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 seeds tomatoes vegetables

Tomatoes and Seed Sources

Here is the most popular vegetable grown in American gardens. I love the variety of tomatoes available to us gardeners by seed. It’s nice to see growers now responding to the demand for more flavorful tomatoes available by plants. I’ve seen ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Cherokee Purple’ plants at local building supply stores. But you’ve got to at least visit the websites of these seed suppliers for mouth-watering selections: Full of color and detailed growing information. Many flowers too. Widest variety of sunflowers I’ve seen. All organically-grown seed source. See Burbank Red Slicing tomato, bred by Luther Burbank…it is packed with amino acids. Fort Myers, Florida-based company with a huge range of tomatoes and peppers. Heirloom vegetables and flowers. Extraordinary selections from Russia, Mexico, etc. The best. A dizzying array of types and top quality planting bulbs. Consider hard-neck types for flavor. Sweet onions. For us Floridians, plant the short-day types. Dwarf and heirloom tomato seeds, much more. How about a black tomato? Or Chinese Red Meat radish?

Flower Seed Sources The best value and high quality.

florida gardening Salsa tomatoes vegetables

Salsa Recipe

I have been a “cook” all my life. I come from a long line of Cooks. Dad was a Cook as was his father. But, there is only one thing I make in the kitchen that turns out well: Salsa.

I won’t take any credit for some secret recipe. Fresh, home-grown ingredients make the best tasting batch. Tomatoes picked at their peak of ripeness are full of juices, acids and sugars. Onions pulled in their prime are sweet. And garlic (the easiest ingredient to grow) is pungent, full flavored and not bitter. The greatest influence on the flavor are the peppers.

Every year I grow numerous different tomatoes and peppers. I love the variety of colors, shapes, flavors, and heat. Jalapenos are good, but for fuller flavor and twice the heat I like Serranos. I pick these little bullets when they are firm and green. In that phase they add some crunch to the mix and give a slow, sneaky bite back.

Plain old bell peppers are tasty but I prefer pimientos. (Yes, that slimy red thing stuffed in an olive is a sweet pepper.) Pimiento fruits are slightly smaller than bell peppers but the walls are thicker and sweeter.

Purists suggest you dice all ingredients by hand but a quick whirl in a food processor saves time and keeps your hands from the heat. Chop the tomatoes first, then the other ingredients second. Fold them together in a mixing bowl.

  • 4 medium tomatoes
  • 2-3 serrano or jalapeño chiles, stems and seeds removed
  • 1 large Florida Sweet onion
  • 1 pimiento or bell pepper, cored, seeds removed
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
  • Juice of one lime or lemon
  • Salt to taste

I have fun with multicolored vegetables and make a “rainbow salsa” using yellow tomatoes as a base, red pimientos, Peruvian Purple Peppers, and red onions. It’s a thing of beauty. Then there are some not-so-beautiful tomatoes. One of the best flavored heirlooms I have ever eaten is Cherokee Purple. When sliced, the walls are deep red and the jelly is smoky green. When blended into a salsa it looks like the dog’s breakfast. Close your eyes and enjoy.

Warm regards, Bob Cook.