One year, our tomatoes were abundant. We over-planted, expecting the inevitable losses, but despite a wet early season, the plants took off. But even with our huge harvest, our tomatoes weren’t ideal. The wet weather left us with big, juicy, fruits but they were ugly and not much tastier than the grocery store variety. Our tomatoes had catfacing.
Catfaced tomatoes are difficult to use on sandwiches and antipasto plates. They don’t taste great and they look bad. You can’t sell them at the market and they’re prone to rot.
Our year of catfacing was definitely a minor disappointment. Now, I know how to turn a good tomato season into a great one – no catfacing, no matter the weather!
What is Catfacing?
It’s a weird term, but if you look at a catfaced tomato upside down, it all makes sense. Catfacing is a physiological disorder – meaning it’s a disordering of the body of the tomato.
Catfaced tomatoes have scarring at the flower end, and often more scarring along the sides. They’re misshapen, often with large, scarred folds or bumps. Instead of having a gently rounded form (occasionally with the few soft folds natural to many heirloom varieties) catfaced tomatoes are deeply grooved.
These misshapen fruits are often kidney or flower-shaped. Sometimes the stretched scar on the bottom looks like a yawning cat or a scowling gnome. Catfaced tomatoes often have deep holes in the fruit. They’re not pest holes. If you look closely you can see that there’s no exposed flesh. The fruit has simply grown in an extremely convoluted way.
Whatever the shape, catfaced tomatoes aren’t as attractive as they could be. They’re also culinarily problematic. All that tough, scar tissue isn’t tasty. You often have to cut away a lot of the fruit to use catfaced tomatoes in a recipe.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with eating a catfaced tomato. They often taste just as good as those pretty, round fruits. But catfaced tomatoes often ripen unevenly, which can make them only half-ripe when harvested.
They’re also almost impossible to sell at markets or stores – most people will choose a smooth, red tomato over a scarred, misshapen one any day.
Catfacing is different from blossom end rot. Head to our guide to learn more about it.
Causes of Catfacing on Tomatoes
My catfaced tomatoes were the result of a month of chilly, damp weather. July is usually a hot, sunny month – but in the early summer the rains and cool days lingered. Our beans and cabbages loved the cool weather, but the tomatoes suffered.
Here in Northern New England, the tomato season is short enough already. Last summer, I wasn’t sure there would be a season until the weather warmed up in late July.
Here are the most common causes of catfacing:
All that wet, cool weather is a perfect recipe for catfacing. Tomatoes are most likely to catface when temperatures dip below 50°F. If the plant has flowers during the cold snap, those tomatoes will catface. Longer cold spells, where the weather hovers below 60°F can also cause catfacing.
These cold spells are even more likely to cause misshapen fruits if the weather is wet. Over-watered tomato plants, consistently damp flowers, and cool weather create the perfect environment for catfacing.
2. Soil Conditions
You will also see catfacing on tomato plants when there are high nitrogen levels in the soil. Too much nitrogen makes it hard for the plant to focus on fruiting. Over-feeding nitrogen will give your tomato plants plenty of green leaves, but not enough support producing flowers and fruit.
This lack of flowering and fruiting support makes the plant stressed. Stressed tomato plants don’t produce the best fruit. Of course, tomatoes are heavy feeders. They love nitrogen-rich soil. But sometimes, in an effort to provide that rich soil, we go overboard. Remember to maintain a balance.
We all want our tomato plants to produce well, so when we see little suckers or excessive branching, we prune them back, right? Not always. A little pruning goes a long way.
If you over-prune your tomato plants, the plant gets stressed. It gets a little bit desperate to finally be putting out fruit. So, in the effort to just get it done before this branch is pruned too, the tomato puts out a substandard fruit.
While no one knows exactly why these conditions cause catfacing, it’s likely that stress on the plant during flowering is a major factor. All of these conditions cause the plant to rush the fruiting process. Catfaced tomatoes are the result.
