Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Great Organic Mind Game

I've been working my way up to this post for a while now, but you know ... it's been one of those things where reality has crashed into my preconceived notions, and that's never pleasant.

When I first started growing tomatoes in South Florida, I was a nut for organic gardening. Why bother growing your own if you're not going organic, right? I initially shied away even from chemicals you're allowed to use, like copper fungicide and BT for chewing bugs. Gradually, I got more comfortable with these and eventually decided that BT was the greatest thing since sliced bread and copper was crucial.

But for those first few years, I also didn't stray too far into TomatoLand. I grew mostly disease-resistant hybrids and loved the enormous harvests of perfect red tomatoes. Slowly, though, I started adding more heirlooms into the equation and discovered I loved those too. I like funky, knobby, weirdly colored tomatoes. And I like the huge ones. You know what I want? A black tomato the size of a basketball. That's right. Bring it.

Then came this season and my run at Brandywines and Cherokee purples (in case you're wondering, that's a Brandywine up there). You don't have to look far to find people who think these are the royalty of heirloom tomatoes, and I figured, hey, I've done this a million times before, so how hard can it be? And that's when reality crashed my little party.

Turns out that my two fondest desires ran headlong into each other: growing knobby heirlooms in South Florida and being an organic maniac.

So that's been my big lesson this season so far. I'm no longer sure it's possible to grow some of the more famous heirlooms in South Florida without using more powerful chemicals to control diseases and pests. I've been asking around among the professional growers I know, and they generally agree: you want to grow heirlooms, you need to spray. Simple as that.

Now, I'm not saying there aren't exceptions. I've done hardier heirlooms before that didn't get sprayed and turned out fine. And I have a feeling this year is particularly bad for diseases for me.

I'm not saying I'll stop growing the weird heirlooms. But from now on, when I grow a tomato that isn't naturally disease resistant, I'll be following a spray schedule from the moment that plant is outside, because preventing diseases is a lot easier than treating existing diseases. This means the new Brandywines, etc., are all going to be treated from planting onward.

I don't know exactly why this feels like a let-down. I have relatives and friends who garden up north, and while they openly (and sometimes in unhealthy ways) envy our weather, they also scoff at our disease problems. These are people who can grow huge heirlooms organically and hardly worry about anything more serious than a caterpillar. They just don't get how different it is down here—that growing in the ground isn't automatically easier, that our bugs could eat their bugs for lunch (literally), and that our environment teems with bacterial and fungal diseases.

Anyway, there it is. I'm working on a spray program this season for the heirlooms, relying on research conducted at the University of Florida and North Carolina State University. I'm just about to put the second crop of heirlooms into their pots outside, so I'll keep you posted on how it's going.

And p.s., I also read that we've had the coldest December in Florida history, thanks to some annoying weather pattern known as the Arctic Oscillation. Thankfully, they say the AO, which has been in place for a year now, is beginning to break up and the "worst is over." Hats off to that.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Season's First Bite

It seems we've made it through the first cold snap(s) okay ... Overall, I had a little bit of leaf burn and some browning, but it wasn't all that bad for the tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli, cucumbers, herbs or strawberries. The peppers are another story [draws finger across throat].

But today is good for more reasons than the return of warmer weather. It's always kind of a momentous day when you get to harvest and eat your first fruit of the season. Delayed gratification has never been my thing, so the whole idea of working at something and waiting for three months ... well, let's just say it's not the most natural posture in the world for me.

Today, I finally harvested and ate my first tomatoes of the season, and they were yellow pears. Actually, not only were they my first tomatoes of the season, they were also my first yellow pear tomatoes ever and HOLY CRAP, THESE ARE GOOD! They are juicy and tender, and easily one of the sweetest tomatoes I've ever eaten. It's not hard to picture people eating these things out of a bowl like candy ... they're that sweet. The only problem I can foresee is we won't have enough of them. I enthusiastically recommend these little guys.

I've also started my second planting of the season, and I'm hoping to get them outside in the next week or two. This time around, I'm doing Early Wonder (an early harvest variety, about 55 days from planting to harvest) and I'm doing another round of Brandywines. I've got lots of plans for the Brandywines this go round, but I'll save that for another post. I've been talking to some professional tomato growers, and let's just say my thinking is evolving on certain issues. If anybody is having success with Brandywines, I'd love to hear how you're doing it. So far, I've set one measly tomato on the two Brandywine vines I'm growing. So a quick word to the squirrels, caterpillars and rats: touch that tomato and die. You can have the paste tomatoes, the Big Boys, even the yellow pear and Cherokee purple (which are setting fruit like maniacs). But paws off the Brandywine.

Anyway, my final thought: in the interest of experimenting, I'm going to plant this next round into homemade self-watering containers. I poked around the Intrawebz and found some basic plans for EarthBox-like containers, and honestly, it doesn't look like rocket science. Let's just say the whole principle of the thing isn't too complicated. I think all it will take is a few buckets, a few pieces of PVC, and a drill. I'm on it. I'll post pix and plans when I'm done.

Finally, thanks to everybody who has written me. I'm ridiculously envious of some of the growing set-ups I've seen. We're all dealing with the same thing down here—frequently poor soil with nematodes, cold weather protection, and lots of disease. So it's pretty cool to see all the ways people have figured out how to deal with it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

So How's Everybody Faring?

One more night of cold left ... I hope. At least that's what the weather says.

My tomatoes are actually doing fine. I live near the coast, so the temperatures have been cold, but not deadly cold. I feel for some of the growers in the western suburbs, where I've been hearing about frost and truly damaging conditions.

I can't say things are going so well for the peppers, however. Peppers like warm weather—they are more cold-sensitive than tomatoes—and I'll probably have to end up harvesting early. Oh well. There's still plenty of time to get some more peppers in the ground.

Otherwise, how are you faring?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Cover 'Em Up

Whew, it's cold out there! I just got back inside from watering and my feet are freezing ... which of course is my own fault since I'm in shorts and barefoot, but still. It's cold.

This past weekend's cold snap wasn't much to worry about, but I think tonight and tomorrow are expected to be rather colder. I even heard the dreaded F-word for the inland areas. (If you're wondering, the word is "frost."). Tomatoes do fine to about 50ºF. Below that, they'll stop setting fruit until it warms back up. The 40s can be tricky—a few hours dipping into the 40s won't really hurt your plants, but they're not going to love it much.

But the 30ºs can be a real issue. This is when you can start seeing cold damage on your plants in the form of brown leaves (anybody remember this from last year? Warning: it's graphic.) And freezing (the other other F-word), of course, can be a disaster.

So ... judging from the fact that we're supposed to hit the upper 30s or lower 40s over the next few nights, and the wind chill can make that even worse, it makes sense to take a few precautions:

  • Water deeply in the evening. Hose water in South Florida comes out the tap in the mid-60s, and it will protect your plants' roots. This is especially important for container-grown plants, which don't have the insulating benefit of the earth.
  • Cover them with sheets. It doesn't have to be an airtight seal, but a sheet will help shield the plant from the wind, trap radiant heat from the ground, and in the very worst-case scenario, protect the plant's leaves from frost (which will cover the sheet, not the tender leaves).
  • Move 'em inside if you can. If you only have a pot or two, and that pot is on wheels or you just happen to be extremely strong, and you have a garage or covered patio, drag the plant up into shelter. Personally, I can't do this--too many plants, too large of pots--so you know, don't rub it in if you can.
Hopefully, the weather people will be wrong. Not a lot. Just a little. Four or five degrees would be nice. And let's be honest—it wouldn't be the first time they'd blown a call.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Caterpillars, Cucumbers, and Cool Weather

So it's finally supposed to cool down a little bit this weekend. I'm actually looking forward to it—as long as it doesn't get below 50ºF (or even if it does for a little while), the cool weather shouldn't be a problem in the garden. Actually, I'm expecting it'll help some ... it should slow down the fungus I've been dealing with all season.

Right around this time of the year is when I also start seeing caterpillars show up. I've already picked off my first few tomato hornworms and treated the plants with BT (bacillus thuringiensis). BT is a beneficial bacteria that kills chewing insects; it's often sold as Dipel dust. You can buy it anywhere. It's rated for organic growth and it's great stuff. Oftentimes, it's nearly impossible to see caterpillars on your maters because they blend in so well. Instead, look for tiny black pebbles on the leaves. That's caterpillar poop, and if you've got caterpillar poop, you've got caterpillars.

