container gardening florida gardening Gardening tomato tomatoes vegetables

Growing Tomatoes in Zones 9 and 10

My first vegetable garden in South Florida was a crop failure. I thought I had a green thumb because I was able to grow many productive gardens from scratch in Michigan and Illinois. But there was the root of my mistake- I planted as I had done up north, in the spring.

30 years ago I learned that timing is one dramatic difference that must be obeyed. Plan in September, plant in October, harvest from Thanksgiving ’till Christmas. And if time and space and weather allows, plant again in January to hurry up and harvest before the heat of April and the rotting rains of May.

I have started dozens of gardens in Cape Coral, Lehigh Acres, Naples, and Fort Myers. Here are the few things I do to assure a bumper crop of delicious tomatoes every year.

  1. Start plants from seed. Because I love the full, complex flavor of heirlooms, they are all tomato seedlings (1)available from seed but rarely do you find starter plants in garden centers. I use Fafard growing mix in 4″ pots. (Typical germination mix is too fine and holds too much water.) There are small bags of “complete” available only at independent garden centers and large bags (3 cubic feet) of #3. These media (no soil, only lightweight, clean ingredients of peat, vermiculite, perlite, and pine bark) give the ideal ratio of water retention and drainage. I plant two seeds per pot and grow them in full, direct sunlight. This makes for a shorter seedling with thick stems.
  2. Poor soil is our curse. In South Florida we have great growing conditions: Warm Garden 2temperatures, sunny days, and some rainfall but typical, urban soil is fill dirt composed of sand/rocks/shell. The pH is very high (nearly 8) and often it is teaming with nematodes: microscopic eel worms that attack tomato roots. Improve your soil with liberal applications of organic matter. I have used bulk compost from a local vegetation recycling yard and bulk potting soil by the yard. Canadian peat moss is another excellent additive to help hold water and help make the soil slightly acid.
  3. There is no nematicide that “nukes” the soil for us home owners. Root Guard is a Florida made product composed of crab shells that is incorporated in the soil pre-plant that can help keep the numbers of nematodes down. Solarizing with clear plastic can help. Growing the nematicidal marigold as a cover crop during summer can help too. The best pre-plant treatment I’ve used is combining Zerotol and Azaguard as a drench. Repeat twice.
  4. Incorporate fertilizer before planting.  Let’s not argue about organic versus chemical fertilizers. It is your personal preference. I have used both with equal results but because we have poor soils and a heavy-feeding crop I incorporate a complete organic fertilizer at planting, then supplement with liquid feed monthly. I used to buy 50# bags of greensand, bone meal, and composted turkey manure and layer it on before rototilling. Now I use Mighty Grow Organic 4-3-4 with great results.
  5. Insects are a minor problem and most of them can be prevented with Neem. Just don’t spray in the heat of a 90 degree day, you could burn the leaves. Morning is the safest time to spray. Hornworms and fruitworms are controlled with Thuricide or Conserve.
  6. Fungal disease is the major problem. High temperatures and high humidity encourage the growth of leaf-attacking fungi. Prevent by spraying with Garden Friendly Fungicide, and/or Dithane. Commercial growers choose varieties that are resistant to nematodes, fungi, bacterium, and viruses. Seed catalogs give you those options too but I have found some of them lacking in taste. I’d rather battle the elements for a succulent “Marvel Stripe” than a hard, red orb you find in the store.
  7. Stake them up. Typical tomato plants are vines that, if allowed to crawl along the ground, will decay. By forcing them up a stake you will get more clean fruit per square foot and less disease problems.
  8. Why not a pot? Excellent idea because then you have complete control over the quality of soil and quantity of water. I use Fafard #52 in large pots for its excellent drainage. A trade “seven gallon squat” pot is 14″ in diameter and is fine for a single dwarf tomato plant and a “fifteen gallon” pot is 18″ in diameter and is fine for one full sized plant. I planted two ‘Kosovo’ plants in a “25 gallon” pot (24″ in diameter) and they got 8′ high and 10′ wide. There is no need to put anything else in the bottom of the pot. If you put a layer of rocks in the bottom you could actually interfere with drainage. A well-drained growing medium is all you need.  (In the nursery trade we use these gallon sizes loosely and figuratively. A “one gallon” nursery pot looks more like a quart. A “five gallon” is puny compared to a true five gallon bucket.)
Dwarf tomatoes and standard plants in the background.
florida gardening flowers Gardening

Do I Have to Get My Hands Dirty?

“Here. It’s a rock.”DSCN8468

My wife held out her hands with hesitation. “Um…thanks?” She wondered what was the big deal with this dirty piece of limestone.

“Look closer” I encouraged her. When she examined the rock she found a crack along its circumference. Then she separated the two halves and discovered the crystals inside.

“Wow, it’s beautiful!” She complimented this hefty geode from Morocco.DSCN8469

If she had not looked closer and explored, it would remain just another rock.

Gardening is like that. If it is only pulling weeds and planting seeds, the average person might respond “No thanks, I’d rather watch TV.”

