Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tomato TV

So I've been writing about plants for a long time, but two or three months ago, I started doing "Gardening Guru" guest appearances on The Morning Show, which airs on WSFL from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. every morning. My segments appear on Tuesday mornings, around 8:45 a.m. And guess what this week's segment was on?

That's right! Problems with tomatoes.

I've pasted the video below ... and no doubt, you'll notice some strangely familiar photos.

Photo Update

After complaining in my last post about the various nasties and problems, I wanted to post a few pix of the vines. See? I'm still pretty happy. The white dust on the Better Boy vines (top photos) is Dipel dust to kill caterpillars. The bottom two photos are the Belgian Giants (growing in 25 gallon containers). The Marvel Stripes look good (not pictured), while the Homestead 24s are okay (not enough sun, so not a lot of fruit) and the yellow Azoychkas are suffering in general (see my previous post).

My Gang of Uglies

Hard to believe it's been almost a month since I posted last! And it's hard to believe things have come along so far already ...

So the past month has been interesting. The plants have continued to grow, and the tomatoes are ripening. My cultural practices haven't changed since I last posted -- I'm watering every morning and feeding the organic tomatoes once a week with Espoma Tomato-Tone. The "bagged" tomatoes (see this post), I'm watering every morning and feeding twice a week with Miracle-Gro tomato plant food.
The big news the past month, though, has been the arrival of various problems. I still believe that the hardest part is getting the tomatoes started, but even then, you have pay careful attention to what's happening and deal with problems as they arise. So, without further ado, here is my rogue's gallery from December:

1. Caterpillars. Wow, did I have a caterpillar problem in December! The top photo shows a tomato hornworm. For such a nasty little bugger, they're oddly beautiful. I also had little worms that burrowed into the fruit themselves. Taking my own advice, I tried to hand-pick them first, but when the numbers became too great, I switched to Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. This is a biological control that is rated for organic growth and is extremely effective against caterpillars. I used Dipel dust, which I sprinkled liberally over the tomatoes. The caterpillar problem is well in hand.

2. Blossom end rot. I was surprised by the appearance of BER (photo 2), but hey, it happened. Only the plants in the Earthbox are affected. These are Azoychka yellow tomatoes, and they are by far the most troubled of all my tomatoes. The vines are much less vigorous and, although they are bearing fairly well, they look the worst and have suffered the worst from caterpillars and leaf-rolling. My only conclusion is that I screwed up with my soil mix in the Earthbox and didn't include enough dolomite lime and therefore they are suffering from calcium deficiency. Once BER shows up, it's too late to save that fruit, so I removed all the affected fruit and chalked it up to experience.

3. Leaf rolling. A few of my tomatoes are affected by leaf rolling on the lower branches. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out why, and I never figured out a way to correct it. Fortunately, though, it hasn't affected the growth of the vine and the plants will leaf-rolling are still loaded with fruit.

4. Overgrowth. I wrote about this earlier, but I have been aggressively trimming the vines all month. I've now topped all the vines, including the ones that have hit my roofline, but they are still trying to burst out all over the place. Not. Gonna. Happen. I want bigger, more abundant fruit, so from now on, it's me versus the vines. No more foliage growth allowed!

So besides my watering/feeding routine, this is how I spent November in the tomato patch: squishing caterpillars, dusting the plants, and removing yellow tomatoes affected with BER. I have not yet harvested any fruit, but I can see that a few tomatoes are beginning to lighten up already, so I expect to have photos of vine-ripening tomatoes soon.

Up next: Some progress photos

Monday, November 30, 2009

Growing in Coconut Grow Bags

One of the cool things about this blog has been hearing from readers, sometimes with questions and sometimes with tips and photos of their own gardens.

Among these readers was a gentleman calling himself Boca Bob, and he sent me pictures of his South Florida vegetable garden that kind of blew my mind (he runs a website at He was getting amazing results with a system I was wholly unfamiliar with. Well, I'm nothing if not curious, so I did a bunch of research and set up another tomato grow elsewhere in my yard. Here's the story behind it ...

This set-up is essentially the same system used by professional tomato growers in greenhouses (so-called hothouse tomatoes). The growing medium is coconut coir, which comes in expandable 5-gallon bags from a company called Hydro-Gardens. See those black bags? Basically, you buy the bag, which comes with the coir brick included. You add water and presto! It expands into a 5-gallon pot.

Coconut coir is a bit different than peat or other growing media. It doesn't need to be adjusted for pH, but it's just about completely sterile. There are NO nutrients in coconut coir at all, so you have to add everything. In this case, I decided to abandon organic tomato growing completely and go synthetic. I'm curious if it will affect taste ...

Additionally, I didn't start these tomatoes from seed, but used Better Boy starts I got from my favorite garden center. Better Boy is a rough-and-tumble backyard tomato. It's a heavy bearing red tomato, resistant to all sorts of problems, and tasty. I've grown them before, so I'm familiar with how they should act.

At planting time, I amended the coir with gypsum, and I also threw in a bit of bone meal just to make sure. This will hopefully handle the calcium requirement. For magnesium, I'm using a 1/4 teaspoon of Epsom salts with every third or fourth watering. For nutrients, I'm using the Miracle-Gro general tomato fertilizer at 1/2 strength and feeding every two or three days (I'm watering every day). To train the vines, I drove large landscape stakes into the ground and I'm tying the vines to rope strung between the stakes. Couldn't be simpler.

Oh yes, I'm also experimenting with a weekly foliar micronutrient spray on one of the bags. I'll cover this in greater depth later, but in brief, a foliar spray is fertilizer or product that is applied directly onto the leaves. To use a foliar spray, you mix up the solution and use a garden sprayer to soak the plant down. You have to do this in the morning to avoid fungal problems. I'm using a product called Key-Plex, which is formulated with defensive proteins and micronutrients. According to the company, Key-Plex helps increase the plant's immunity to blight and other diseases while increasing yields. My test is obviously unscientific, but I'll post photos and results as they become apparent.