Outside of Tomato Land, I'm getting excited about my other veggies. I'm doing romaine and broccoli in EarthBoxes, cherry bomb and chocolate habanero peppers in pots (those are cherry bomb pictured below), and cucumbers in coconut grow bags. I haven't written much about EarthBoxes this season, but I will say this: if you're new to growing veggies and you want to have a pretty much guaranteed successful crop, use an EarthBox. You can pick up the basic box, with no wheels, fertilizer, potting media or trellis, for $30. They also sell potting media, fertilizer, and staking systems (which are essential if you're doing tomatoes in an EarthBox). It's easy to use (my five-year-old planted one this season), easy to maintain, and works like a charm.

But this morning was big for another reason: I picked my first vegetable of the season. It was a cucumber ... and yeah, I realized after I took this picture that there really isn't a good way to hold a cucumber.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Dear Brandywine, There's Still Time

Dear Brandywine,

I first heard of you a long time ago, way before I actually started growing tomatoes. I got the idea you were the queen of tomato land—the purest tomato taste, the best-looking fruit, the best pedigree. And it's true, with your deeply burnished shoulders and intoxicating hue, you're the tomato I imagine when I think of the ideal tomato.

This year is the first year I've tried to grow you. We both know how it's going.

I'm not sure if it's you or me. Sometimes I think it's you, to be honest. Sometimes I think you're just temperamental and fussy. Forgive me, but sometimes I think you're high maintenance. And can you blame me? What with your fungal diseases and blossom drop, the caterpillars and the black spot, it's not like you're making this easy on me. I'm working really hard here.

Sometimes I think it's me after all. Maybe I just wasn't meant for a tomato like you. Maybe I live in the wrong zone, or I don't know the secret code, or you're just not that into me.

But here's what I really wanted to say. I'm not giving up on you. Yeah, so this season isn't working out between us. I get it. But I'd like to think I've already learned a few things about you. For example, I think when I grow you again, I'm going to treat for fungal diseases and black spot from the day you go into the ground. I think we need to make some allowances here in Zone 10. That's just for starters.

Anyway, that's just what I wanted to say. You and me? We're not done yet.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Strawberry Power

I'll get to the tomatoes in a second, but this first ...

Behold the Tower of Strawberries. Ha ha. I've been absurdly excited about this method of growing strawberries since I first heard of it a few years ago. For one thing, I'm a strawberry purist—like tomatoes, there's just no competition between grocery store strawberries and fresh strawberries. For another, stackable containers have all the elements I like: it saves space, looks cool, and allows me to control the growing environment.

There are a few kinds of stackable containers out there, but I ultimately went with AgroTower's product. According to the manufacturer, these are designed to work with drip irrigation hoses run up the center column, feeding the individual pots a steady stream of water and fertilizer. I didn't go that far for my first season—I'm hand watering and hand feeding. The pots are designed so water drips down through the column naturally, and although it's a little tricky to water the little pots without washing soil out, it's not that impossible. I know the commercial farms (like this U-pick farm in Delray) all use automatic irrigation, but for one tower, it's no big deal.

Planting was pretty easy. I drove a stake into the ground to give the tower support, then stacked and filled the containers with Fafard 3B potting soil. Overall, I've got 30 strawberry plants, plus six lettuce on the bottom. I rotate the tower every day to make sure all the plants are equally exposed to sunlight. If all goes well, I'm hoping to make jam this year. That's assuming I can keep my five-year-old away from the ripening berries. Last year, I did a few test strawberry plants and I think only one strawberry made it inside. The rest vanished down his gullet as soon as they were even close to ripe. Little monster.

As for the tomatoes, I used Daconil fungicide (chlorothalonil) and the septoria stopped spreading. What can I say, the stuff works. The Cherokee Purple is setting fruit; and the Brandywine is flowering fairly well. I had to get rid of the Heinz because too much damage was done, so I planted a few Big Boys to make up the difference. My schedule looks like mid-season: watering in the mornings; feeding once a week with Espoma Tomato-Tone fertilizer and magnesium; pinching off shoots; and tying up the vines as they grow. These heirlooms aren't as aggressive as some other vines, so they haven't yet hit the top of my cages. When (and if) they do, I'll top the vines to stop the upward growth. In general, heirlooms aren't typically as robust as heavy-producing hybrids, so the plants tend to grow slower, stay smaller and bear less fruit.

Anyway, I'm feeling pretty good—the tomatoes are mostly back in hand. I'm thinking in the future that if I have rapidly spreading septoria like that, I'll spray a lot earlier. Copper fungicide is great stuff for bacterial spot, but it was pretty useless against the septoria fungal spot. I think I could have saved myself a lot of aggravation if I'd treated the vulnerable plants right away. It might even be worth considering treating heirlooms preventively, right after planting. Food for thought ... and another season.

This has also (again) made me appreciate the wonders of modern hybrids. Heirlooms are great tasting, but for sheer production and ease, go with a disease resistant variety.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Happy 'Mater Pictures ...

Things were getting a little grouchy around here, so I thought I'd post some pictures of happy tomatoes.

The top two pictures are Victoria Supreme (an oblong paste tomato), and the bottom picture is yellow pear. How fast a tomato sets fruit depends on the variety—most labels include a "days to harvest" number, which is an approximation of how many days you'll have to wait from planting the tomato until you can start harvesting fruit (if you plant your own seeds, this figure is typically calculated from the day the plant goes into the ground, not the day you plant seeds—add a few weeks for seeds). Most tomatoes range from about 60 days (early harvest) to 80 or 90 days (late harvest). If you want to keep a steady stream of fruit all season long, plant tomatoes with staggered harvest dates ... or just wait another few weeks and do a second planting.

If your tomatoes have been in the ground for a while and aren't setting fruit, there are a few possibilities:

  1. Some blossom drop is pretty common early in the season. As long as it's limited, don't worry.
  2. If you're growing in a very sheltered area, you might want to help them along by hand-polinating your flowers with a Q-tip. Tomatoes are pollinated by the wind, so they need turbulent airflow to spread pollen. People growing in covered patios sometimes have problems with pollination.
  3. The plant could be sick—blossom drop is more common among tomatoes that are suffering from diseases or bug attacks. Check the plant carefully for spotting, discoloration, streaks, and of course, bugs.
  4. Excessive nitrogen in your fertilizer. Using a regular foliage fertilizer can encourage leaf growth at the expense of fruit. Make sure you're using a tomato or vegetable fertilizer (I'll do a post on fertilizer labels soon because this is a pretty big topic).
  5. Excessive heat or humidity. I'm including this for the sake of being complete, but the weather so far this season has really been pretty good. When I walked outside this morning, I thought it was a perfect tomato morning :)
If none of this sounds right, or you want to give you plant a boost, you can buy a tomato set spray. This is basically a hormone that encourages tomato plants to set fruit even in adverse conditions. I've used these before during especially hot years and it works.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Decision Time

This is not a post I wanted to write.

I've been growing tomatoes for a long time, but this year seems to be the year when Bad Things Will Happen. Despite treating with copper fungicide, the septoria leaf spot I wrote about last week has continued to spread through the tomatoes—even tomatoes that are more than 50 feet apart are all suffering from it.

At first, I couldn't figure out why this year would be so much worse than any other. I've had leaf spot every year and been able to control it with copper fungicide spray (organic), good tomato hygiene and leaf removal. For a while, I thought it might be the mix of heirloom and heritage tomatoes I'm growing, but that argument never really made sense. I've grown heirlooms and heritage tomatoes before with no problem.

The best explanation I can come up with is construction. ("Huh?" you say. "Construction?") Yeah, construction. My neighborhood is the midst of a pretty massive infrastructure project. The roads are all torn up and our cars are continually covered with dust. The pool filter has to be backflushed almost every week. So obviously, there's a lot of particulate matter in the air this year—and fungal diseases live in the ground. My best theory now is that my plants are being coated with airborne fungal spores stirred up from road construction.

