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.


  1. Wow! Thanks for all of this information.
    I just moved to Fort Lauderdale, and I'm about to try to grow some tomatoes. Is there a particular organic variety or two that are particularly hearty in this area (zone 10a)? Also, do you possibly know about a variety of organic cucumbers that do well here and resist mold and such? Ooh, and I'm I too late to start some mounds?
    Sorry for writing a novel here (smile).
    Thanks, Stella

  2. Hi Stella!

    I'm pretty new to cucumbers myself, so I'll stick with tomatoes ... The variety you pick depends on a bit on where you're growing (in the ground versus a container). We have pretty bad nematodes here, so if you grow in the ground, you'll have much greater luck with a VFN tomato. If you're growing in containers, you can grew pretty much whatever you want (although you'll still have fungal issues and caterpillars to deal with).

    Either way, you're definitely not too late to start your veggie garden! Lots of very experienced gardeners are still weeks and weeks away from putting in their vegetables.

    Good luck!

  3. Hey Jon! Okay, so root knot is pretty common down here-that's interesting. I will definitely look for 'VFN' on the starter tomatoes or at least ask about this wherever I end up purchasing my starter plants. Neem will also be on my list, since you've mentioned fungus both here and in your post;)
    Thanks so much, Jon.
    p.s. Neem really helped our cucumbers in Georgia. We didn't see any type of mold destruction-just big, crunchy cucumber galore!

  4. Hi Jon,
    As a Northern grower, we're just finishing up our gardening season. In fact, our first frost was this morning. I've been growing heirlooms for several seasons and have tried about 100 varieties; they aren't all created equal. For your readers that are interested trying an heirloom variety or two, here are a few of my favorite from this year. I have NOOOO idea how they will perform in Florida, but they were all a hit this year at our house. Your local greenhouse may be able to advise.

    Our favorite cherry was hands down the Black Cherry. It is a dark purple color and very sweet. Yellow Pear is also a constant favorite. This was our first year for growing Juane Flamme, a large orange cherry, and it seems the hype surrounding this tomato was not without merit.

    The sauce tomato that outproduced any others this year for us was Heidi. It is an heirloom from Africa. The fruit is small and very plentiful. In fact, we still have some on the vine ripening long after everything else is done.

    Our favorite slicer this year was a new find: Little Lucky. It's a mid-size yellow with red blossom end. It was firm and resisted blossom end rot better than any of the other this year, and my step-daughter couldn't eat them fast enough. It was a faithful producer all summer.

    We also love Aunt Ruby's German Green and Green Zebra which have a bit of a citrus zing.

    My absolute favorite all purpose tomato is Japanese Black Trifele. It is a dark burgundy with green shoulders that is the size and shape of a bartlett pear. They are meaty enough for sauce, and a favorite for slicing. It is a great producer, manages to resist most rot and garden pests (at least in Indiana) and most fruit is in near perfect condition.

    The seeds came from Tatiana's Tomatobase, the Sample Seed Shop, and had saved some that I originally purchased from Baker's Creek Heirlooms. I also love SandHill Preservation, but as a winter grower, you would have to plan ahead as they are a very small homebased company.

  5. plainandsimple,

    Thanks! That sounds awesome. I have a lot of family and friends up north and visited this summer, when their vegetable gardens were in full swing. I was struck with veggie envy, waiting for our season to start.

    I've never grown a few of those varieties you mentioned, but I think green zebra is definitely on my list for next year at least. Also, I have another friend who LOVES Japanese Black Trifele. I also love the black cherries and have some yellow pears going right now, along with Cherokee purples I'm pretty excited about. In general, we can grow any kind of tomato here that can be grown up north, but the more difficult varieties (meaning most heirlooms) must be grown in containers. Even during the summer, we are more humid and our pests must be seen to be believed.

  6. Hi Jon,

    I am a Miami local, and have 2 raised beds for my tomatoes and veggies. I tried to grow tomatoes in spring, everything started out wonderfully (5' plants!), but summer came, and my dozen or so plants started to have caterpillars and other pesky bugs, and some got diseased. I got so frustrated! I did get some small cherries, but the heavy rain ruined them. I decided to remove all of them and wait until the true season for us started. I did get some great sweet basil and some bush beans, and am still growing some sweet potatoes.

    This past weekend I transplanted 3 varieties I started from seed a couple of weeks ago, Tomatoberry (like a strawberry) Chocolate Cherry and Principe Borghese (a plum determinate). In my seed tray I also have Zebra Cherry, though they are still too small to transplant. As a huge tomato lover, I ordered some more varieties I should get next week. I am also going to grow Cherokee Purple and Brandywine OTV. I got my seeds from a great source for all things Tomato!

    I am not sure if my location is ideal, I am trying to decide if I am getting enough sun. I will be growing some of these varieties in grow bags in another location of my garden which has more sun throughout the day to see if I am more successful. I will be checking your blog for suggestions. Thanks for keeping us informed!

  7. Clowe,

    You must be an optimist :)

    I'd be afraid of the heartbreak factor if I tried growing anything edible in the summer (other than mango, banana and avocado). Although I've heard sweet potatoes do pretty well.

    Thanks for the tip on I've been using the Tomato Growers Supply Company for years and been happy with their seeds. I'm doing a plum determinate this season too, mainly because I can salsa and like to get heavy crops for large batches.

    Incidentally, I'll be using grow bags this season also, for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. I use the 5-gallon bags with the expandable coir bricks. Just add water and poof! You get a nice growing medium.