Holes in Tomato Plant Leaves: How to Prevent and Treat

Holes in Tomato Plant Leaves
Image Credit: Sutton Massachusetts

Tomatoes, with their luscious red fruits and vibrant green leaves, are a staple in many home gardens. However, the journey from seedling to ripe tomatoes can be fraught with challenges, especially when it comes to maintaining the health of tomato plant leaves. One common issue that gardeners encounter is the appearance of holes in tomato plant leaves, which can be caused by a variety of factors.

In this comprehensive guide, we will be looking into the world of tomato plant leaves and exploring the various reasons behind the emergence of holes.

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Tip: Identifying the Culprits

Before we go into addressing holes in tomato plant leaves, it’s crucial to identify the culprits responsible for this issue. The most common offenders are flea beetles and tomato hornworms. Flea beetles, tiny but voracious, chew irregular holes in the leaves, especially targeting young tomato plants. On the other hand, tomato hornworms are large caterpillars capable of stripping an entire tomato plant of its foliage.

Uncovering Tomato Plant Insect Damage: Holes in Tomato Plant Leaves

Flea Beetles: Tiny Troublemakers

Image credit: University of Maryland Extension

Flea beetles primarily damage tomato plants by creating small holes in the leaves. These tiny holes can weaken the plant, making it more susceptible to other pests and diseases. In severe infestations, they can cause significant damage and reduce the plant’s overall health. The damage is characterized by:

  • Small, round holes in the leaves, which can give the leaves a “shotgun” appearance.
  • Wilting and reduced growth due to the damage to the plant’s photosynthetic capabilities.
  • The risk of secondary infections and diseases entering through the damaged tissue.

To control flea beetles and protect tomato plants

  1. Cultural Practices: Practice crop rotation and early planting to disrupt their life cycle and strengthen your plants.
  2. Mechanical Control: Use row covers and sticky traps to physically block and trap flea beetles.
  3. Natural Predators: Attract beneficial insects and birds that feed on flea beetles.
  4. Organic Pesticides: Consider using neem oil or diatomaceous earth to deter and disrupt flea beetle feeding.
  5. Companion Planting: Plant companion plants like basil and marigolds to repel flea beetles.
  6. Regular Inspection: Check your plants often for signs of damage and take action when an infestation is detected. Using a combination of these strategies is often the most effective approach to flea beetle control.

Tomato Hornworms: The Stealthy Leaf Devourers

Tomato hornworms can be elusive due to their green color, which helps them blend with the foliage. Tomato hornworms are voracious caterpillars that can quickly damage your tomato plants. Identifying them is key to effective removal. Here’s how to spot these leaf-devouring culprits:

  1. Size and Color: Mature tomato hornworms are large, often around 4-5 inches in length. They are typically bright green and have white diagonal stripes on their sides. This coloration helps them blend in with the tomato plant’s foliage.
  2. Leaf Damage: Look for signs of leaf damage, as tomato hornworms feed on leaves. They tend to consume the soft, upper parts of the plant, leaving characteristic chewed edges and missing sections.
  3. Frass (Excrement): Tomato hornworms leave behind dark green or black droppings, called frass, on the leaves. The presence of frass can be a clear indicator of their activity.
  4. Visual Inspection: Check your tomato plants regularly, especially during the growing season. Since they blend in so well, it’s often helpful to inspect the plants visually, moving leaves gently to expose hidden caterpillars.

Effective Manual Removal

Once you’ve identified tomato hornworms on your plants, you can remove them manually to protect your tomato crop. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Hand-Picking: Carefully inspect your plants and hand-pick the caterpillars. Wear gloves if you prefer, as some people find tomato hornworms a bit intimidating due to their size.
  2. Drop Them in Soapy Water: After picking the caterpillars, drop them into a container of soapy water to ensure they don’t return to your plants.
  3. Dispose Properly: Dispose of the caterpillars away from your garden to prevent their return.