Anyway, it doesn't really matter why, because I have to figure out what to do. The copper spray is not working—the disease has continued to spread relentlessly. Here is the breakdown:
  • Brandywine: Lightly affected
  • Victoria Supreme paste tomatoes: Unaffected (this one, btw, is VFFNA)
  • Yellow pear: Severely affected
  • Heinz tomatoes: Severely affected
  • Cherokee Purple: Moderately affected
So ... my decision basically is this: do I switch to a stronger, commercial fungicide? The two best fungicides to control septoria leaf spot are chlorothalonil (sold as Daconil) and mancozeb (sold as Bonide Mancozeb). Of these, Daconil is easier to get—I believe they stock it at most large garden centers. As for efficacy, I looked for studies and didn't really see a consensus. According to North Carolina State University, mancozeb provides superior control for septoria, while some state ag departments I looked at recommended chlorothalonil.

Unfortunately, with the way this is spreading, I think my choice is pretty clear: treat with Daconil (primarily for convenience) or dramatically lower my expectations for this season's crop.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Going Ninja

The last few days have been a frenzy of black spots on my young tomato plants. But before I get to methods to control these, it's worth trying to figure out what they are exactly.

There are a number of organisms that can cause black spotting on tomato leaves, especially when the plant first sets fruit. They include Septoria leaf spot (a fungus), bacterial spot (Xanthomonas campestris), bacterial speck, and few others. In general, these are controllable, while some of the more terrifying wilts and blights are killers.

Most of these conditions are caused by the rapid spread of an infectious organism among your tomato plants. Just like in people, these little buggers like warm, wet conditions, so the early part of the season is especially dangerous for us as it's typically still hot and muggy—perfect weather for a bacterial or fungal infection.

In this case, I'm guessing I have Septoria leaf spot, which is characterized by wet lesions on the underside of leaves that develop in black spots with gray centers. Septoria is a fungal infection caused by warm, wet conditions. It is pretty much always present in South Florida, so ... you know, hard to avoid.

I always hate seeing this happen, even though it happens every year.

To control these kinds of diseases, start with prevention. Plant tomatoes in fresh soil, leave them far enough apart that the organism can't easily jump from plant to plant, and never water from overhead.

After you get it, this is what I do: apply a copper fungicide spray according to the label directions (weekly) and religiously remove any affected leaves. Copper fungicide is rated for organic growth, so you can use it on your plants and still have organic tomatoes. So obviously, it's not the strongest fungicide on the market—if you really want to go ninja on fungal diseases, you can switch to a much stronger product such as maneb or mancozeb. These are commercial-strength products.

Personally, I don't use 'em. I cut away leaves, slow it down with the copper spray, and hope the temperatures and humidity break in time for the plant to outgrow the infection. This has worked for me well enough, and I can avoid the stronger fungicides.

As a side note, I'm still really looking forward to the yellow pear tomatoes. EVERYONE loves them. But, man, me and yellow tomatoes have a rocky relationship, and this year is no different. These things are driving me crazy—leaf roll, fungal diseases, and of course, the tomato leaf curl virus. If anyone out there has experience successfully growing yellow tomatoes in South Florida, I'd love to pick your brain ...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Good Morning, 'Maters.

I like these mornings during vegetable season ... I get up when it's dark, get the kids off to school, and spend a few minutes with the tomatoes before going to work.

It's nice.

I know people have very strong opinions about organic versus non-organic, and what kind of growing medium is best, and even what variety of tomato is best, but I'm not really a "point of view" gardener. I'm not really trying to impose my belief system on the garden. I think I've tried almost everything, and you know what? I've grown good tomatoes almost every way. I've harvested excellent, tasty tomatoes with regular Miracle-Gro tomato fertilizer and common bagged soil—just like I've harvested awesome tomatoes with high-end micronutrient foliar sprays, exotic organic fertilizer blends, homemade compost, and custom soil mixes. I've eaten good tomatoes from the ground, containers and Earthboxes.

I would never want to make it seem harder than it is. If anyone was to ask me, "What's the best way to grow vegetables?" I'd say: every day, bit by bit.

No matter what other choices you make, I think if you're willing to spend a little time every morning with your plants (or at least every other morning), everything will be fine. Give them water on a consistent schedule (I actually water every day), feed small amounts of food consistently, and mostly, pay attention. Your plants will do a remarkable job of telling you what's going on. Do you see spots on leaves? Yellow streaking? Are there holes chewed in the leaves? Are they surrounded by flies? Are the blossoms dropping off or setting fruit? Is the fruit developing normally?

The only way to really find out what's going on is just to keep an eye open for it. And chances are, it will be easier to deal with than you think.

So these are easy, rhythmic days. Watering, watching, feeding weekly, tying up the vines as they grow, and plucking off suckers. Really, there are much worse ways to start a day.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Problems ... already

Well, well, here's something interesting.

One of my growing experiments this year is using 5-gallon coconut coir grow bags. I bought the product from HydroGardens, and they're really cool. The coir comes in a little block in a bag. You add water, and the brick expands into a 5-gallon bag full of coconut coir grow medium. Coconut is a little bit different than peat ... it retains water better, and most importantly, it's completely sterile and pH neutral. With peat, we add dolomite lime to balance the pH (peat is acidic and dolomite lime is a base), but the dolomite has the added benefit of supplying calcium and magnesium for the plants. With coconut, however, you can't use dolomite because it will raise the pH since the coconut is already neutral. Tomatoes, like most vegetables, like a slightly acidic environment (around 6.0 to 6.5 on the pH scale), but not too much.

So how do you deal with the calcium/magnesium issue in coconut? If you can't get it from dolomite lime, then where? I mix agricultural gypsum in at planting (for calcium), and supplement weekly with magnesium. Additionally, I feed with a balanced fertilizer and add bone meal (for more calcium). This has worked for me, and I've gotten some great tomatoes from these coconut coir grow bags.

This year, though, something new and interesting and awful is happening. I'm growing yellow pear tomatoes in the bags. One plant is vigorous and huge and beautiful and already flowering (the bottom photo). The other is stunted, with severely curled leaves on the top of the plant (the top photo). I've inspected carefully for insects (there are none), and I don't think there's a problem with temperature, watering, or nutrients, which can all cause tomato leaf curl.

Instead, I believe this plant is infected with the tomato leaf curl virus. This virus causes stunted plants, curled leaves from the top of the plant down, and new growth that stands upright instead of laying flat. I've never had this problem before. According to my reading, infected plants can still yield tomatoes, but if they are infected young (as this one was), yields might be reduced or in some cases, completely non-existent. There is no cure for tomato leaf curl virus.

So sadly, to prevent the spread of this to my other plants, I'm going to have to destroy the plant. Which means fewer yellow pear tomatoes for me and one long face ...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Brandywines at Home

Woo hoo! We have tomatoes!

So I've finally finished planting the tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. It's been kind of a slow process ... with me running out every so often and doing another container. I still have to get to the strawberries, broccoli and lettuce. But that's okay, because there's lots of time.

These pictures show the basic large-container set-up for the Brandwine tomatoes. I'm using 25-gallon containers with two vines per container. The soil mix was:

  • 2 parts peat moss
  • 2 parts composted cow manure
  • 1 part perlite
  • dolomite lime (a few handfuls)
  • bone meal (for calcium)
  • blood meal (for nitrogen)
This is an organic-based growing mix that is enriched with slow-release nutrients and will provide plenty of calcium and magnesium. I'm watering every day in the morning. If possible, water your tomatoes in the morning, always at the soil level. Never water tomatoes from above and avoid water and dirt splashing up on the leaves. This will reduce the chance of bacterial diseases.

As for fertilizing, I didn't fertilize at all the first week, but yesterday I started with a program of weekly fertilization with Espoma TomatoTone organic tomato fertilizer. You can use pretty much any vegetable fertilizer you want—I like Espoma because it's organic and I've had good results with it. Here's a tip: whatever fertilizer you're using, use it at half- or quarter-strength every week instead of biweekly or monthly. Plants are just like us ... they prefer lots of small meals rather than gorging on one giant one.

I'm also supplementing once a week with a 1/4-teaspoon of magnesium to boost the plants a bit. Magnesium is widely available in garden centers.

Finally, I'm pinching off all the side shoots on the vining plants (indeterminate tomatoes). These little suckers emerge from the space between the leaf stem and the main vine stalk. If allowed to grow unchecked, they'll reduce the yield and increase leaf mass, which reduces airflow and increases risk of a fungal or bacterial disease. So yeah, keep the vines clean.