So far, this grow has gone surprisingly well. It took me a little time to get used to the coir. It doesn't compact like peat, so when you water it, the coir has a tendency to wash away from the plant's stem. You have to be more careful with watering (professionals use drip irrigation system). But the plants have bloomed heavily and are already covered with immature fruit. One of the plants is suffering from rolled leaves, but its fruit is unaffected. Otherwise, they're healthy, happy maters.

Up next: Topping Your Tomatoes

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The First Fruit Sets

So my routine is pretty well set by now ... I take care of the morning house stuff, drop the kids off at school, then come home and water and tend to the tomatoes. I've been watering every day, and the daily tending is pretty low impact. I'm snipping off suckers, tying up vines, trimming back errant shoots, and feeding weekly with Espoma Tomato-Tone organic fertilizer. I suppose successful tomatoes are as much about discipline and routine as anything else.

And look! The first fruit has already begun to set, so there are tiny tomatoes all over my plants. Pretty nice, huh? (Incidentally, the tomato pictured at left is an Azoychka. This is a yellow early-season tomato. I expect to start harvesting these right around Christmas. The other varieties are not this far along.)

The fungal problem is under control. After I found the leaf spot (see below), I removed all the affected leaves, bagged them up and disposed of them, then I treated with an organic copper fungicide spray weekly for a few weeks. It worked, and the plants are thriving and mostly free from any blemishes. So far, I haven't had caterpillars, but I'm just waiting ... I know they're out there.

I have, however, experienced a rather significant degree of blossom drop so far this season. There are a few reasons tomatoes drop blossoms early in the season: lack of sun, too cold, too hot, improper watering, and sometimes, just because they feel like it. For the most part, I'm not that worried about it. Let's face it, the beginning of this season stunk in South Florida—it was just too hot for tomatoes, so I'm not surprised to be losing my early blossom sets. But the season is long, and now that the weather is cool, I'm gratified to see fruit emerging. I don't expect to be wanting for tomatoes later on.

However, if you're experiencing severe blossom drop, and it's really freaking you out, you can use a product called Tomato & Pepper Set, by Fertilome. This product is a plant hormone that stimulates the plant to set fruit, even in adverse conditions. I've used it successfully in the past, when it stopped rampant blossom drop and hastened my tomato sets.

Lastly, I've been kind of keeping a secret for the past few weeks. I keep meaning to write about it, but my blog time is precious. So I'll give you a hint: in addition to the tomatoes I've been writing about, I started another experimental group, this time using pretty standard Better Boy tomatoes. But the grow set-up is unique and strange and unlike anything I've done before. Next time, I promise.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ack! Tomato Leaf Spot

I knew it was too much to hope for ...

This morning, while I was watering, I noticed discoloration on the lower leaves of one plant. When I looked closer, I saw that the discoloration had spread throughout all the lower leaves of the plant—and I officially had a problem on my hands.

I took the leaf to a friend who farms tomatoes professionally and he confirmed what I suspected: I've got fungus. There are many fungi that affect tomatoes, and I don't know exactly which one this is, but I treated anyway. I first removed all the affected leaves on the plant, bagged them and threw them away. Fungus and bacteria can be highly contagious, so you have to be careful when you're handling infected leaves.

Then I treated every plant with a copper fungicide, which treats for fungus and has some antibacterial action. My friend recommended I also used Maneb, which is a stronger fungicide, but I'm going to hold off for now on that. Copper fungicide is rated for organic growth, and I want to keep my grow organic if possible.

But why did this happen? I've been careful, right?

I have a few thoughts on that. First off, the affected tomato plant gets less sun than I would like. I'm growing along the side of my house, and the winter sun is dipping too low on the horizon, so my neighbor's house shades these tomatoes throughout part of the middle of the day. In all, they're lucky to get three hours of direct sun, and that's just not enough. Second, and most important, my neighbor's sprinklers overspray onto this plant, and he waters in the middle of the night. So these plants were getting wet in the night. Finally, it's still too hot and muggy—these are perfect conditions for fungus.

Fortunately, this problem was not too widespread yet. The container tomatoes get much more sun—five to six hours of direct sun—and they are situated a ways away from the sick plant. So I'm hoping I can control this until the weather cools off and the affected plant gets tall enough that it grows back into direct sun.

Besides the obvious—lots of sun, don't let them get wet from above—this was a good reminder of another thing to keep in mind: it's always good to pay close attention.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Trimming Tomatoes

I was kind of a wimp my first year growing tomatoes. I was so excited to have actual bearing tomatoes in my yard that I let the plants bully me and push me around. I knew I was supposed to trim them—and I made a half-hearted attempt—but around the middle of the season, I just gave up and let them run rampant. I was too afraid of trimming off flowers and potential fruit. I got a lot of tomatoes that year, sure, but ...

Those days are long gone now. I've grown into a harsh taskmaster when it comes to my tomatoes—they only get to do what I want them to do. And ultimately, just like puppies and children, I think they're happier for it.

Trimming tomatoes comes down to control. And it begins with suckers. The photo to the left shows a sucker. These emerge from between almost every branch node and the stem. If you don't pinch them off, they'll form mini branches of their own. But these are suckers—they will reduce the vitality of the plant and the overall size of your fruit. So at the very least, get rid of them religiously. And just because you've pinched it off once doesn't mean it won't come back. So I check for suckers every time I water, and I make sure to check from all angles and sides to make sure none are hiding.

Beyond that, there is the question of the vine itself. Tomato vines naturally split as they grow. You can tell a split from a sucker because the main stem may be lobed, and both of the splits will be approximately the same size. Now, it's up to you what you do with these splits. If you want to grow very large tomatoes, prune off all or most of the splits. If you want more fruit, let the vine naturally split a few times.

Height control is also important. At some point, the vine will hit the maximum height it's allowed. When that happens, pinch off the growing tip (or all the growing tips in a multi-branched vine). You'll have to continue with height control once you start. It will continue trying to grow taller, but just keep snipping away new growth. And don't worry about snipping tiny flowers away—because the plant can't grow any taller, it will put its energy into growing fatter, juicier and thicker tomatoes.

As a side note, you know where I got good at this? Growing hydroponic tomatoes under lights indoors. When you only have 18" of overhead space and a limited area of light intensity, you learn to really clamp down on the plant's growth and control it.

