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 ...