And that's pretty much it for the big container-grown plants. This is the great part: it takes a few days for the vines to acclimate to their new home, and then they start growing like crazy. I'm already seeing the first tiny flower buds hanging like little bells, but there are no open flowers yet.

Finally, I'd like to offer a shout-out to this weather. Last year, we had a two-week heat wave in October that nearly did the plants in. This year? Just perfection as far as I can see. This is truly tomato weather.

So you tell me ... how are your plants doing?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Ready, Set ...

Now that's a seedling! This yellow pear seedling is clearly ready to go into the ground, so I'm thinking this weekend, I might end up planting some tomatoes. The weather is supposed to be perfect and fall-y, and at least a few of my seedlings are ready to go.

In general, the last week has been extremely good for these little guys. They've shot up, strengthened, filled out, and are starting to look like actual tomato plants. Actually, I have to admit that they sort of outpaced me—I was looking forward to spending next week talking about some fundamentals, and then planting next weekend. But I'm not going to complain about outrageously healthy transplants.

So ... let's get down to the nitty gritty. This weekend, I'll only plant tomatoes in conventional containers (as opposed to using an Earthbox or in the ground). The Earthbox is a whole different animal that I'll deal with later, but if you're planting in the ground, all of the following stuff still applies to you. I'll post photos after I finish, but here's the gist of the thing:

1. Remember how it's all about dirt? It absolutely is. Tomatoes like rich, loose, fast-draining soil for optimal growth. Yes, you can plant tomatoes in sand and they'll likely do OK (if you're good), but if you want ridiculous tomatoes, use good dirt. This year, I'm using Fafard 3B Professional Mix (purchased from Nu-Turf of Pompano), which I'll juice with dolomite lime, bone meal and blood meal. This particular bagged soil is blended for nurseries and has all the stuff I'm looking for—it's loose, chunky, and slow to decompose. You can also blend your own soil. Here's the recipe I used last year with great success, along with some more tips for container culture. Can you use a regular bagged potting soil, like Miracle-Gro? Yes. I would avoid any mix, however, that has water retention crystals, and if possible, try to avoid previously enriched mixes. They are usually nitrogen heavy, which encourages leaf growth at the expense of fruiting. But if that's all you can find, fear not.

2. Add a shot of dolomite lime, even to previously balanced soil mixes. Dolomite lime adds magnesium and calcium to the growing environment, and both are absolutely essential for healthy tomatoes. Tomatoes are very heavy consumers of calcium, and plants that are deficient in calcium develop blossom end rot, which is annoying and ruins your fruit. You can buy a big bag of dolomite lime at a decent garden center, and it will last forever. I use about 1 cup of dolomite per 20 gallons of mix.

3. Countersink your tomatoes! Don't be afraid to really bury those suckers. Cut off a few of the lower leaves and really sink the plant. Tomatoes will sprout roots from the stem, so this will result in healthy, more vigorous plants.

4. Remember to plan for staking them up. Your tomato plants will likely grow into monster vines, hopefully laden with 10 or 20 pounds of fruit. They will need to be staked up. As always, I'm using the same tomato cages I made years ago. Here are instructions on how to make your own. Whatever you do, don't count on those flimsy "tomato cages" they sell in garden centers. Those might work up north, where tomato vines only grow knee-high. Down here, an eight-foot vine will make a mockery of the little cage. If you don't want to build your own cage, you can get sturdy cages from places like Tomato Grower's Supply Company, although they are much more expensive to buy than make yourself.

As far as feeding your plants, I would hold off right away, so we'll talk more about fertilizers in the next few days. Transplants are still tender, with their little roots still toughening up. You don't want to hit the plant with a dose of strong fertilizer right away or you could end up with burned leaves. So you can use a transplant solution if you want, or you can give them a dose of fish emulsion (which I probably will), but hold off on the serious feeding for now.

If you must, and especially if you're growing organic tomatoes, add a little bone meal (for calcium) and blood meal (for nitrogen) to the soil mix. Follow the label instructions—these gentle, organic fertilizers are very unlikely to burn transplants.

One final thought: there's actually a fair bit of controversy surrounding the use of composts in your potting soil. I've used Black Cow composted cow manure for years, with great success. It's heavy (which is bad), but it's also a steady source of nutrition (which is good). I've also heard good things about composted chicken manure and mushroom compost. People who dislike these products say they are 1) too heavy and impeded drainage in containers (which is always bad) and 2) unstable, so you don't really know what you're getting. Personally, I'm not one of those people, and if you're planning on growing organic tomatoes, I think mixing a bag of compost into your growing media is a great idea.

Just remember: if you do add compost, I'd also dump some perlite in there. Perlite is used to increase drainage in potting soil—it's the little white stuff. It's nonorganic, but it doesn't compress over time and starve the plant root's of oxygen. Root-zone oxygenation is one of THE MOST important factors in healthy container plants. So ... if you want to use compost, pick up a bag of perlite while you're buying the compost and add that to the mix also. Your tomatoes will appreciate it.

Whew! So that's a lot, right? But handling the planting right is easily half the battle. (Although I think I say that often enough that this battle must have ten halves ... ha ha.) You want the biggest container you can handle, with the best dirt, and the healthiest transplant. Once you get that far, you can let the tomato itself handle a lot of the driving from here.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Seedlings: Day 27

I don't know about you, but the wind this week drove me a little bit nuts. Is it too much to ask to have a few weeks of perfect days? Seriously? All I'm asking for are light breezes, lots of sunshine, and mild temperatures for the next, oh, six months or so. Anybody? Please?

Anyway, I figured it was time for a seedling update. The seedlings are now spending all day outside in trays, then coming inside at night. I'm watering them lightly every morning, and I feel like I spend an inordinate amount of time running them back and forth. A few days ago, I stepped up their pots from the little 1.5-inch Jiffy pots to larger 4-inch Jiffy pots—this will be their last step up until they get planted for good. Technically, it's not a great idea to step up plants too many times—it's always a little shocking, and the roots have to grow through the Jiffy pots, which means more work for them. To make it easier on the new roots, I tear the bottoms off the Jiffy pots when I transplant, and in general, I find the rewards of this last step-up are worth the trouble.

When I transplanted the little seedlings, I countersunk the plants to give them extra strength. This is one of the great things about tomato plants—they will root from anywhere along the stem. So when you transplant tomatoes, it's always a good idea to bury part of the plant's stem under the soil. New roots will emerge from the buried portion and result in a stronger plant all around.

I'm still feeding them every third day or so with diluted fish emulsion, which in my house means they are NOT allowed inside until the fertilizer is completely soaked up and doesn't stink anymore. I've tried to blame the noxious odor of pulverized, soupy fish guts on anything else I can think of, but my wife ... she's not having it.

As you can see, I've had to stake up the seedlings, thanks to this gentle 20-mile-an-hour breeze that's been pummeling them lately. But on the bright side, much of the weakness that was freaking me out a week ago is gone—they are strong and healthy and growing fast, and I'm thinking in two weeks, maybe three, I get to have the Great Planting Weekend.

How are your seedlings coming along?

Are You A Ground Grower?

If somebody asked me what's the trick to good tomatoes, I'd say, "Consistency and dirt."

Consistency because tomatoes need regular care, and if you want a decent crop, there's really no substitute for developing the good habits of a tomato grower. (More on this later ...)

And dirt because it's the foundation upon which your whole season is built. Last year, I tested out a few fancy soil supplements in side-by-side experiments. I wanted to see if I could take my tomatoes to the next level, so I tried a micronutrient foliar spray and a probiotic soil drench. I have no doubt these are great products when used in the right settings, but I personally didn't see a difference between the plants I supplemented and my control plants grown under almost identical conditions (minus the supplements). At first, I thought the problem was me—maybe I just didn't know how to use the stuff.

But in a series of emails with the guy who developed one of these products, he suggested another reason: my growing conditions were already almost optimal. There was very little room for improvement, so he wasn't surprised to hear that I didn't really notice a difference. Basically, he was complementing my dirt.

Before we get into dirt, though, there's one point I want to bring up about growing in containers versus growing in the ground. You can great tomatoes either way, but there is a caveat: growing in the ground in South Florida isn't necessarily easier and does present a few challenges.

