When you’re as obsessive over tomatoes as we are, you need to know how to fix a broken tomato stem. Tomatoes are brilliant plants to grow, and any gardener will tell you that homegrown tomatoes taste better, so saving your crop when it’s damaged is essential.
In this article, we’re going to talk about how to save snapped tomato stems with fruit on, saving broken tomato seedlings, and how you can make more plants from broken tomato plants before they flower.
Can you fix a broken tomato stem?
In most vegetable articles we tend to provide a balanced approach to these questions and look at both points of view, but I will start here by confidently stating that you can always fix a broken stem, and even get more tomato plants as a result.
Tomatoes are resilient plants, always looking for the easiest source of water. You’ll notice in humid greenhouses that they will always show signs of aerial roots from their stems, making the most of every drop of moisture they can get.
- Tip: If you see aerial roots forming on a tomato, they aren’t a problem, but they are a sign that your plants need more water. Happy tomatoes won’t waste energy on aerial roots.
What those aerial roots show us, is that tomatoes are always in search of water, so a broken stem will find the easiest route to water. By grafting the stem, they simply re-connect their cells because that’s the best water source.
How to save a broken tomato plant
Tomato plants can be saved from a broken stem at any stage in their growth. That might be grafting a fruiting tomato stem to help the fruits to ripen, or replanting snapped trusses.
- Tomato stems are the main central stem or the non-fruit-bearing stems of bush varieties.
- Tomato trusses are the stems that will flower and bear fruit.
- Tomato vines are the small stems where flowers and tomatoes form (some varieties have one flower, while others have up to 16 per vine).
- Tomato side shoots (or suckers) are the stems which grow between the truss and the main stem – usually at 45 degrees (side shoots should be removed on cordon tomatoes).
It’s not possible to fix a broken vine, as they are not as efficient at transporting water or carbon as other types of stems. If a vine with fruit on snaps, cut it off and place your fruit in a sunny spot to ripen.
Stems and trusses are easy to graft and can be fixed at almost every growth stage of a tomato plant.
Grafting is the process of connecting plant material connected to roots, to plant material connected to leaves. You can graft different types of fruit trees to each other to limit growth, or simply re-connect broken plants back together using this time-honoured horticultural skill.
Below, we’ll talk specifically about grafting tomatoes back together, and the supports you’re going to need:
Materials you will need:
- Grafting tape is the best material for this as it stretches as the plant expands with watering, but masking tape can be used as an alternative.
- Splints: lollypop sticks are perfect, but pencils, short bamboos, or old twigs work too.
- Stake: Most broken tomatoes snap under their own weight, so an extra bamboo stake for the broken stem will give it extra support.
How to fix a broken tomato stem:
- Gather your materials (above) and make sure everything is clean before you begin.
- Place a stake, or hanging twine, next to your broken stem to support its weight, and tie it in loosely.
- Reconnect the snapped stem or truss using grafting tape.
- Twine two splints on either side of the break for additional support.
- Tighten the twine from the stake or frame so the stem is firmly held in position.
- Mist the join one a day for the next three days to encourage healing (ensuring your greenhouse is well ventilated).
When is it too late to save a broken tomato plant?
If a broken tomato stem has been calloused over at the break, you won’t be able to save it. Tomato plants carry water and carbon from their roots to their fruits through xylem and phloem cells in the centre of each stem. If a snap callouses over those cells can no longer reconnect, no matter how tightly you graft the plant.
In some cases, it can be too early, rather than too late, to graft a broken tomato stem. If a tomato plant has snapped in the wind before it has begun to flower, it’s better to replant the snapped stem separately and allow the old plant to branch off. That way you’ll have two plants (see our guide to replanting snapped stems below).
When this happens to young tomato plants the grafted section is susceptible to fungal infection for its entire life, unlike snapped stems in fruiting tomatoes. Fruiting tomatoes only need to survive on snapped stems for long enough to ripen, so the graft quality doesn’t matter too much.
Can you replant broken tomato stems?
If your tomato stem breaks between 3 and 6 weeks after planting in the garden and has yet to flower, it’s not too late to re-plant that snapped stem separately.