But if people look closer at all the pleasures of nature, they might want to get their hands dirty. Pleasures like:

  • Discovery. Cutting a vegetable in half should be a cause to pause. No one in the world has ever seen the inside of this bell pepper or this melon, until now.

    tomatoes sliced
    Marvel Stripe and Opalka Tomatoes

    And, what a treat it is to find a new-born Monarch butterfly drying its wings, next to it’s cracked chrysalis shell. How many bird’s nests do you have on your property?

  • butterflies emerge (1)
  • Sensory stimulation. Herbs are the original scratch-and-sniff plants. Smash the leaves of spearmint or peppermint or cardamom ginger for a scent thrill. The full flavor of garlic comes from home-grown bulbs: pungent and not bitter, almost sweet.
  • Fun. It might take two months from seed, but sunflowers always cause a smile, especially when you give them to a friend. You can’t buy, but you can grow your own yellow, seedless watermelon. Have you ever grown the Eyeball plant?
  • Nostalgia. What flowers or vegetables did your grandmother grow? Bring back an era gone by growing sweet peas, gladiolus, zinnias and morning glories.morning glor (2)
  • Self-improvement. You burn more calories gardening than walking. And then you have something to show for your efforts. Home grown vegetables do not contain any mysterious pesticides and are at their peak of antioxidants and vitamins.
  • Solace. Remember the movie “Avatar”? The essence of this science-fictitious blue race was their intimate relationship with insects, animals and plants. That message touched something deep in the souls of busy city-dwellers who long for more than busyness. Spending quiet time surrounded by plants reconnects us to nature.
  • Snob Appeal, AKA Bragging Rights. “Check this out.” Is usually accompanied by a sweeping hand gesture toward a new car or tool or appliance. But how about a rare plant? Everybody in this neighborhood has the same trees and shrubs, but not you! How about a dramatic bed of ‘Rose Wine’ Neoregelias? Forget about regular bougainvilleas, the ‘Surprise’ bougie has pink AND white blooms on the same vine!boug surprise 1.jpg

Gardening has so much to offer people.  The price of admission is perspiration and the rewards far exceed the cost. Just look closer.

florida gardening flowers Gardening God and Gardening

God and Gardening

3VEGTBLSWhat is it that draws us outdoors? What is it that stirs us deeply when we breathe in fresh air? Answer: When we are surrounded by plants, we are reconnected.

Whether you consider the Bible fact or fable, it describes our intimate connection with nature. When God created the universe and the sun, moon, earth, waters and stocked it with fish, He did it by “speaking” them into existence. “The land produced vegetation…and God saw that it was good.”3STOCK

But when it came to the climax of creating, God knelt down in the dirt and made mankind by hand. Mud pies came before Moses. “In the image of God he created them…” Soon, the Master Gardener handed the deed over to Adam and Eve “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth…”

But, there was only one plant in this idyllic landscape that was off limits. “For when you eat from it you will surely die.” We have such a caveat today in every nursery and garden center: The area marked PUFADDER“Employees Only” or the most tempting siren: “Not For Sale”. We can blame the snake but Adam and Eve bet their lives that this fruit was to die for.

If I were God and the only two creatures made in my image broke my one-and-only rule, I think I would just squish them and start over. But, no such drama. Their punishment? Get out. And as a reminder of their trespass, God gave us “thorns and thistles”. Weeds are a result of The Curse.

I believe that is what pulls us out to the fields, the woods, the garden, the golf course, the beach, and the mountains. It is our deep desire to return to the garden, to reconnect to a perfect place.

Scientists tell us there is a part of the brain that releases feel-good hormones when we simply smell organic soil. We are drawn to the dirt because we came from it.

And so many emotions are triggered by the scents of a sweet rose, gardenias,
fresh-cut grass, oak-stoked campfire, burning leaves, lavender, savory geraniums, and musty marigolds.

“…trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.”

Why does our mouth water over the sight of a lemon or long for the full flavor of a morning dew-cooled cantaloupe?3MELON1

Gardening is sensuous. Rich soil feels rich. The smooth-peeling bark of the Gumbo Limbo tree draws our hand like wet paint. Slightly furry leaves of the African violet must be gently caressed.

The wind makes no sound until it weaves between branches and then it clicks, clacks and hisses through a grove of bamboo.  Then there are birds attracted to fruit and seeds and branches for cover. Their songs complete the symphony of the garden.SONGBRDS

Every color of the rainbow is found in the garden: Saffron yellow stamens come from the crocus that match the sulfur yellow of the sunflower. Deep blue Delphiniums mirror the midnight hue of Blueberry Waffle coleus. Pure pink roses subdue the scarlet splatter of geraniums. Cool gray-green algae looks at home on the smooth trunk of the Royal Palm. Pure white iris are the first to be seen at dawn and the last to fade at dusk. We are stirred and soothed by nature’s colors, by design.