For one thing, our soil is loaded with nematodes. These tiny little organisms attack a plant's roots and cause a condition called root knot. Basically, growing in the ground means racing against the nematodes: you want to get a decent harvest before the plants start to lose vitality and your harvest is affected.

And nematodes aren't the only issue. South Florida has several kinds of native soil, including the mucky marl in western suburbs (which can be quite fertile) and the sandy soil in the east (which is lousy for growing anything). In general, though, our native, unimproved soil is not great for growing vegetables. The sandy soils don't drain especially well, and they tend to be deficient in nutrients. Tomatoes don't like this. As a result, plants grown in sandy soils tend to produce earlier, but smaller and less mature, fruit than plants grown in better soil.

I started growing in the ground, and I did pretty well. But over time, I gravitated to large containers for tomatoes (and I mean really large containers, like 25 gallons). Why? Because I realized I was treating the ground like a large container ... I was digging out big holes, then backfilling with the same soil mix I use in containers. Eventually, I just decided to skip the digging and go straight to containers. I haven't been disappointed yet.

So ... if you're planning on growing in the ground, you can still get great tomatoes and hopefully, I'll still have some helpful tips as we go forward. But I would definitely recommend against just plopping your plants into the ground without first improving the soil—trust me, you'll end up with a lot better plants with a lot fewer problems with just a little bit of preparation.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Starting the Planning

The weather these last few days couldn't be any better (except maybe shave a more degrees off at night). I love this time of year, when the summer heat finally starts to break and it's tomato growing weather. So the time is almost here, and now is the time to start making a few decisions if you're planning on buying transplants. Here are the big ones:

1. What kind of tomatoes should I grow?
2. How should I grow them?

What Kind of Tomatoes Should I Grow?

Pretty much from the moment I started growing tomatoes, I've been trying to grow exotic and weird varieties. Striped, yellow, pink, giant, heirloom, and on and on. And it's a lot of fun to grow something weird and fantastic ... but there's a giant caveat. For most of these tomatoes, you have to start from seeds that you probably ordered. If you're planning on buying transplants, you'll be limited by the selection of whatever nursery you shop at. I don't buy too many transplants, but if you want a decent selection, try the Flamingo Road Nursery in western Broward. They're pretty dedicated to vegetable gardening and usually have a good selection of different varieties.

Also, especially if you're newer at this, I think it's nice to actually harvest tomatoes. Success is a good thing. So I think it's a good idea for that first season or two to go with something tough and relatively easy. Cherry tomatoes, especially, are rewarding. You want almost-guaranteed tomatoes? Try almost any small-fruited variety. Roma tomatoes (a paste tomato), Big Boy, Better Boy, and Celebrity are also great. They taste good, they're prolific, and they're large.

Whatever you buy, here are a few tips:

  1. Avoid plants that already have flowers and even small fruit. You're not giving the tomatoes a head start when you buy plants that already have started to flower. What's actually happening is that the plant has adjusted to its smaller container and started to mature. When you plant it, you'll be confusing it and setting it back. The plant won't grow as large or bear as many tomatoes as a truly immature plant. So look for strong transplants that don't have flowers already.
  2. Try to avoid plants that are completely root bound. If you can see masses of roots around the edge of the pot or coming out from the bottom, it's been in the pot too long and has become root bound.
  3. Look for plants that are resistant to the diseases and pests. Most of the commercial tomatoes will have the letters "VFN Resistant" somewhere on the label. This means the plant is naturally resistant to verticillium, fusarium, and nematodes. The first two (verticillium and fusarium) are fungal wilt diseases that can be a problem in our humid climate. The third (nematode) is a kind of nearly microscopic pest that lives in abundance in the soil and causes root knot disease. VFN tomatoes are resistant to some degree to all of these, which is a good thing because all of them are major problems in South Florida.
  4. Be aware of your plant's growth patterns. Most tomato plants grown at home are indeterminate. This basically means the plant is a vine and will need support as it's growing. If you're growing indeterminate tomatoes, you'll have to train it up some kind of trellis or support system while it's growing and trim the vine to yield maximum fruit. Indeterminate vines are nice because they yield fruit gradually, so you can pick tomatoes from the same vine for weeks or even months. The other variety is known as determinate. This basically means the plant is a bush that tends to stay smaller and bear all its tomatoes at once. If you're planning on canning salsa or sauce, determinate tomatoes are great because you'll get a whole lot of fruit all at once. Also, despite the fact that determinate tomatoes are stronger and bush-like, you'll still probably need to support a heavy-bearing plant with some kind of cage.
  5. Be ready to plant.
Ideally, you don't want your tomatoes to hang out in their tiny pots for very long. It's safe to assume when you buy tomatoes at a garden center that they've already been in their pots for a while. So get everything else ready, then buy your tomatoes and plant them within a day or so of getting them home. The sooner you get them into their permanent environment, the faster they can get down to the business of seriously growing.

How Should I Grow Them?

Buying tomatoes is easy, right? No problem. You just go, pick up a few plants and maybe a bag of soil and you're on your way. In reality, though, most of the decisions start AFTER you get your tomatoes home. Do you grow them in the ground? In containers? What about the Earthboxes? How can I get organic tomatoes?

I'll deal with some of this stuff in the next few posts, but here's a good place to start thinking about it ...

You can grow good tomatoes in containers (including the Earthbox) and in the ground. Either way. The trick is in the soil, and fortunately you can control that. Also, no matter where or how you plant them, they'll need AT LEAST five hours of sun. I tried tomatoes last year in a spot that only got four hours of sun every day and I got exactly one tomato from that plant, so five hours is the minimum. Six is better. And full sun all day is awesome.

Beyond sun, by far the most important consideration is your soil. I'll do a separate post (or two) on how to blend soil and how to improve Florida's native soil (which generally sucks) for maximum results. Ultimately, better soil equals better plants, so don't skimp on the dirt! Old, exhausted potting soil or sandy soil is a sure path to stunted and underperforming plants.

After this comes the fertilizer and watering habits. I'll write about all that later, but one note first: I know growing organic tomatoes is very important to lots of people—the reason they grow tomatoes at all is to have organic fruit. And I usually do a mix: some organic and some not organic. Ultimately, it's my experience that you can grow awesome tomatoes either way—provided you start with good soil. It always comes back to the dirt.

As for me, the seedlings are still coming along. They've started to grow faster now and the true leaves are starting to emerge. I've started feeding them with a weak fish emulsion fertilizer and they're spending all day outside under the sun ... I'm not sure exactly when they'll go into their containers, but it won't be long now.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Seedlings: Day 18


First off, I should quit trying to predict what my next entry will be. So far this season, I've been pretty awful about predicting what's coming next.

Second, a camera malfunction (or possibly a child malfunction) caused me to lose all the pictures from the day I thinned the seedlings. So we'll have to do with this picture instead, which shows the pots after I thinned them. Anyway, here's one good thing: the blog is now caught up with the tomatoes. I took these pictures on Wednesday, Sept. 29, showing the seedlings on Day 18.

As you can see, I'm down to 2-3 seedlings in each pot, except for the peppers (those spiky little guys in the foreground). The cucumbers germinated in one day, the tomatoes in 2-4 days, and the peppers took about 10 days. That's pretty normal for peppers, so if you're going to grow peppers from seed, just expect them to take longer to germinate. No big deal.

This season has gotten off to an interesting start. For one thing, this is the first season I've grown Brandywines, and the variety I'm growing are known as potato-leaved tomatoes. this means they don't have the "regular" serrated tomato leaf. Instead, they have a oval leaf with smooth margins. There's no real difference in how you grow potato-leaved tomatoes, but they certainly look different.

Also, my seedlings this year are not as robust as in past years. I suspect one of three things: my lights are older and need to be replaced (fluorescent grow lights lose potency surprisingly fast); the 1/2 & 1/2 worm casting and peat-based soil is too "rich" for the tender seedlings; or I'm growing varieties that are just obnoxious. Whatever the cause, to help them along, I've already started hardening off the seedlings.

Hardening off is the process of transitioning your seedlings from the protected, perfect environment inside your house to the big, bad outdoor world. All indoor seedlings should be hardened off before they are permanently moved outdoors. I started this process a little earlier than I might have, but I think it'll be okay. To harden off seedlings, move them outside for a portion of each day. Pick a sunny, protected spot. At first, the seedlings will only be able to handle two or three hours of direct sun. But they will acclimate fast, and within a few days, you should be keeping them outside in full sun pretty much all day. During the hardening off period, move them inside if it's windy or raining, and don't leave them outside at night. Also remember, they will use up a lot more water outside, especially on sunny days. So check them frequently and keep the potting media moist.

