- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Be ready to plant.
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:
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.