when I set them out I don't let the legginess bother me. Maybe if I took out the window screens they wouldn't be so leggy? I tried growing in trays with lights last year and was frustrated so only used the trays, without the lights this year. Of the three methods I'd say the foam cups are more reliable than either tray method. I think the foam is keeping the contents warmer than in the trays. I also think that the lights are causing evaporative cooling and that trays without lights stay cooler than the foam cup method. I admit that if I had use heaters under the trays I'd have been better off, but one heater pad isn't big enough for one tray and I had two trays.
Next year I should probably cut back on the varieties so that I can have enough sill space to use the foam cups again, no lights, no heat pads, just sunlight and the heat vent under the sill.
Try checking out the (Rapid Soil Test Kits) They require a measured soil sample, a measured amount of distilled water, then the provided capsule added to the mix. The pH range it measures is wide, and color on the chart will indicate pH. I belive they also have test kits for nitrogen. 10 bucks gets you a test kit with 20 capsules, which can conduct 20 individual soil pH tests, the price varies from there depending on how many capsules you want.
Jay - Don't lose hope in that batch of seedlings...mine looked like that (and worse) last spring. Badly curled and distorted foliage, and weird clumpy root emergence. Since I used a high proportion of screened compost in the starter trays I agree with the other replies on this thread pointing to overexposure to nutrients. The good news is that after I potted up and planted out those seedlings, they came right and grew normally. We got an excellent crop this year and we're still picking loads of tomatoes.
From now on I will be using mostly sand as my seedling starter.
I think I'd fill new containers with soil from the garden where you'll plant the tomatoes. I'd let it warm up for a day and transplant your seedlings into that soil. You should consider rinsing the roots, gently, maybe just immerse them in water and then into new pots. You can use the old seedling mix for a soil sample to use as a basis of what to do, and not do, next year. I'd consider a slurpy cup, or maybe a 32 oz drink cup. Plant them deep as I think the curly cue would do better as a root than as a stem. Picture that curly cue after it's a half inch, 3/4 inch in diameter.
Here's the next step in my experiment. These two tomato varieties are identical and they were both started at the same time. When the plants started showing symptoms I transplanted them both:
Left plant - I removed as much of the starter soil as possible and transplanted into a commercial potting soil with coir added to both decrease the pH and to lighten the mix.
Right plant - I removed the bottom of the paper pot which had eggshell in it, but did not disturb the roots by removing the soil, just put them in the pot with the commercial soil/coir mix around them.
In both cases, I planted them a deeply as the new pots allowed hoping that new roots would come off the stem into the new soil. This picture was taken 17/05/2018. On 18/05/2018, I transplanted them into two large planters. The one on the Left we transplanted as is. The one on the Right, I totally disturbed the roots, removing as much soil as possible, and spread the roots out into their new home and buried more of the stem.