So far, I haven't staked up any seedlings, but I can already tell I'm going to have to. This isn't a big deal—I usually have to stake up seedlings. I use the long bamboo skewers you buy in the grocery store. I'll post pictures when I get that far.

I don't know why exactly, but I feel like this season is a little touch-and-go so far, which is weird this early on. I've been growing seedlings for years, so I was surprised to experience yellowing leaves and stretching. It just goes to show ... there's a delicate balance involved in starting from seed, and even after you're pretty good at it, there is always the possibility of the unknown. Living things sometimes refuse to cooperate.

Up Next: Just kidding!

Seedlings: Day 8

These are tomato seedlings at Day 8 ... At this point, they're about 1.5 inches tall and the pots are almost ready to be thinned. Right now, it's basically impossible to tell one variety from another—this photo happens to show Brandywines, Cherokee Purples, and Heinz tomatoes. But even though they all look the same, I've already started to notice some differences with these heirloom tomatoes ...

The Brandywines and to a lesser extent the Cherokee Purples are stretching on me more than I'm accustomed to. Stretching is when young seedlings grow too fast. They become elongated and top heavy, with a weak stem. It's usually caused by insufficient light, either because the sunlight is too weak or the lights are too far away. To remedy this stretching, I moved the lights closer to the plants, but I've started to see a little burning on the emergent leaves. So it seems to be a toss-up.

At this point, I'm watering every day, but I'm bottom watering the little pots so they can soak up what they need. I haven't started fertilizing yet because the soil mixture is enhanced with worm castings (which are a very weak nitrogen fertilizer), so too much fertilizer at this point can easily burn the plants. Later on, I'll be feeding heavily, but when they're seedlings, a tiny bit of food goes a long way.

These pots are almost ready to thin—at around Day 11 or so, I cut out the weak and small seedlings to leave only two or three in each pot. I'll further cut those out to leave only one in each pot. You want to strongest, thickest, biggest seedlings for your transplants. I'm expecting to get my plants outside in the second or possibly third week of October, but a lot of it depends on their size and vigor.

While they're growing, the days are pretty routine, and there really isn't much involved. It's hard to believe this little tray of seedlings will soon grow into a monstrous backyard garden, but that's the great thing about starting from seed. You get an package of seeds and violá! A few months later, you're elbow deep in vegetables.

For everyone out there whose planning on using store-bought transplants (which is most people, I'm guessing), still hold off. As I'm writing, we're looking at 4" to 8" of rain TODAY (thanks, tropics), so obviously this is not the kind of weather that young tomato plants can withstand. It'll kill 'em in an afternoon. Also, while I'm doing the seedling thing, I'll pull together a blog post on buying tomato plants, with some pointers on how to pick the best plants and what varieties work best.

As a final note, I'm still deeply impressed with the cucumber seedlings. I don't have a picture of them, but wow, these things are really taking off ... I'm liking the cucumbers.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Day 1—Holy Cukes, Batman!

I've never grown cucumber from seed, but I was still shocked to see that the cucumbers germinated in one night. It seemed the little shoots popped up almost immediately upon planting them, which is good news for those of us with short attention spans. The picture here shows them at three days old.

The tomatoes all followed over the next 2-3 days. This might seem fast, but tomato seeds are actually pretty eager to germinate providing you give them two essential conditions: moisture and heat. Tomatoes germinate best when they're held at around 80ºF. Since I'm using Jiffy pots, I water from the bottom and just let the pots soak up water as needed (just don't let the pots sit in water—provide only as much as they can soak up).

Peppers take bit longer to germinate, up to 10 days or even two weeks. So while I've got beautiful cucumber seedlings after a week and clusters of tomato seedlings, not one pepper has poked its little head up yet. At this point, I'm still watering with plain water—there's no reason to feed these seedlings until the first true leaves have started to emerge.

I've often said this the hardest part—the seedlings—and I stick by it. Seedlings need tons of light, but not too much or they'll burn up. They need constant, plentiful moisture, but not too much or they'll suffer from a fatal condition called damping off. They appreciate a tiny bit of fertilizer—worm castings, diluted fish emulsion fertilizer when the true leaves begin to emerge—but most full-strength fertilizers will burn them up. They do best when protected and coddled a bit, which means keeping them away from wind and busy little hands.

But it's also completely worth it, in my opinion. I'm growing Brandywine and Cherokee Purples this year, which I can ONLY do from seed. And there's something very satisfying about taking care of a tiny sprout—it's the kind of thing that makes you pay attention because there really isn't much margin for error.

One final note: Don't worry if you haven't started seedlings yet, or you're just starting them now. You have PLENTY of time this season, and even starting now, your plants will still be in the ground relatively early. In fact, you still have time to do two full crops. And if you're planning on buying transplants from a garden center, wait a bit longer. With 90ºF days and still the threat of heavy rain, it's too early for tomatoes to really thrive outside. Kick back, give it a few weeks, and follow along as my seeds go from tiny to towering.

Up Next: Thinning out Seedlings

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Seedlings Start


I'm sorry I'm a few days behind on posting—work unfortunately intruded. But no fear! The plan has continued apace ...

I hear sometimes that people don't like to start from seedlings—and I get it. Seedlings are by far easier to kill than mature plants, and it requires a few materials and space to really do it well. But I'm still a big fan of starting from seeds. First off, you can grow anything you want (especially if you're growing in containers). You're not limited by the selection at the garden center. Second of all, once you get the hang of it, you'll get much better quality transplants. I'm not trying to knock the professionally grown transplants that you buy at garden centers. I'm sure when they leave the greenhouse, they're in great shape. But let's face it, after they've sat at your local garden center for a few days and started to outgrow their containers and set flowers, it's less than ideal (that's another blog post).

Anyway, back to the point: I planted my seedlings on September 11, or about a week ago. This year, I'm using 1.5" Jiffy pots and a mixture of 1/2 potting soil and 1/2 worm castings (worm poop) to start the seedlings. Worm castings are a very mild fertilizer and I find I get great results with it. I'm starting the seeds indoors under compact fluorescent lights. All the tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers will be from seed (hence the labels in the planted pots).

But Jon, you might ask, what if I don't have lights for seeds? Good question.

First, I'd say if you're serious about growing from seed, I'd recommend buying some. You can grow healthy seedlings under regular fluorescent lights, so you don't need a special grow light set-up. You just position the lights about 4" over the pots and it'll work like a charm. Give 'em 18 hours of light and 6 hours of dark and you'll have healthy transplants inside of a month.

If you don't have lights, you can try using a very sunny window. Truthfully, though, this is a less-than-ideal situation. It's rarely sunny enough, and the seedlings will stretch toward the light, resulting in spindly, weak seedlings.

You can also start seeds outside, but this adds a whole new challenge: birds. I don't know about you, but we have very aggressive doves and pigeons and I've lost too many pots of seeds to mess with them. I've even found lizards digging in my pots (although they were after bugs). So you can try outside, but be prepared to fight wildlife and lose a lot of seeds before they even sprout. Also, remember that seedlings are delicate. Rain and windy conditions can drown them, blow over pots, or otherwise kill them. Remember to move your plants inside if it looks like the weather is going to turn bad.

Up Next: Sprouts!

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Plan, Part II

I just took delivery of four—count 'em, four—5-gallon coconut coir grow bags. I used these last year to grow Better Boy tomatoes with decent results. Basically, these are black plastic 5-gallon bags with expandable growing media already packaged in them. You simply add water, the coconut coir growing media expands, and you plant. Well, it's almost that simple. Coconut doesn't exactly have the same properties as composted peat, which is the main ingredient in most bagged potting soils, so you have to make a few adjustments to it along the way. But as with so many things, I'll get into that more later.

For now, I wanted to round out the growing plan for this year. The big news is that I'm expanding the tomato garden this year to cover a whole bunch of stuff, including strawberries, cucumber, hot peppers, romaine lettuce, broccoli, and a full herb garden. I'm dropping the cabbage and eggplants, which I grew last year. It turns out there's no way to convince the family to eat cabbage and eggplant, so it's kind of wasted effort to grow it.