The reward for aggressively pruning tomato vines is better fruit, so this is worth it. If you're like me, your initial worry will be reducing the size of your crop. But I think this is more than offset by getting bigger, healthier fruit.

Up Next: Tomatoes the Professional Way ...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Watering Tomatoes

So things are really going well now, and the season is underway. My transplants are 2 feet tall already—the photo here shows the Marvel Stripe heirloom. Blossoms have begun to emerge, and I've started feeding them. You know, I just love this part :)

I'm watering every morning, with about 1/2 inch of water for each plant. When you're new to tomato gardening, you hear over and over to water consistently and never water from the top, but at least for me, it seemed like no one really explained what the big deal was. Well, here it is ...

Tomatoes need consistent water to prevent a condition called blossom end rot (BER). BER is a cultural problem with tomatoes and peppers. It causes the fruit to develop dark, rotten spots on the blossom ends, eventually leading to collapse of that fruit. It's a heartbreaker.

BER is caused by a calcium deficiency in the developing fruit. This is why calcium is such a big deal for tomatoes, why people use dolomite and bone meal and why tomato fertilizers always include plenty of calcium. As young tomatoes develop, they use calcium sort of like young humans do: to build structure. According to horticulturists at the University of Georgia, about 90 percent of the calcium the mature tomato will contain is already present in the fruit by the time it's the size of your thumbnail.

Now here's the tricky part: your tomatoes can suffer BER even with plenty of calcium in the soil. Heck, they can suffer BER even with plenty of calcium in the plant itself. This is because of the way calcium moves through the plant. It's absorbed from the root zone in water, then moved through the leaves and finally into the fruit. However, if the plant is under water stress, water is directed to the leaves because they transpire faster than fruit, meaning that water evaporates more quickly from leaves than fruit. The plant is just trying to protect itself, but as the water transpires through leaf tissue, it leaves behind the precious calcium. Meanwhile, the poor fruit isn't getting any water or calcium.

The worst part is that this tends to happen when your tomatoes are young and still developing. Even a temporary disruption in regular watering of young tomatoes can set the stage for BER later on in the season. So, make sure you're absolutely consistent with the water. To some degree, self-watering containers prevent this automatically (assuming you're keeping the reservoir filled).

As for watering from above, it's pretty simple. This encourages fungal diseases, wilts and blights. So for safety sake, don't soak your plants down. Water at the ground level.

Up Next: Training Tomato Vines ...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tomatoes in an EarthBox

So I finally planted the yellow Azoychka tomatoes in their EarthBox.

If you're new to it, the EarthBox is a self-watering container that has gained a near-rabid following. In essence, it's a two-level box, with a potting medium suspended over a water reservoir. The soil wicks water up as needed, and the top of the box is covered, so less water can evaporate. You add nutrients and dolomite at planting time, and never feed them again.

To maintain the EarthBox, you simply keep the reservoir full and let the box handle the rest. It's very easy to set up, with simple provided instructions. The biggest downside to the EarthBox is the cost: a full set-up, including the company's staking system, costs over $100. But it's a one-time expense: the box is reusable, year after year, and you can grow pretty much anything in the box. In addition to tomatoes, I'm also planning cabbages, romaine lettuce and broccoli. If you want more information, click on EarthBox.

I don't know about you, but the last week has been pretty hard on my little transplants—yet it's also been instructive. With temperatures of 92º to 94º every afternoon, we're at the very limit of what tomatoes can stand. And it's been interesting to watch the different varieties react to it. I'm growing one heat-tolerant variety (Homestead 24) that has absolutely loved the heat. I mean it ... these plants have shot up and are already more than a foot tall. On the other hand, my beefsteak variety (Belgian Giant) is just about ready to cry uncle and head for the great compost heap in the sky. I've had to water them twice a day for the past few days to prevent a total collapse. I'm curious if this will affect the harvest. I'm also growing an heirloom variety—Marvel Stripe—and they have been somewhere between the other two. Not thriving, but not wilting every afternoon either.

Thankfully, it's supposed to cool down by the end of this week.

My last thought for the day: it's almost time to start fertilizing, so this weekend I'll begin the regular feeding program. I'm going to be using Espoma's Tomato Tone organic granular fertilizer, a synthetic granular fertilizer, and a liquid tomato fertilizer and see how they work. I know it's not exactly scientific—these are different varieties, after all—but I'll still be curious.

Up Next: Watering Tomatoes

Friday, October 9, 2009

Go Ahead ... Brag It Up

Since I started this blog, I've been really gratified by the amount of reader email I've received. And wow. Some of the people who stop by here are fantastic gardeners!

So as the season wears on, and we settle into the routine of tending plants, I'm hoping to highlight a few readers' vegetable and tomato gardens. If you have a plot or a plant you're especially proud of, please contact me (my email is to your right). I'll post some pictures and maybe you can share your methods with the rest of us.

Now, one word about promotion. Just as I've been gratified by the reader email, I've also been surprised how many pitches I'm getting for gardening products. If you've got something to sell, I don't mind if you contact this blog, but I do want to say that I'm not taking any free product samples, and if I mention a product here, it's only because I use it and I personally like it.

Anyway, here's to hoping everyone has a good weekend and our tomatoes get a break soon enough from this confounded heat.

Up Next: Planting My Earthbox Tomatoes

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fertilizing Tomatoes

First off, a word with South Florida ...

Listen, I get it. I like summer as much as the next guy, and the subtropical thing you've got going on is wonderful. But this heat? In October? I'm trying to transplant tomatoes, and when it's hitting 93 degrees every day, it just makes things hard for me. So can we cool down a little bit? Just a bit? Thanks.

Back to business. The transplants are doing pretty well at this point, even with the brutal heat. I'm watering every morning, and I've noticed that leaf miners have already discovered the lower leaves of a few plants.

So, let's talk about fertilizing tomatoes. I don't want to complicate this issue, because it's actually not that complicated. I've tried a lot of different things over the years—I've used Epsom salt to deliver a shot of magnesium, sprinkled powdered milk on the ground for calcium, made my own compost and used bagged compost, and used both organic and synthetic fertilizers. The truth is, you can grow excellent tomatoes any number of ways, with any number of fertilizer programs and products. Some of this depends on you.