Preventive Measures

To keep your tomato plants safe from these voracious caterpillars, consider the following preventive measures:

  1. Companion Planting: Planting herbs like basil, marigolds, or flowers like nasturtiums near your tomatoes can deter tomato hornworms. They are less likely to approach plants with strong-smelling companions.
  2. Birds and Beneficial Insects: Encourage natural predators like birds, parasitoid wasps, and green lacewings that feed on tomato hornworms.
  3. Till the Soil: In early spring, till the soil around your tomato plants to expose any overwintering pupae to the elements and natural predators.
  4. Inspect Regularly: Maintain a routine of regular plant inspection so that you can spot and remove hornworms early before they cause extensive damage.
  5. Apply Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt): This organic insecticide specifically targets caterpillars like tomato hornworms. Follow the product instructions for safe and effective use.

Tomato Diseases: The Culprits Behind Holes in Leaves

Leaf Spot, Bacterial Spot, and Bacterial Speck: Understanding the Trio

Holes in the leaves of tomato plants can sometimes be mistaken for insect damage, but they might actually be symptoms of common diseases such as Bacterial Spot, Bacterial Speck, and Leaf Spot. These diseases can mimic the appearance of physical damage.

Early and Late Blight, Gray Mold, and Leaf Mold: More Leaf Troubles

In addition to the previously mentioned diseases (Bacterial Spot, Bacterial Speck, and Leaf Spot), tomato plants can also be affected by Early Blight, Late Blight, Gray Mold, and Leaf Mold. These diseases can result in holes in the leaves due to their destructive effects.

Keeping Tomatoes Healthy

In this guide, we’ll explore several key practices and considerations to ensure your tomatoes stay vibrant and hole-free.

Crop Rotation: A Vital Practice

Crop rotation is an essential practice to maintain the health and productivity of your tomato plants. It involves the systematic planting of different crop types in a specific order in the same area over successive growing seasons. Crop rotation is a crucial strategy for preventing the occurrence of holes in tomato plant leaves and managing diseases and pests effectively.

Environmental Factors: Good Air Circulation and Watering Techniques

To prevent the development of holes in tomato plant leaves, consider the following environmental factors:

  1. Good Air Circulation:
    • Adequate air circulation is essential for preventing the buildup of moisture on the leaves, which can lead to fungal diseases. Proper spacing between tomato plants and the removal of overcrowded, lower leaves can help improve air circulation.
  2. Watering Techniques:
    • Overhead watering of tomato plants can splash soil-borne pathogens onto the leaves, potentially causing damage. Instead, use a soaker hose or drip irrigation to deliver water directly to the root zone without wetting the foliage.

Working with Tomato Plants: Best Practices

Implementing the best practices when working with tomato plants can significantly contribute to keeping them healthy and preventing holes in the leaves:

  1. Regular Inspection:
    • Consistently monitor your tomato plants for early signs of disease or pest damage. Timely detection allows for prompt intervention and can prevent issues from escalating.
  2. Proper Pruning:
    • Prune your tomato plants to remove lower leaves and any branches that may touch the ground. This reduces the risk of soil-borne pathogens splashing onto the leaves and helps maintain better air circulation.
  3. Sanitation:
    • Keep your gardening tools and equipment clean to prevent the spread of diseases. Remove and destroy any diseased plant material to prevent it from infecting healthy plants.
  4. Support Structures:
    • Use appropriate support structures like stakes or cages to keep the tomato plants off the ground. This not only prevents physical damage but also enhances air circulation.


In this comprehensive guide, we’ve explored the world of holes in tomato plant leaves, from the tiny but troublesome flea beetles to the leaf-munching tomato hornworms. We’ve also delved into the realm of tomato diseases, understanding their causes and treatments. By implementing preventive measures, practicing good gardening techniques, and identifying and addressing issues promptly, you can keep your tomato plant leaves healthy and ensure a bountiful harvest of delicious tomatoes.

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