So here is the final plan, including a brief mention of how I'll be growing each crop. In the coming days and weeks, as I start to raise seedlings, I'll go over each of these in greater depth, because of course there are details like potting media, soil amendments, and fertilizers that must be attended to. As always, my goal is to find the best way to get the most food from the smallest space, which explains the hodgepodge of growing methods. Here goes:

  • Brandywine tomatoes in a 25-gallon container
  • Cherokee purple tomatoes in a 25-gallon container
  • Victoria Supreme paste tomates in a 15-gallon container
  • Heinz tomatoes in a 15-gallon container
  • Broccoli in an Earthbox
  • Romaine lettuce in an Earthbox
  • Jamaican hot chocolate peppers in a 10-gallon container
  • Big Bomb cherry peppers in a 7-gallon container
  • Yellow pear tomatoes in a 5-gallon coconut grow bag
  • Cucumbers in a 5-gallon coconut grow bag
  • Strawberries in stackable containers
I'm especially excited about the strawberries. Stackable containers are just what they sound like: multi-ported containers that stack one upon another to yield a tower of growing space. You're growing vertically, not horizontally, so I'll be able to grow something like 60 strawberry plants in one 2-foot square tower. The towers can be rotated so the strawberries receive equal sunlight. I've never grown this way before, so I'm hoping it works. Incidentally, so is my five-year-old son—last year, not one strawberry from my test plants made it into the house because he'd sneak outside and eat them all. If you're interested in stackables, mine are being shipped from here.

So there it is. In my way of thinking, you don't need a ton of space to grow enough vegetables to feed your family for the season. You just need to grow smart, so each plant yields as much as possible. And if there's extra, you can always give it away.

My last thought: it's still too early to plant seeds, so resist. And definitely resist buying tomato plants from the garden center. It's waaaaay too early for that.

Up Next: Getting Dirty—The First of Many Posts About Potting Media and Why It Matters So Much

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The 2010 Plan, Part I

The vegetable season always starts on a surprisingly apprehensive note. I'm always worried about making the right choice and getting the right seeds—and buying tomato seeds is a little bit like buying a car. It's not exactly easy to back out once you're committed.

Last year, I grew big pink tomatoes, striped tomatoes, and yellow tomatoes. And oddly, one of the things I realized was that my favorite tomatoes are the big, acidic red ones. I like tomatoes that taste like tomatoes. And because I preserve my own salsa, I also like paste tomatoes, which have fewer seeds and liquid and make thicker, richer salsas and sauces.

So this year, I've spent a fair amount of time with my nose buried in my favorite tomato catalog, trying to decide what kind of tomatoes I should grow. I wanted to strike a balance between big, juicy red tomatoes and the more interesting varietals. In the end, this is what I've decided to grow:

  • Brandywine. These are probably the most famous heirloom tomatoes in the world. They are big, luscious, red tomatoes with a deep tomato flavor. Because they are not naturally resistant to any of our diseases or pests, they must be grown in containers.
  • Cherokee purple. Another heirloom tomato. These are deep purple and known for their striking color and taste.
  • Victoria Supreme. These are paste tomatoes I'll use for sauce and salsa.
  • Heinz. Yep, the actual Heinz tomato. I've never grown these before, so I'm curious what ketchup tastes like off the vine. These are determinate tomatoes.
  • Yellow pear. These are advertised as "garden candy," and they're tiny and cute and yellow and pear-shaped. Last year, I had horrible luck with yellow tomatoes, so I wanted to see if I could get it right this year.
As always, I bought all my seeds from the Tomato Growers Supply Company. I highly recommend them; I've never had a bad experience.

Obviously, I'm growing mostly heirloom and non-disease-resistant tomatoes from seed. If you're planning on buying tomato vines from your local garden center, you'll likely be getting Celebrity, Big Boy, Better Boy, Roma, or cherry tomatoes. I've grown all these before, and had a great experience. Better Boy are still among my favorite tomatoes in terms of flavor, and these varieties all have the advantage of being resistant to the pests and diseases that are so common here in South Florida (that's another entry). So if that's your plan, don't fret—but don't buy them yet. It's WAY to early to plant vines. Just hold off for a while, and later on, as we get closer, I'll give some quick pointers on buying tomato vines from a garden center.

Finally, my choice of tomato varieties this year will definitely affect my growing methods. Because I'm growing tomatoes that cannot resist our soil-borne pests and diseases, I'm growing 100% in containers this year. I've found over the years that I've steadily gravitated toward containers, until I'm finally growing ONLY in containers. While you can grow excellent tomatoes in the ground, ultimately I find that containers make it possible to grow more varieties and control the growing environment more completely. To me, these are good things.

But all that will be coming up later. For now, I've got my seeds in hand, and it's almost time to start germination. But not quite yet. Patience is in order—and unfortunately, that's usually in short supply right around this time of year. In the meantime, I'll try to keep myself busy with all the new stuff I'm planning on growing this year ...

Up next: Beyond Tomatoes (The Total Edible Winter Garden)

And p.s., I added a subscribe option to the bottom of the page if you wanted an automatic update every time a new post is added ... you know, for convenience sake.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Is It Really Time Already?

If you're anything like me, you probably started planning this year's vegetable garden as soon as you harvested your final tomato last spring. And as much as I've enjoyed the South Florida summer, I can't wait to get back into the vegetable season. My Earthboxes are packed away, my containers are stacked neatly by the shed, and the tomato cages are lined up alongside the house. But not for much longer. The time is almost here ...

If you're new to this blog, the whole idea is pretty simple: I grow tomatoes and veggies in South Florida and blog about it. Part of the idea is to experiment with different varieties and growing methods to see what works best in our unique environment. Last year, I grew a bunch of varieties of tomatoes in a bunch of different environments (the ground, containers with peat-based soil, self-watering containers, expandable coconut grow bags). I used organic and synthetic fertilizers, and I tested various exotic soil amendments and nutrient systems. This year, I'm going to do all that, plus add a few new twists ... including a tower of strawberries in a really cool set-up that should be adaptable for even the smallest of sunny spots.

But I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. As always, I want to begin at the beginning, and in this case, that means ordering my seeds now so I can start them in early September. Last year, I started seeds on September 6, which meant I put plants in the ground on October 2. We had a fairly massive heat wave in October, so the plants struggled for the first week or two, but everything worked out in the end, so I'll follow the same basic schedule this year.

So if you're returning to the blog, welcome back. And if you're new, I hope you enjoy following along and perhaps you'll grow some great tomatoes yourself. I try to post as often as possible about what's going on in Tomato Land, and if you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line.

Better yet, share pictures.

Next Up: This Year's Garden Plan, Part One

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The End of the Year

If you're growing tomatoes in South Florida, you know we're nearing the end of the season. The photo to the left shows Bella Rosa determinate tomatoes about to ripen. I started these seeds on Dec. 31, using expandable peat pellets. Then I moved them outside and potted into 15-gallon containers with Fafard 3B Professional Grow Mix juiced with a little dolomite lime. I've been feeding with a regular Miracle Grow tomato fertilizer, plus weekly shots of magnesium. They're doing well, and soon I expect a second-season harvest.

Before I officially go dark for the summer, I wanted to do a final post about the things I learned this winter. So here we are ... my last thoughts on the growing season for 2009-2010:

1. The weather will be what it will be. I still managed a decent harvest this year, despite the historic cold snap that basically killed my vines. By the time it got cold, the fruit was almost mature, and I ended up harvesting tomatoes from brown vines. I didn't get as many tomatoes as I had in the past, and they didn't have the same vibrant taste as previous years, but I consider myself lucky. Any harvest in a year like this one was an achievement.

2. I've said it before, I'll say it again: consistency and discipline are everything. If you can stick with a regular watering and feeding schedule, there's no reason you can't grow great tomatoes. This is far more important than your choice of growing methods, your fertilizer preference, or pretty much anything else. Love it and care for it, and it will grow.

3. What they said. Sun is key. If you can't get at least five hours, but six or more is better, you will not get much fruit.