Here are some basic approaches to fertilizer:

1. When you plant, you can dress the soil with a band of granular fertilizer at planting time. I didn't do this because I added organic fertilizer amendments straight to my soil (the compost, bone meal and blood meal). But if you're using a sterile soil mix based on sphagnum or coconut coir, you'll want to fertilize at planting time.

2. Like all vegetable fertilizers, tomato fertilizer should have a higher second number (phosphorus) than first number (nitrogen). For example, the label might read 6-8-8 or 3-4-6. This represents the percentage by weight of the three major macronutrients all plants need to grow: nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Nitrogen encourages leaf growth at the expense of fruit; phosphorus encourages strong fruit and flowers; and potassium strengthens the plant and contributes to fruit growth. For tomatoes, beware of fertilizers that contain too much nitrogen. Nitrogen contributes to a condition called blossom end rot, which you don't want.

3. Start a regular fertilizer program two to four weeks after transplanting. You can use an organic granular fertilizer (many people like Espoma's Tomato Tone, which is organic), or you can you use any balanced vegetable fertilizer. With granular fertilizer, side dress according to label directions. Follow label directions for a liquid, hose-end fertilizer. In general, you can expect to fertilize every other week at full strength or weekly at half strength.

4. Starter solutions can help at transplant time to get the tomatoes off to a quick start. Fertilome makes a product containing hormones that stimulate root growth, or you can use SuperThrive or a plant starter solution at transplant time. These products contain vitamin B-1, which encourages early root growth. This isn't necessary, but I've had good results in the past with these products.

5. Tomatoes need proper amounts of calcium and magnesium to bloom well. Calcium deficiencies result in blossom end rot, which will destroy your fruit. Dolomite (which I've used as a soil amendment) supplies both calcium and magnesium, and bone meal also supplies calcium. However--and this is important--your watering habits are critical when it comes to maintaining the right levels of calcium in the plant. Even if you have adequate calcium in the soil and in the plant itself, improper watering can still result in a calcium deficiency in the fruit. I'll talk more about this when I get to watering, but for now keep your watering absolutely consistent. Chances are, if you've amended your container mix with dolomite and you're feeding with a balanced vegetable fertilizer, your plant will have access to plenty of calcium and magnesium.

6. Foliar sprays containing micronutrients and calcium chloride can be used early in the growing season. Personally, I don't use foliar sprays for tomatoes, so I don't have any experience with it, but I know that commercial farms use these products. I would love to hear from someone who had experience with either ...

7. Finally, if you're really worried about optimal nutrient levels, have your soil professionally tested. This is really only necessary for in-ground tomatoes. Test results will indicate the levels of all macronutrients, as well as pH and other factors necessary for growth. Follow the lab's recommendations regarding supplementation.

It feels like there should be more, right? But fertilizing and feeding tomatoes only has to be as complicated as you want it to be. I guarantee you can grow wonderful, tasty tomatoes with a bag of standard granular vegetable fertilizer ...

Monday, October 5, 2009

Planting Tomatoes

So they're in the ground now. In a way, the most difficult part is over ... at least in my experience, it's harder to take a plant from a seed to a successful transplant than it is to care for tomatoes once they're in the ground. Seedlings have to be watered once, sometimes twice a day ... they need to be carried outside every day ... and sometimes, they just up and die for no good reason.

But once in the ground, things start to get easier and less time intensive. For the in-ground tomatoes (Homestead 24), I outlined the growing area in old bricks, then dug a deep hole and filled it with the following ingredients:
  • 2 parts sphagnum peat moss
  • 2 parts Black Cow compost
  • 1 part perlite
  • dolomite
  • bone meal
  • blood meal
I next did the two containers (see below). I used 25-gallon containers I found at a local tree nursery. They had a big pile of old containers out back and let me snag two--this was actually the smallest size they had, but you can also grow good tomatoes in 10-gallon containers. For the potting mix, I used the same ingredients and mixed it up straight in the container with my hands and a shovel. Once the dry ingredients were combined, I watered it thoroughly and put the tower in position. The green stakes on the side are pounded into the ground outside the container and tied to the tower. I wanted to give it extra stability for later on.

The next few days will be crucial to get the young transplants established. When you transplant tomatoes (or any plant, really), you should water every morning. With tomatoes, watering takes on special importance because improper and inconsistent watering will actually ruin your harvest. More on that later.

I've also gotten a few letters with questions about fertilizer and feeding tomatoes. I'm going to start on that soon ... even though that's kind of like jogging blind-folded through a mine field. I've talked to dozens of people who grow great tomatoes, and I have yet to find anybody who does it exactly the same way—but people have strong opinions nonetheless.

Yet I will say this: I believe well-fed tomatoes begin with the soil. That's why I put so much work into mixing up and amending my soil. The compost is a natural, organic fertilizer that provides macro and minor elements; the blood meal provides nitrogen for early leaf growth, and the bone meal provides phosphorous and calcium for later. Still, there's plenty to say about fertilizer ...

Up next: The Nutritional Needs of Tomatoes

Friday, October 2, 2009

Day 22: Planting Time

Woo hoo! It's finally time ... Guess where I'll be Saturday afternoon?

The little seedlings that I sprouted 22 days ago are now 8-10 inches tall. They've been growing rapidly since I started taking them outside, and they're ready to go into the ground. Fortunately, the weather has cooperated by cooling off, so this weekend should be a great time to plant tomatoes.

(But don't worry if you can't do it this weekend: you can plant tomatoes any time through early January and still get fruit.)

Remember when you're planting tomatoes to strip off a few of the lower leaves and bury the plant fairly deep into the soil. New roots will form along the buried stem and you'll get a stronger vine all around. After you've planted your tomatoes, water every morning to establish them. And don't hit the young plants with a giant dose of fertilizer (especially strong chemical fertilizer). You'll burn their roots. Wait a bit to start feeding them.

If it's seemed like a lot of work until this point (preparing the soil, building cages, etc.), don't worry. The fun part is about to begin.

