The effect of plant age at the time of inoculation on the severity of bacterial wilt and canker disease caused by Clavibacter michiganensis subsp. michiganensis (Cmm) was examined in six greenhouse experiments. The period during which inoculations led to wilt and death of tomato plants was defined. This period, designated ‘window of vulnerability’, ranged from transplanting to the 17- to 18-leaf stage. Plants inoculated after this period expressed disease symptoms but did not wilt or die. No significant changes in disease incidence were observed when leaves of different ages were inoculated. Yield accumulation was significantly reduced in plants inoculated within the window of vulnerability compared with those inoculated after this period. Expression of virulence genes, viz. celA, encoding a secreted cellulase, and the serine protease-encoding pat-1, chpC and ppaA, was induced during the early stages after inoculation in plants inoculated within the window of vulnerability. Differences in Cmm population between plants inoculated within and outside of this period were insignificant after the first week post-inoculation, indicating that differences in disease severity, yield loss and expression of virulence determinants are not correlated with Cmm population level. Results suggest that implementation of precautionary measures during the window of vulnerability to avoid secondary spread of Cmm will have a season-long effect on plant mortality and may minimize, or even prevent, yield losses.