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 ...


  1. I am growing my tomatos in Earth Boxes. When should I plant them, and should I use just potting soil, or do I need fertilizer also? We live in West Palm Beach, FL Thanks Susan

  2. Hey Jon,
    I'm going to be growing tomato plants for the first time. They will be grown in a raised bed. Is there a good nursery to buy seeds in S. FL? I'm in Ft. Lauderdale. I figured it would be nice to go and talk to the people there instead of ordering the seeds online since I'm such a newbie. I'm going to be using the advice from your blog so thanks for writing!