Up next: My Planting Weekend

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Staking Up Your Tomatoes

I'm just loving this weather. I walked outside last night after dark into a mild, cool night. Gone was that warm, fuzzy blanket of heat that lays over South Florida all summer. I've been waiting for this change for a while—and the weather people said it was coming—but it's still nice when it happens. That means it's finally almost time to put tomatoes outside.

So let's talk about staking up your tomatoes. I've mentioned it a few times, but if you have good soil and good sun (at least 6 hours of direct sun), and you're feeding healthy plants, your tomatoes will get LARGE. They'll have to be staked up and trimmed as they grow. I've found from bitter experience that you want to build the infrastructure when you plant—it's hard to play catch up with a ravenous vine.

I've seen dozens of ways to stake up tomatoes. Some people without much room even grow the vine up a single pole, almost like bonsai tomato. Others build cages from wood or PVC tubing. As for me, I use concrete reinforcing wire.

I built my cages about six years ago, and I reuse them every year. Each cage is 5' tall, and I sometimes stack two, one on top of the other, for really large vines. I don't mind using a ladder to reach the top of my vine—it kind of makes me feel like Jack and the Beanstalk. Building cages is easy, as long as you have bolt cutters or some other way to cut the wire, and you can handle a bit of heavy lifting (or have someone else who can do it for you).

To build your own, buy a roll of concrete reinforcing wire from the construction section of your local home improvement center. It's heavy stuff and it comes in big rolls, so buy the smallest roll possible. When you get home, unroll it, snip off sections of 8 squares and roll it into round cages, each about 18" in diameter. When I did mine, I left horizontal pieces of wire sticking out when I snipped it, then wrapped those around the vertical wire to hold it all together.

This isn't exactly a fun job, and it does require moving heavy wire, plus cutting and bending wire. But once you do it, you'll never need to do it again. My cages aren't pretty, but they really work. The holes between the wires are big enough I can get my hand in the middle, and they're strong enough to support even the biggest harvest.

These cages will tip over, however, if they're not anchored into the ground. So during installation, I'll hammer a stake into the ground and tie it to the cage with rope or twine. I've never had one tip over.

Of course this isn't the only way to do it. You can grow tomatoes on pretty much any vertical surface that's strong enough to support their weight. One of the best growers I ever saw grew some of her vines along wires strung across her yard. My only advice as you're considering staking systems is to make sure 1) it's strong and 2) it can be firmly anchored to the ground and 3) you have complete access to the vine. I would also avoid treated lumber and lattice, partly because of the chemicals and partly because it's impossible to reach the plant if it grows through the teensy little latticework.

Up next: Time to plant!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Tomatoes and the EarthBox

Here we are at Day 18 ... The seedlings are spending most of the day outside now, in full sun. I'm watering every morning, with a liquid fertilizer (I'm using Fox Farm Grow Big). I've had a bit of stretching with some of the varieties. Truthfully, I'm a little mystified by it ... they've been getting good light since they sprouted, and it's only a few of the varieties. In the picture, you can see the thin bamboo skewers I'm using to help them stay upright.

So, back the GTP (or Grand Tomato Plan). My final growing method this year will be with an EarthBox. I know lots of people who are near fanatics about EarthBoxes, and I think they're a great way to get started vegetable gardening in containers. EarthBoxes are self-watering and self-feeding container systems, large enough to grow two tomato plants. The basic EarthBox costs about $30, not including shipping. If you want to purchase the complete package (including soil and amendments), the cost increases to between $55 and $60. Finally, the company sells a staking system that is designed to use with the box and costs about $40 in all (including casters). You can, however, make your own staking system if you're a little bit handy.

Setting up and maintaining an EarthBox is easy: it's a two-layered system with the growing media suspended over a water reservoir. The soil wicks water up from the reservoir as needed, and a plastic cover over the top of the container prevents evaporation. You add granular fertilizer and dolomite to the soil when you assemble the box, and the movement of water through the soil slowly dissolves the nutrients so you only have to feed your plants that one time. Once the box is assembled, you simply add water to keep the water reservoir full. Easy-peasy.

So that's it ... in-ground, containers, and the EarthBox. The final piece of preparation involves some kind of staking system. Indeterminate tomatoes need to be staked up as they grow. The first time I tried to grow tomatoes here, I used the standard, store-bought tomato cage. It was a disaster. My vines outgrew the flimsy cage long before the first flower, and they ended up laying on the ground and rotting. You'll need something more substantial than that.

Up next: My non-patented tomato staking system.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Tomatoes in Containers

It took me a while to warm up to the idea of growing tomatoes in containers, but once I did, I kind of fell in love with it. Containers have definite advantages ... the biggest one, of course, is that you completely control the soil environment, so there's no soil-borne pests or diseases. If you want to grow the exotic heirlooms and beefsteaks, containers make it easy.

That said, there are drawbacks to containers. They tip over, especially near the end of the season when your vines are heavy with fruit. But you know what they say about planning ahead ... set up your containers right the first time, and you'll only have to worry about this if a hurricane hits. In which case tomatoes will be least of your problems.

Also, containers will need to be watered more frequently (at least daily by the end of the season), and every so often, you'll have to flush the container to remove accumulated fertilizer salts.

Container Soil

In some ways, it's easier to deal with the dirt issue in containers because, one way or another, you have to provide it. First off, you can grow excellent tomatoes in a bagged soil mix. Just pick up a few big bags and you're good to go. Once again, avoid mixes with moisture retention crystals or you risk ruining your harvest.

Or you can blend your own soil mix. Here's mine:
  • 2 parts sphagnum peat
  • 2 parts compost
  • 1-1.5 parts perlite
  • dolomite lime (1/2-cup per 5 gallons)
  • bone meal and blood meal
This mix provides macro- and micronutrients from the compost and the amendments of bone and blood meal. It is, however, deficient in potassium, so I will be using a general organic fertilizer throughout the season. As a rule, I try to keep my grow as organic as possible, so I like to build a strong soil with lots of good, organic nutrients.

If you aren't concerned with organic tomatoes, you could skip the compost and the bone and blood meals and add a high-quality controlled-release fertilizer like Osmocote, along with some micronutrient powder, and you'd have a very complete, fast-draining mix. Or you could skip any added fertilizer at all (but not the lime!) and just feed your tomatoes throughout the season. Some of this depends on your skill level with growing in containers and some on your preferences.