To take tomato cuttings from snapped stems (or even unwanted side shoots):
- Trim both parts of the break to prevent infection.
- Place the cut stem or truss in water for 4-7 days.
- When roots appear, gently cover the roots with tomato compost (or multi-purpose compost, fed with tomato feed) in a 9cm pot.
- Keep well-watered until roots appear at the bottom of the pot, and new growth emerges.
- Plant the tomato plant out in a sunny position, and treat it like any other plant. It will be delayed, but with a bit of luck, you’ll get plenty of fruit in late summer.
Note: If the main stem snaps beneath ALL flowering stems or trusses, then it’s best to graft the main stem, but remove most of the trusses to help it recover in time for a crop. You can replant the trusses you remove to create new plants following the steps above.
Will a broken tomato seedling recover?
A broken tomato seedling will recover in most cases. Obviously, there are factors like humidity, damping off, and cold shock that can damage any young tomato, but in the right conditions, tomato seedlings will reshoot from broken stems.
The golden rule for handling tomato seedlings is to handle them by their leaf. Pulling or moving any seedling from its stem can weaken it, and increases the risk of breakages, but the good news is that most tomato seedlings will recover if broken at any stage. Just vie them time to recover.
- Tip: If you’re worried about handling tomato seedlings, avoid Green Zebra and Banana Legs. They are delicious tomatoes when they ripen, but they tend to grow quite weak seedlings. Choose varieties like Black Cherry, Zlatava, or Roma for strong seedlings.
How to support a broken tomato seedling
When tomato seedlings and young tomatoes are snapped, it’s best to let them send out new shoots, rather than grafting, but there are a few clever ways to support their new erratic growth habit.
Remember, cordon tomatoes like to grow from one main stem, so if you end up with a double stemmed cordon, you’ll need to be creative about how to support it. Here‘s how to support broken tomato seedlings:
- Upside-down planters
- Use twine on bamboo scaffolding to support your tomato seedlings if they have become multi-stemmed
Other than the Yellow Currant Tomato (a gorgeous tall bush variety) we don’t let any of our tomatoes grow taller than 5ft. This helps them ripen faster and stops them from snapping under their own weight.
Either grow them in upside-down tomato planters, which are fun as well as practical, or adapt your support system to suit these multi-stemmed tomatoes.
Our preferred method to support tomato plants is to build a bamboo scaffolding:
- Insert 6ft bamboos into the soil.
- We do two rows of eight bamboos, 2ft apart, to create a sturdy stable rectangle. One 2ft*8ft rectangle will happily house 19 tomatoes.
- Tie twine to the horizontal bamboos, and attach it to the base of each tomato stem.
- As your tomatoes grow, wrap the twine around. This supports them, no matter how uneven their shape might be.
How to prevent broken tomato stems
To grow stronger tomatoes that won’t break, your strongest tool is pruning. Pruning tomatoes helps fruit to ripen and develop faster, but it also reduces strain on the plant, as a full crop of ripe tomatoes is a heavy burden.
Prune side shoots when they appear on all cordon tomatoes. And keep bush tomatoes pruned so there is light showing through the plant. Bush tomatoes are less maintenance, but still need help to develop stronger stems and ripen faster without breaking.
Protecting young tomato plants
Outdoor tomatoes like Money Maker or Banana Legs are great in most climates, but young tomatoes snapping in the wind is a common problem. When you first plant your tomatoes outdoors, it’s best to slowly acclimatize them. You can do this with a cloche for individual plants, or by staking them loosely.
- Tip: Tomato seedlings can be trained to have stronger stems. When they have their true leaves, brush over the young plants with your hand a few times a day to rock them gently. Rocking young plants like this develops stronger stems and wind resistance.
Tomatoes, unlike most plants, will actively try to fix themselves from snaps, so your job is to help them do that. Broken tomato stems are a common problem, but thankfully one that gardeners can easily fix.
The best cure is always prevention, but when that’s not possible, knowing how to fix a broken tomato stem is crucial.