Thursday, June 19, 2014

Tomato Plants, Does it really make a difference?

I have had more questions about how to grow tomato plants than probably any other vegetable in my garden, so hopefully I can shed some light on what I've learned here in my own garden.  First off, I AM NOT professing to know everything there is about tomato growing.  I'll leave that up to the farmers and horticulturists.  I am but a humble home grower, who has tried many different varieties, and solved MANY problems that I've encountered and have had moderate success in growing some juicy red tomatoes.

The first thing I ask someone who wants to grow tomatoes, is what type of tomato are you looking for, and how much space do you have.  I ask this, because some people just want a tomato to eat on a sandwich, and others like myself, want a meatier tomato to make sauce or salsa with.  The second part of my question will determine what type of tomato plant you want for the space you have available.  This is usually when I get the glazed over deer in the headlights look :-).  I say this, because most people, myself included, are pretty much clueless when you first start growing tomatoes, and just purchase what you see in the box stores.  I have since learned that these box stores are not very good at letting customers know what they are buying, and setting you up for failure making you give up completely in frustration.  I almost fell into that category, but am by nature a determined person, and would not give up until I've figured out what I was doing wrong.

To this end, the question is determinate or indeterminate tomatoes?  Ahhh I can see it now in your eyes :-)  That quizzical look.  Well, let me clue you in.  Tomatoes are classified by their growth habit, and fall into two categories; determinate and indeterminate tomato varieties.  Once you know the characteristics, it will be easy to tell which tomatoes are determinate and which ones are indeterminate.  So the next time your in the plant section of your local store, take a peek at the tag on the tomatoes.  It's actually there, in small type, that identifies what you are purchasing.  So, what is the difference between these two categories?

The most simple explanation of the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes is that determinate tomatoes bear their crop all at once, usually over a period of 2 weeks, and then the plant will die.

Determinate Tomatoes (Bush Type)

While indeterminate tomatoes bear their fruit over the course of the entire season.  Also, indeterminate varieties tend to grow longer vines, can be staked, and grow from 6 to 10 ft. tall with proper suckering.  I personally use this category of tomato because I can pack up to 32 tomato plants in one 4 X 8 raised bed.  Yes, thats what I said 32 plants, though I typically plant 18 to 20 plants and I do it very well too!

Staked Indeterminate Tomatoes on Left
In addition, determinate varieties tend to be more compact and bushy, requiring a cage or some other structure to keep it from falling over on the ground.  For SWFL, I found that the determinate category of tomatoes tends to have more problems with fungal disease, because it doesn't allow for proper air ventilation between it's branches and leaves, and here in FL the humidity can tend to be high, already setting tomato growers up for problems.

Suckering your tomatoes 

If you decide on the determinate category, then you do NOT sucker the tomato plants.  You let them grow bushy, without pruning or any type of training necessary.  You may want to use a tomato cage so that the branches and fruit do not fall on the ground.

If however you'v decided on the indeterminate category of tomatoes, then there is a few things you should learn.  First is how to sucker your plants.  This is very simple actually, and I'm going to provide a link to a wonderful video that gives a great demonstration of what to sucker and what not to sucker on the tomato plants from Front Porch Farm:

So now that we have determined which category you're going to choose, next is choosing when to start your seeds and plant your seedlings.  Typically I start seeds in early August, and set the seedlings by the second week of September.  This will be the beginning of the fall garden, and your harvest will be around November/December.  If I loose plants during those colder December/Jan Months, I will again start my seeds in pots in December, and plant seedlings no later then the second week of February, depending on the weather for the spring crop.  I've actually set some seedlings out in January because we were so warm, but be careful doing this because we could get a frost still during the next few months.  I always leave a few reserve seedlings still in the pots protected in case this happens, and I loose some plants that I've set.  I also use frost covers for the seedlings, just in case.  In addition, I do like to add some bone meal to the beds where I'm planting tomatoes, just to provide extra calcium and prevent blossom end rot.  The soil is the same mixture for all the other beds, as I've described in my previous post:  It's All In The Dirt

Care and Maintenance 

So now that you've chosen your plant category, set your seedlings, and are watching them grow, how do you take care of them?  I spray my plants regularly with liquid copper fungicide as a prevention measure against fungus.  I say prevention, because that's exactly what it does; prevents disease.  It does not cure, and if you have a problem, then you need to move to something else.  I use Serenade, and have heard of some other organic fungicides you can choose from.  My best shopping experience has been  I always find the best choices, and the best prices on the internet.

Well, there you have it, the basics of growing tomatoes in SWFL.  I cannot stress to you enough that timing is everything here in the SWFL garden, and don't expect to grow tomatoes here like they do up north.  I just won't happen.  We are too hot, and between the pests and disease you will not have the best outcome.  Also remember that in order for tomatoes to set their fruits, you need temperatures around 70 degrees or so.  Anything warmer and you may get blossoms, but they will likely fall off the vines and not produce any fruit.

Good Luck with your garden, and please feel free to ask questions, or tell me your SWFL tomato gardening tips/tricks!

What I like to Grow:

Paste tomato:  Granadero is my favorite with very good disease resistance
Grape:  Juliette is by far the best there is, and has such great disease resistance while producing an abundance of fruit all season long.

This is UF's recommendations for specific varieties that they have tested for the SWFL garden:

Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide

Large Fruit:  Celebrity, Heat Wave II, Better Boy, Beefmaster, BHN444-Southern Star, Amelia, BHN 640
Small Fruit: Sweet 100, Juliet, Red Grape, Sun Gold, Sugar Snack, Sweet Baby Girl
Heirloom: Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple, Eva Purple Ball, Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Delicious


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  2. Thanks Katherine! I am a transplant from Michigan and found your blog very helpful. I can't wait to plant in lovely Southwest Florida!

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