Catfacing primarily happens with early tomatoes. The first fruits of the harvest are the most at risk for deformity. But in a cool season, or in a nitrogen-heavy bed, catfacing can continue throughout the growing season.
Since catfacing is caused by certain stressors on the plant, we prevent it by reducing those stressors. Start by delaying transplanting.
1. Plant at the Right Time
If you’re anything like me, the first hot spring days have you longing to pop all your seedlings out into the garden. But wait! Just because the daytime temperature is over 70°F, doesn’t mean the nights will be warm. Or that tomorrow will continue the trend.
Wait until the days and nights are consistently warm (ideally over 60°F at night). Then you can safely plant. Of course, you may run into a surprising cold spell later. If you do, cover your plants with blankets to help them retain some of the earth’s heat through the night.
2. Balance Your Soil
It’s always a good idea to test your soil before planting. You may discover some major imbalances that will lead to unhealthy, low-producing plants. So test that soil, then correct it, before putting your tomatoes in the ground.
Make sure that, along with nitrogen, your plants have phosphorous, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Healthy tomatoes need a balanced diet. You can find fertilizers made specifically for tomatoes to help you find the right balance, like this one from Miracle-Gro.
Pruning tomatoes is an essential part of raising healthy plants. But sometimes we overdo it. One thing to remember while pruning your tomatoes is that this plant has the potential to grow big. Trellis your tomatoes well and then slightly under-prune them to keep the plant growing tall and strong.
When it comes to flowers, prune away merged tomato flowers if you want to reduce catfacing. I don’t prune merged flowers, but then, I don’t mind a bit of catfacing either.
Merged blossoms will almost always produce catfaced fruit. This is because the connected blooms start forming connected fruits. So if you’re 100% against catfaced tomatoes, pluck off those blossoms before they produce ugly fruit.
Heirlooms, Hybrids, and Resistant Varieties
I’m a big fan of heirloom tomatoes. They taste amazing and they look pretty cool too. My garden is full of ‘Brandywines,’ ‘Black Krims,’ and ‘Cosmonaut Volkovs.’ But when it comes to catfacing, heirlooms aren’t always the best option.
Heirloom tomatoes often have a knobbly, grooved profile as it is, so when the conditions are right for catfacing, they can deform quickly.
If you’re fighting consistent catfacing in your garden, skip the heirlooms for a while. You can always go back to heirloom varieties next year. But, if you have the option of putting a few cold climate heirlooms in the garden go for it.
“Cold weather’’ heirlooms, developed in northern climates, are often somewhat resistant to catfacing. I’ve never had catfacing issues with the ‘Cosmonaut Volkov’ variety from Ukraine. The ‘Grushovka’ and ‘Sasha’ tomatoes from Siberia are also heirlooms with resistance to catfacing.
Tomato hybrids are often more resistant to catfacing than heirlooms, with a few exceptions. Large, beefsteak tomatoes catface very easily. “Big Boy” and “Better Boy” tomatoes have a tendency to catface in the right conditions.
The bigger a hybrid is bred to be, the more likely it is to have issues catfacing. Cherry, grape, and Roma tomatoes rarely catface. Smaller varieties and saucing tomatoes are naturally resistant to catfacing. But there are a few larger hybrids that are resistant to catfacing.
If you want to plant a low-stress garden of resistant hybrids, try planting ‘Walter,’ ‘Duke,’ and ‘Floradade.’ ‘Walter’ and ‘Duke’ are medium-sized cultivars that produce beautiful, round, red tomatoes.
‘Floradade’ tomatoes are disease-resistant, catface-resistant tomatoes. These plants produce medium-large, even fruits. ‘Walter,’ ‘Duke,’ and ‘Floradade’ tomatoes do best in warm, humid climates.
For those of us in the north, cold weather heirlooms are often the best bet. Look for ‘Oregon Spring,’ ‘San Francisco Fog,’ or ‘Northern Lights.’
Of course, no tomato is entirely resistant to catfacing, so use preventative measures as well to have the best tomato harvest ever.
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