Later, I'll get into more depth on organic fertilizers versus synthetic fertilizers and feeding tomatoes in general.

Tips for Container Culture

When you're setting up your containers, here are a few ways to help ensure success:
  1. Go big. Use at least 10 gallon containers, if not bigger. Your tomatoes will grow as large as the container allows, and you want big plants, right? Also, the bigger the container, the heavier it is, so it'll be less likely to tip over.
  2. Make room for staking. I've seen a few ways to stake up container-grown tomatoes. You can build a cage around the container—which will displace the tomatoes' weight to outside the container—or you can install the cage in the container and anchor it to the ground. More on staking up tomatoes later, but for now, make sure you've got room for it.
  3. Don't bother with drainage material in the bottom of the container. I've caught a lot of grief for this recommendation, but it's true. Container grown plants don't need drainage substrate in the bottom, and in fact, don't want it. In every soil medium—the ground, a potted plant—there is a level at which the soil's "wicking" ability to suck water upward (think about a paper towel dipped in water) balances the downward gravitational pull. This is called the perched water table. Below the perched water table, the soil is saturated with water, which can suffocate plant roots and encourage root rot. Above this level is usable soil. By adding a gravel substrate, instead of increasing drainage, you're actually moving the perched water table UP in the container, so the plant has even less room to grow. In other words, skip the rocks.
  4. Get new soil. Don't grow tomatoes in last year's soil, or in soil that has previously grown peppers of any variety or eggplants. Two reasons: the soil becomes exhausted and there is increased chance of disease.
Up Next: Tomatoes and the EarthBox ...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tomatoes Three Ways

I'm going to spend the next week or so running seedlings around ... they go inside when it rains and at night. They go outside when it's sunny. But there's still plenty of stuff to do in the meantime. So now I guess it's finally time to lay out the Grand Tomato Plan (henceforth, GTP).

I'm doing four varieties this year, and none are rated for disease or pest resistance. If you missed it in the earlier post, I'm growing Marvel Stripe (an heirloom, bicolor tomato), Giant Belgium (a huge beefsteak), Homestead 24 (bred for hot weather), and a yellow tomato called Azoychka. If you're doing a more popular variety (e.g., Celebrity, Better Boy, cherry, or Roma), don't worry. All the following still applies.

Because this blog is experimental, I'm going to be using three methods to grow my tomatoes:
  • The ground (Homestead 24)
  • Big containers (Marvel Stripe and Giant Belgium)
  • EarthBox (Azoychka)
Each of these requires a slightly different approach, so over the next three days, I'm going to take it one by one and talk about how to set up each different grow. I'll start with growing in the ground.

I keep saying that South Florida has challenging soil. Here's why. Although there are a few different soil types around South Florida, for the most part, our native soil was derived from oolitic limestone, which runs like a rocky spine down the Florida peninsula. Combined with sand, rock, muck and marl in various degrees, this means our soil 1) is very alkaline (the pH is above seven) and 2) does not transport nutrients and oxygen well to the plants' root zone. Additionally, parasitic bugs called nematodes are ubiquitous.

All of this is bad for tomatoes.

So if you're growing in the ground, it's imperative to improve the soil before you plant. Here's why:
  1. It will lower the pH. Don't underestimate the importance of soil pH. Tomatoes prefer a pH of about 6.0 to 6.5. Our soil ranges from 7.5 to higher. Neutral is 7.0. This can dramatically affect the availability of nutrients and reduce your yield.
  2. It will add organic matter. Tomatoes are heavy feeders, and they absolutely thrive in an environment that's loaded with nutrients—hence, lots of decaying organic material.
  3. It will fend off nematodes. Nematodes don't like organic matter because it's acidic (a pH lower than seven). By amending your soil, you'll reduce the nematode micropopulation to a manageable level, so you can still get a good harvest before the plant succumbs.
But here's where it gets a little tricky ... there are as many opinions on how to improve soil as there are people growing tomatoes. And each back yard can be different, so what works for me might not work for you. Nevertheless, there are a few soil amendments that you'll see crop up again and again. I'll list them here, and then I'll tell you which ones I'm using.
  • Sphagnum peat moss. This is the base ingredient for most bagged soilless potting mixes. It's derived from peat bogs in Canada and elsewhere. It's rich in organic material, but it's too acidic for excellent tomatoes and doesn't contain adequate nutrients. You can buy it in big blocks from most garden centers. Lambert's is the brand I use.
  • Pine bark fines. Pine bark fines are used to provide structure to soil. They are small pieces of pine that are partially composted. Pine bark fines decompose slower than sphagnum moss, so they don't compact as quickly and strangle the plant's roots. However, pine bark fines are hard to find and tend to be expensive.
  • Compost. There are many kinds of compost: composted cow manure, composted chicken manure, forest products, and of course, you can make your own from a simple compost pile. Compost is rich in nutrients and is great stuff. However, if you plan on using added fertilizer (which most people do), it's not strictly necessary.
  • Perlite. Perlite is a natural mineral that is sterile, non-absorbent and lightweight. It's used to increase the aeration of soil, thus making more oxygen available to the plant (which is crucial). Perlite is often the second ingredient in most bagged potting mixes.
  • Lime. Ah, the Great Lime Question. There are two kinds of lime commonly sold for horticultural purposes: hydrated and dolomitic. I'll handle this in a different post, but for now, lime is used to raise the pH of sphagnum moss and provide calcium and magnesium to tomatoes. And there is a difference between the two, so don't use them interchangeably.
  • Organic fertilizers. There are many additives people use to add nutrients to their base soil. These include blood meal (nitrogen), bone meal (calcium and phosphorous), worm castings, Epsom salt (magnesium), even powdered milk (calcium again) and lots of others. (If you're getting the idea that tomatoes like calcium, you'd be right.)
This next part is like cooking a big stew. You throw ingredients into the pot and wait for a bit, except in this case the "pot" is either a big hole in the ground or a raised bed. Personally, I plan to dig a big hole, add a 50 lb. bag of composted cow manure (I use Black Cow, available in most garden centers), add about the same amount sphagnum peat moss, mix in a gallon or two of perlite, add two cupfuls of dolomitic lime to adjust the pH, mix in some bone and blood meal, and then mulch it over well. This basic mix is pH adjusted, well aerated, rich in organic material, and provides nitrogen, calcium and phosphorous. This doesn't mean, however, that I won't be using fertilizer. I'll still fertilize the tomatoes, but I'll use less.

