Tomatoes are one of the most popular veggies to eat, but trying to grow them can be one of the most frustrating experiences for new gardeners in Central Florida.
Luckily, it doesn’t have to be exasperating, and it can be quite fun.
With just a little bit of knowledge, any home gardener can grow beautiful and bountiful tomatoes.
For successful tomatoes, there are a few simple concepts to keep in mind.
First, remember the one principle that underpins them all for Florida-Friendly Landscaping (and veggie growing, too); plant the right plant in the right place. I normally add one more caveat to that phrase when it comes to veggie gardening: Plant at the right time.
Tomatoes exemplify this principle. Put them in the right place at the right time and you’ll get great tomatoes with little effort.
With Florida’s warm weather, we can plant tomatoes in late winter and early spring – but not in the summer.
In Florida, we can have two crops of tomatoes — not just one.
Try to be patient, and plant them after the threat of frost has passed.
Remember, you can start seeds indoors and transplant when the soil warms, and you can use hanging baskets and containers. That allows you to move them around for protection if a frost is coming.
Another key concept is to ensure you plant early enough to get fruit before the summer temperatures get high – once the nighttime temperatures hit 80 degrees, your tomatoes are done.
There are some exceptions though like grape and cherry tomatoes, which can often tolerate the summertime temperatures.
Larger-fruited varieties will not endure the high heat and humidity that ushers in pathogens that like our tomatoes as much as we do.
Do a little research on the variety you choose – do they need 70 days to mature? Or do they need 80 days?
Let this info help guide your planting schedule.
For most of Pasco County, planting tomatoes in late February is usually a good bet to avoid frost in the spring. Late September or early October is a good time to plant in the fall to avoid cold damage before fruiting.
Besides planting at the right time, make sure you plant in the right place. Tomatoes need plenty of sunlight, so put them in a sunny location where your garden gets at least 4 hours to 6 hours of full sunlight daily.
And, since tomatoes prefer soil pH to be between 6.0-6.5, a soil test is a great idea before you plant.
Your local UF/IFAS Extension office can help you with a soil test kit.
If you need to adjust your soil with organic matter, be sure you do so well in advance of planting, sometimes months in advance if you’re using manures.
Also, give your tomatoes the space they need. Some tomatoes, called intermediates, become very large plants that easily topple over – these need support and possible pruning.
While they’ll produce fruit over several months, their size can be a limiting factor. Determinate varieties are best for those with limited space – these are more like small bushes. Staking or using a trellis is good for both types though, as it’s important to keep the fruit off the group.
Choose varieties bred for Central Florida’s climate. They’ll be more tolerant of common insect and disease problems.
When you purchase tomatoes, look for the two to three-letter abbreviations on the label.
These abbreviations refer to the more common problems and let you know those plants have some resistance to that particular problem.
For example, if you see “VF” on the label, those cultivars are resistant to verticillium and fusarium wilt, both common problems in Florida.
To care for your tomatoes once they are in the garden, scout early and often for problems. It’s OK to remove a sick looking plant to prevent spreading a potential disease to the others. Catching an insect problem early is much better than later as well – we can control insects and diseases more effectively when they are caught in the earliest stages.
Scouting early and often affords us that opportunity.
Tomatoes do need fertilizer, especially in our nutrient-poor soils.
Since organic matter/compost is not fertilizer but a soil stabilizer, applications of fertilizer are required to produce healthy plants.
Fertilize soon after planting, then on a regular schedule through the growing season using a 6-8-8 or similar formulation. A well-balanced fertilizer doesn’t have to be expensive to be effective. You can use liquids or granulars, just go for a controlled-release version so that you’ll get the most bang for your buck, and you won’t contribute to nutrient pollution in waterways through leaching or runoff during heavy rains.
Keep your plants watered with one inch to two inches of water per application. Soaking them is preferable to frequent light watering. Mulching can help lock in moisture and prevent weeds – just keep the mulch a few inches away from the stems of the plants and no more than 2 inches to 3 inches deep. Planting the right plant in the right place at the right time is all it takes for successful tomatoes in Central Florida.
Dr. Whitney Elmore is the UF/IFAS Pasco County Extension Director and an Urban Horticulture Agent III.