4. I used a few fancy soil supplements this season in side-by-side tests. One was KeyPlex, a foliar micronutrient spray. The other is a soil probiotic known as Biotamax (actually, the tomatoes pictured above are growing in this pot). Both are designed to increase yields and plant health by supplying either nutrients or soil organisms. In the case of KeyPlex, I tested it in a side-by-side test in both peat-based mix and coconut coir grow bags. Ultimately, while I really liked the idea of it and I'm still going to keep testing it, I didn't see a difference this year. It's entirely possible I haven't yet figured out how to use it. The Biotamax is still going—I'm testing it in side-by-side containers of Bella Rosa tomatoes grown under the same exact conditions except for one pot having Biotamax. So far, the tomato plants are performing identically, so once again, it's possible that I simply don't know how to use it yet.

5. I ended up canning 12 pints of salsa, 4 quarts of spaghetti sauce, and 2 quarts of crushed tomatoes. Awesome! I wish you could try the salsa. And I gave away pounds of fresh tomatoes.

6. I ended up using five approaches this year: in the ground; Earthbox; 25-gallon containers with a peat-based custom mix; 15-gallon containers with Fafard Professional Mix; and 5-gallon coconut grow bags. They all did pretty well, actually, but the biggest tomatoes and the heaviest vines were definitely in the largest containers.

So that's it for this season. Ultimately, when I look back, this will be the year that was defined by a historic freeze, some excellent fruit, and I learned a lot. Please feel free to write me directly if you want, but until next season, this is Growing Tomatoes in South Florida signing off.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Catfacing is a strange condition that produces deformed tomatoes like the one above. It occurs early in fruiting, when the blossom of the young tomato develops unevenly. As a result, the fruit is misshapen, with strange convolutions and unsightly bulges all over.

Because catfacing is a disorder of the very young fruit, it can be caused by anything that affects the flowers and teensy tomatoes at this stage. This includes extremes in hot and cold, excess nitrogen, and even inconsistent watering habits. So, once again, healthy tomatoes are grown by disciplined growers who moderate water, use correct fertilizer, and try to protect from weather extremes when possible (which, obviously, wasn't this year). Catfacing is also more common among larger varieties—the tomato shown above is actually a Belgian Giant that weighed in the neighborhood of 2 pounds.

There is good news, however. In most cases, catfacing doesn't affect the flavor of your tomatoes. If you're planning to process them into sauce or salsa (which I did this past weekend--woo hoo!), then you can still use them. If, however, you're planning on entering them into a centerfold competition, you're probably out of luck.

Also, catfacing tends to affect the older varieties more than newer hybrids, which have been bred for their round, consistent shapes. This means large-fruited heirloom and beefsteak varieties are especially vulnerable, while it's virtually unheard of in small hybrid cherry tomatoes. This season, I happened to be growing two large-fruited heirloom and beefsteak varieties (marvel strip and giant Belgium), so I had some catfacing.

All in all, though, it doesn't bother me much. I tend to grow more tomatoes than we can possibly use, so every fall I feel a bit like a slave to the harvest. At first, I'm so excited to get a few fresh tomatoes, but then I have to race to figure out ways to stay ahead of the flood of fresh tomatoes overtaking the kitchen. After all, tomatoes rotting on the counter stink, and my wife does not like things that stink. So I bottle my own salsa, crushed tomatoes, and spaghetti sauce, and I don't let a little catfacing or mild splitting get in the way.

Up Next: Fancy Soil Amendments—Lesson One From This Year

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tomatoes Splitting

That's one split tomato, huh?

I've had a relatively serious problem with splitting this year, which means I've had to throw out more tomatoes than I like because they split and were later infested with worms or rot. Annoying.

Most books say that splitting is caused by watering issues. Periods of dry, followed by lots of water like a heavy rain, can cause splitting. It happens when the tomatoes are still green, and their skin/exterior is hard and inflexible. As the excess water rushes into the fruit, it causes a growth spurt that the young fruit cannot handle, so it splits.

We had very heavy rains in December this year, so I've been blaming my splitting on the rains. However, I've noticed that 90% of the splitting is confined to the tomatoes growing in the coconut coir grow bags. These are Better Boy hybrids, so they should be tough as nails—and I promise my watering has been absolutely consistent. I've been watering the grow-bag tomatoes every morning, just the same as the container-grown tomatoes in sphagnum. And these heirlooms and beefsteaks growing in sphagnum peat are hardly splitting at all.

So ... I've done tons of research on this and I can't find any proof that tomatoes grown in coconut coir are more liable to split. So have mine own eyes thus deceived me? I don't know. I do know that coconut coir has a different water-holding capacity than sphagnum peat; it's possible that daily watering is simply too much because the coconut coir holds water for so much longer. Then again ... professional growers using coconut coir water with daily drip irrigation. It's possible I have yet to really understand how to use coconut coir.

In any event, at the most basic level, tomato splitting is caused by inconsistent watering, with periods of dry followed by lots of water. I suspect in my case, there's a learning curve for using coir as a growing media, and next time, I'll try every-other-day-watering. If anyone out there has any insight, I'd love to hear it.

Finally, I did my second planting today. That's one nice thing about South Florida—we get two plantings every year. So this fall, I grew indeterminate tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage and herbs. And earlier today, I planted determinate tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and strawberry. The eggplant and peppers are in an Earthbox, the determinate tomatoes and strawberries are in large containers with my normal peat-based mix. This time around, I'm testing another soil amendment called Biotamax. It's a soil probiotic, and I'll post on it soon.

And I guess that's it. I've been harvesting like mad lately, so I've been canning tomatoes, fermenting sauerkraut, and eating enough fresh tomatoes that sometimes I feel like I'm turning slightly red. But it's been nice, and even with the loss of so much fruit this year, we're still neck-deep in homegrown produce. And that's not a bad thing ...

Up Next: Catfacing

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Some Harvest Photos

I know I promised a post on splitting, which has actually been a pretty significant problem this year (thanks December rains). And I'm planning a post on cat-facing also, which has affected a number of my heirloom and beefsteak tomatoes. But this is also harvest time—the fruit is ripening now and I'm picking tomatoes every day—so I thought I'd post a few harvest pictures. The varieties included in these pictures are Homestead 24, Belgian Giants, Better Boy, and Azoychka. (And cabbage.)

They were all harvested in the last four days.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

After the Cold Snap

Well, I did everything I could. I followed my own (and everyone else's) instructions to the letter. I covered plants, I watered to keep the soil warm, and I crossed my fingers. I'm glad to say my plants made it through the Great Freeze, but not exactly with flying colors. Here was the Belgian Giant on Dec. 23, about a week before it got cold:

And here it is this morning:

Obviously, a disaster.

On the good side, all my plants lived, and there is still plenty of fruit ripening. But the cold damage is extensive and ugly. When I told my wife I didn't want to post pictures because it was so depressing, she said, "Maybe it's time to get philosophical." And maybe it is. This season has not been kind to us tomato growers. A warm spell in October, torrential rains in December, and a freeze in January. So yes, we can't control what Nature will do. Sometimes it sucks.

But on the other hand, there are many much worse things than having a mediocre harvest or losing a few plants. I've spent this season so far closely attuned to the weather, to the changing of the seasons, to the natural environment. I've been connected to the world, to the planet, and we've been enjoying freshly harvested tomatoes (among other crops) all season. There are many worse things than watching the sky and wondering if it will rain. No matter what happens, it's never a loss to grow and nurture something. It's never a loss to care.

Up Next: Tomatoes Splitting

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Tomatoes and Freezing

If I hadn't just been outside, I would have a hard time believing this. But here's the latest from the National Weather Service, as of 12:12 a.m.:

Rest of Tonight
Cloudy with isolated showers in the evening...then partly cloudy. Breezy and much colder. Lows 30 to 35. Northwest winds 15 to 20 mph. Chance of rain 20 percent. Lowest wind chill readings around 20.

I saw on the news they spotted snow in Boynton Beach.


I've covered my tomatoes for the night, and I watered them this evening. It was a very odd thing to run a hose until the water warmed up. Normally, we have to run hoses in South Florida until the hot water runs out and it cools down. But tonight, the city water is 15 degrees warmer than the water sitting in the hose. My bare feet actually went numb with cold when I checked my plants just now, and I can promise you it's been years since that happened. I haven't missed it a bit.

There's not much more to do right now, except hope it doesn't actually freeze. So 'mater growers, let's keep our fingers crossed and hope the temps somehow stay above 32º.