Because it's best to amend your soil a week or two before you actually plant to let things simmer, I'll probably handle it this weekend. Photos to come ...

One note about using regular bagged potting mix. I see lots of people buying tomato plants and a bag of potting soil. This is fine. Miracle-Gro potting soil and others are often amended with slow-release fertilizer and perlite already, so they do some of the work for you. My only caution here is to avoid bagged potting mixes with added water crystals. These crystals hold too much water near the root zone, and you risk ruining your fruit. So if you want to make life a bit easier on yourself and just pick up a bag of potting mix, make sure to look for a brand that doesn't contain water crystals. Personally, I like Fafard, but there are lots of others out there.

And that's it!

Up tomorrow: Container Culture

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Day 12: Life Is Hard

It's Day 12 now, and things are happening.

Last night, I stepped all the seedlings up from their 2" Jiffy pots into 4" Jiffy pots and further thinned them out. There's now only one or two seedlings per pot. I used my favorite bagged potting soil (Fafard Professional Mix), but you can use any potting mix. I like Fafard because it has no added fertilizer, so I can control the nutrient environment better. I sweetened the mix with a sprinkle of hydrated lime to raise the pH and started feeding the seedlings with a weak organic liquid fertilizer (I use Fox Farm Grow Big). If you use a potting soil that has fertilizer included—like the ubiquitous Miracle-Gro—skip the feeding.

The seedlings are now back to 2" tall. Here's why they shrunk ... tomatoes that grow from vines and need to be staked up or supported are called indeterminate tomatoes, whereas tomatoes that grow from a bush and ripen all at once are known as determinate tomatoes. The most popular variety by far (and the only kind I'm growing) are indeterminate. Whenever you transplant an indeterminate tomato, bury a portion of the existing stem under the new soil. New roots will spring from the buried stem, making the plant stronger. I buried my seedlings an inch or so, so they're stubbier and stronger than before.

With the transplant finished, it's time to start hardening off the seedlings. This process will slowly acclimate the young tomato plants to the harsher conditions outside. Until now, they've been ridiculously pampered inside ... their own little grow light, no wind, no direct sunlight. If I moved them outside now, they'd never survive. So to harden them off, I'm moving them outside in the morning and leaving them in a sunny, protected part of my yard. For the next two weeks or so, I'll keep them outside for a longer period every day, until they're finally ready to move outside for good.

This means I'm finally ready to start preparing for their lives outside. Here's the deal with tomatoes in South Florida: we have a lot of advantages, but our native soil is not one of them. I'll leave the more detailed explanation for tomorrow, but here's the basic issue: you either grow in large containers, or you have to amend and improve the soil. Either way, plan on lugging around bags of soil amendments or potting mix.

One final thought about growing straight in the ground ... our native soil is also teeming with parasitic bugs called nematodes, which live in the ground and attack plant roots. These things love tomatoes, and infection is almost guaranteed. Infected plants begin to lose leaves from the bottom up.

Fortunately, growers have developed varieties that are at least partly resistant to nematodes. When you're shopping for tomato plants, you might see the letters "VFN" after the varietal name. These letters mean the plants have been bred for resistance to three common problems: verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, and nematodes. Most experts recommend using VFN-resistant plants in the ground in South Florida. Fortunately, some of the most popular homegrown tomato varieties—Celebrity VFN and Better Boy VFN—have both been bred for their resistance. Cherry tomatoes, too, don't seem especially bothered by nematodes.

Sadly, many of the beefsteak and heirloom tomatoes that people love are not resistant. So if you're really attached to growing these more exotic varieties, I'd recommend setting up a large container instead of growing in the ground. But don't worry—it's the same amount of work, and you'll still get plenty of fruit.

Up tomorrow: Tomatoes Three Ways.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Day 8: Snip, Snip, My Lovelies

Today I thinned the Jiffy Pots. The seedlings are almost 3" tall now and beginning to put out their first "true" leaves. I didn't completely thin the pots yet—I left the best two or three seedlings in every pot. When it becomes apparent which one is healthier, I'll cut the remaining seedlings and leave just one in each pot.

Very soon—next week—we'll get into the most important part of growing tomatoes here in South Florida: soil. We have everything here ... almost. The one thing we don't have is good soil. Our native soil tends to be alkaline (with a high pH), and it's not particularly good when it comes to drainage or transporting nutrients to plants. Our native plants are evolved to deal with this, but if you want to grow decent tomatoes, you'll have to do something about our soil.

So stay tuned next week as this blog gets dirty.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Seedlings, Day 5

The little pots of seedlings are coming along well—they spend their days basking in light. I'm keeping the soil evenly moist, but not soaked, which means I'm watering about every other day. The frequency of watering depends on your soil mix ... I'm using a fast-draining mix with lots of perlite, so I might have to water a little more frequently.

The seedlings pictured here are about 2" high, maybe a little more. At this point, the first true leaves still haven't emerged, but will probably do so in the next few days. They're also getting a little crowded, so I'll thin them out soon and leave just a few in every pot. Later, I'll thin them again, leaving just one in every pot. When you thin tomato seedlings, don't pull the young plants from the soil. You might accidentally pull up the whole clump. Instead, use scissors to snip them off. Take the smallest and weakest looking and leave the ones with the thickest, strongest stems and biggest leaves.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Seedlings Without Lights

Thanks to a reader in Boca Raton who asked an excellent question: "How do I get seedlings started indoors without grow lights?"

Even though I use lights for my seedlings, they aren't absolutely necessary. In fact, my best year was done without lights.

The best advice I can give if you don't have lights is to use the sun. Sprout your seedlings indoors as you normally would, then at about day 2 or 3, move them outside during the day. Find a spot with full sunlight, but not too windy. The sun, after all, is by far the best grow light, and your plants will be tougher because of their exposure to wind. In effect, you'll be hardening off the seedlings from Day 2 or so.