To the gardeners out there: That’s why you get satisfaction and such a thrill by digging holes, arranging, watering, and caring for your plants. You are participating in creation.20160525_112426

florida gardening flowers Gardening vegetables

A Gardener’s Life

A gardener’s life is an action-packed, fun-filled adventure.

Our heart skips a beat when the new, colorful seed catalogs arrive in the mail. With sweaty palms we caress each page, admiring the photography and imagine introducing these new flowers and vegetables into the next planting.bob pepper seeds

Soon, with jubilation, we open that fat, brown envelope containing packets of seeds, ripe with potential. Filling the pots, sowing the seeds, labeling, and watering is a slow dance. After nursing for days or weeks or months, germination is the crescendo, a reason to send out birth announcements.

Transplanting the seedlings into the garden and containers is like the pyro-technician loading the tubes on the third of July. It is arranging for the hopeful display.tomato seedlings (1)

The thrill continues when the established plants bring forth their first blossoms and fruit. In Old Testament times, believers would bring their “first fruits” to the temple as an offering. The first are the biggest and the best the plant has to offer, for all to enjoy.

The satisfaction continues as the plants increases in size and abundance. pep mariachi (8)
Cultivating is caring. It is not work, it is helping the good plants, hindering the weeds, giving water when needed, and watching for pests. It is correcting and directing. It is a satisfying activity.

The harvest is a reward but not the conclusion. Gardening is a natural continuum. There is no final season, only the next season, filled with dreams and desire and contentment.

beans (1)

florida gardening Gardening

The benefits of gardening (repost)


flowers Gardening

Nasturtium shadows


Afternoon light penetrated these nasturtium leaves, revealing shadows of the petiole (leaf stem) and tight flower buds behind.

Gardening Talks

Tomatoes in November

I gave a talk at Riverland Nursery in Ft. Myers this morning about vegetable gardening. Riverland 11 2013

My favorite part is showing giant photos of ripe tomatoes sliced in half and describing their flavors: Cherokee Purple, smoky and complex. Yellow Pear, like tart yellow grape that pops in your mouth when you pop it in your mouth. Brandywine: perfect balance of acids and sugars.

Marvel Striped, Taxi, Cherokee Purple
Marvel Striped, Taxi, Cherokee Purple

When showing slides of hot peppers I ask who loves them. Out of 50 people, four raised their hands. But when the topic changed to garlic, half the room smiled and waved. Garlic is one of the easiest vegetables to grow, almost anywhere in the landscape, and one of the tastiest. When you grow your own, the young bulbs are tender and pungent, not hot or bitter like the old bulbs that have been sitting in the store for over a year.

This afternoon I broke up some bulbs of planting garlic named Burgundy and poked the cloves between the New Guinea Impatiens in the front yard.

024Because of our short growing season (really, with no snow?) we plant garlic in the fall and harvest before May when the heat and rains melt them. Therefore they don’t “bulb up” like in California. Bulbs or not, home grown is the best flavor you’ll experience.

Gardening Talks

High on Hibiscus

I enjoyed speaking to the James Hendry chapter of the local Hibiscus Society. These people are passionate about their plant(s)!

We met at Famous Dave’s in Fort Myers on the 13th of this month. In the past they met at Terry Park but won’t any more due to Lee County budget constraints.

hib flwr2I spoke about all the various mulches available for landscaping, then wrapped it up with a rogues gallery of sucking insects and their control.

What's bugging your plants?
What’s bugging your plants?

florida gardening Gardening

Diggin’ in the Dirt

In October there is a flurry of intense activity in the garden. Making your bed takes more time, money and perspiration than the easier step of planting.
“Plan in September, plant in October”. So before tearing open the seed packet there is soil preparation.

Over the years I have various organic fertilizers in the garden. I used to buy separate bags of bone meal. greensand, and dehydrated manures. Espoma makes a ready to use blend with those elements and more.

This year I am using Verdanta, a blended, organic granular that is homogenous and complete.

Feed the soil. Organic "Verdanta" 7-6-12.
Feed the soil. Organic “Verdanta” 7-6-12.

Prevent nematodes with Rootguard: crushed crab shells.
Prevent nematodes with Rootguard: crushed crab shells.

Broadcast evenly.
Broadcast evenly.

Incorporate thoroughly.
Incorporate thoroughly.

Gardening Pest control

Do pesticide applicators die young?

Not sure if this guy is wearing the proper Personal Protection Equipment.
Not sure if this guy is wearing the proper Personal Protection Equipment.

I have handled pesticides all my adult life and wondered if this affects my health and that of genuine handlers like pest control operators. This link answers that question.

“The pesticide applicators were consistently and significantly healthier than the general population of Florida.” That makes sense. These men work hard out in the fresh air and sunshine. The surprise is that this is a U.S. Library of Medicine report!

They studied over 33,000 pesticide applicators in Florida over an 18 year period (1975-1993). This was when we could use some hairy-scary toxins. That might explain why there was an increase in prostate cancer in this study.

Besides, the average nozzle-jockey gets safety training, wears protective gear, and reduces his exposure in every way possible. Guaranteed, none of us has worms.