There are a few caveats, however. If there is a chance of rain, better to be safe than sorry and leave them inside that day. September rain can easily swamp your seedlings. Also, I wouldn't leave them outside overnight—what's the point of tempting any nocturnal beasties?

Why not just keep them inside on a windowsill? The truth is, you probably won't get enough light and your seedlings will stretch. Tomatoes like full sunlight from the moment they emerge. Unless you have an unobstructed south-facing window, it's unlikely you'll get enough light for truly healthy seedlings.

So it's a little more work to get seedlings underway without lights, but only because you have to schlep them outside in the morning and bring them back in later. But when you're eating fresh, homegrown tomatoes later this season, it'll be worth it.

P.S. It's still too early to plant outside, so hold off for a bit longer!

Friday, September 11, 2009


So it took four days, but all of my Giant Belgium, Homestead 24 and Marvel Stripe seeds have sprouted. None of the Azoychka have, but I suspect it's because the seeds were old. I just might not be growing that variety this year after all.

The seedlings in this picture are about two days old. At this point, no true leaves have emerged, and the seedlings are about 1" tall and very delicate. I'm growing them inside, under fluorescent grow lights. I'm using compact fluorescent lights with a reflector, positioned a few inches over the leaves. Currently, the light-cycle is 16 hours on and 8 hours off.

I expect it will take about month before these plants are ready to be transplanted outside, and truthfully, that's just about right for planting tomatoes here (or even still a little early). I don't know about anybody else, but I know we've had torrential downpours at my house every night this week. That kind of rain just isn't good for young tomato plants, and I hope the people who are planting already will keep their plants.

In any event, my next few weeks will be spent on raising up the best seedlings possible. The goal here is to produce bushy, tough plants that can handle the transition outside with no problem. But for now—at least for today—there's nothing to do but watch the tender young seedlings stretch toward the light and shed their seed pods.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Starting Tomato Seeds

When it comes to growing plants from seed, tomatoes are among the most rewarding. For one thing, I still find it hard to fathom that the tiny seedling of September will grow into the huge vine of January. Seeds in general are tiny miracles, but tomato seeds have at least one special attribute: they often germinate very quickly (sometimes as quickly as 4 days). This is good for impatient people like me.

I started my seeds on September 6, a little less than a week ago, in a custom-blended soilless seedling mix. You can certainly buy your own seedling media, but I make my own because it's cheaper. With the exception of the bat guano, you can find all of the ingredients listed below in almost any garden center. My seedling mix this year was comprised of:
  • 2 parts sphagnum peat moss
  • 1 part perlite
  • dolomite lime
  • bat guano
The lime raises the pH as well as supplies calcium and magnesium—both of which are important for tomatoes (much more on that later). The bat guano is an organic, low-strength fertilizer that supplies nutrients to the developing seedling, which strengthens the plant. Don't worry, though. You don't need guano to start seeds. In fact, you should be careful of any fertilizer in a seedling mix--too much fertilizer results in "hot" soil that can easily kill young seedlings.

Once my mix was complete, I filled a tray full of 2" Jiffy pots and sowed the tomato seeds about 1/4-inch deep. My first really successful year, I started out with cherry, plum, and Big Boy tomatoes. I'd highly recommend these varieties--they are heavy producers and generally forgiving. This year, however, I'm going a little exotic and planting four varieties that I ordered from the Tomato Growers Supply Company:

  • Azoychka, a yellow, early season tomato with citrus notes
  • Homestead 24, a red tomato bred especially for hot climates like South Florida
  • Marvel Stripe, a large heirloom tomato with striped yellow and red fruit
  • Giant Belgium, a ginormous red beefsteak tomato with fruit that weighs 2 lbs.
In all, I spent about $13 on seeds and probably a few bucks on soil and Jiffy pots. So far, I'm still well within budget ...

Up tomorrow: the first seedlings emerge.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Getting Started

The very first time I grew a tomato plant in South Florida, I did the same thing most people probably do: I picked up a tomato plant from my local garden center, dropped it in the ground with a store-bought tomato cage, watered it and hoped for the best.

My results were less than spectacular.

But I had no idea where that first vine would lead: mail order seed packets of exotic seeds, hours spent reading about soil amendments and the tomato plant's nutritional requirements, the construction of tomato towers from concrete reinforcing wire, and finally, winters spent with every spare surface covered with fresh tomatoes.

I got hooked.

I'm starting this blog to keep peace in my house: at some point, my wife will ban "tomato talk" this winter, and I can't say I blame her. I have a nearly boundless, annoying enthusiasm for these sorts of things. So my hope is to find people who are like me, who like to talk tomatoes. I'll share the things I've learned, and hopefully I'll learn some new things.

But now, let's get down to business. The season is almost upon us, and it's time to start making plans. It's time to make that first decision: Do you start from seed, or do you buy an established plant from the local garden center?

There are advantages and disadvantages to each.

Starting from seed is more labor- and time-intensive. It takes a little bit of skill to get them established. By contrast, starter plants are ready to go straight into the ground. No muss, no fuss.

Yet once you get the hang of it, your own seedlings will almost certainly be more vigorous than garden-center plants. Unfortunately, garden-center plants are often overgrown and some of them have even begun to blossom already. You should never buy a tomato plant with fruit already on it—the plant will not yield as well as one that had a normal adolescence.

To me, though, the biggest advantage to starting from seed is that you can grow dozens of varieties of tomatoes, from giant beefsteak to black cherry to bicolor and striped fruits. Garden centers tend to be limited to one or two varieties, and well, I like to grow new things. So I grow from seed.

Here's my final word for today: I was in a garden center this morning and I saw rows and rows of nice-looking tomato plants for sale. But a word of caution is in order. It's still too early to put tomato plants in the ground in South Florida. Even if the vine grows into a monster by October (which is likely), the nights are still too warm for many varieties of tomato to set fruit. You'll end up carpeting the ground with dropped tomato blossoms, which I know from hard experience is a depressing sight.

So hold off for a little bit. And if you find that you can't, order your seeds and follow along as I get mine underway ...