Tomatoes are native to South America and have become one of our favorite vegetables in the United States. Tomatoes have been grown commercially in Florida for nearly 150 years, and we remain one of the top tomato-producing states. Florida tomatoes are grown in fields and greenhouses throughout Florida and are available in stores October-May.
If you’d like to try growing your own tomatoes, here’s what you need to know:
Plant at the right time
Tomato is a warm-season crop that is sensitive to cold. Mid-February is spring tomato-planting season in Central Florida. The fall planting season in Osceola County is October. If you grow your own plants from seed, you can start them now in a warm, bright window indoors, or in a tray with a clear top (a mini “greenhouse”). Transplant seedlings when they are about 8in. tall.
Plant in the right place
If you’re only growing a few tomatoes, growing in raised beds or containers works well. Container growing reduces weeds and soil pests, and can be done on a patio or in a screen enclosure. Only use bagged growing mixes labeled for edible crops. Soil drainage is essential; use containers with drainage holes. Like most vegetables, tomatoes require a sunny location to produce well.
Plant the right variety
Tomatoes come in green, white, yellow, purple, brown, multi-colored, and red fruiting varieties. Flavors can vary widely too; try a few different varieties to see what you like most.
I recommend growing small “cherry” or “grape” types of tomatoes, or mid-sized “slicing tomato” types. Larger “beefsteak” types take longer to grow, which means a pest is more likely to eat them before you can!
Hybrid, or F1 tomatoes, are the result of deliberately cross-pollinating two different varieties of tomatoes for desired traits like color or texture. F1 tomatoes are not genetically modified organisms; there are actually no GMO tomatoes currently being grown commercially. Tomato seeds from F1 plants will not produce plants like themselves. Open-pollinated types of tomatoes will produce seeds that will grow plants like themselves, however, there is high potential in Florida for saved seed to harbor disease that will produce diseased plants.
Tomatoes take 2-3 months to grow from seed to harvest, and varieties are “early” to “late-season”, based on their days to maturity.
Determinate tomatoes will grow to a particular size, produce tomatoes, then stop producing tomatoes. Indeterminate tomatoes continue growing and producing tomatoes for a longer period. Indeterminate tomatoes must be supported and pruned, and will not work well for container gardens.
People avoiding acidic foods sometimes seek “low-acid” tomatoes, but the reality is that all tomatoes are acidic (most have a pH <5). Some individuals find that while processed tomato products upset their systems, fresh tomatoes do not, because processed tomato products are more acidic than fresh tomatoes.
Look for tomato varieties with heat and disease-resistance. A few varieties to try: FL 7514, Defiant PhR, Pruden’s Purple, Kewalo.
Care for your tomatoes
Tomatoes need regular (often daily) irrigation. Use micro-irrigation methods like drippers or micro-sprayers that apply water directly to soil. Watering tomato leaves can encourage disease growth or spread.
Plants need nutrients to produce well. Many growing mixes already have fertilizer in them, so you may be able to decrease your fertilization. Apply light applications of vegetable fertilizer every other week throughout the growing season. Too much fertilizer will make foliage grow but delay tomato fruit production.
Keeping plants healthy and managing insect pests is the best way to prevent diseases in the home garden, as many diseases do not have affordable treatments. Horticultural soap labeled for vegetables can help control whiteflies, aphids, and other pests that transmit plant diseases. If plants become very diseased or infested, dispose of them.
Some pests and diseases stay in the soil, so it’s best to rotate planting areas from year to year. Never plant anything in the tomato family (peppers, potatoes, eggplant) in the same container or garden bed two years in a row.
Protect your pollinators
Cultivated tomatoes are self-pollinating, but fruit abundance and size will increase with insect pollination. Some bees are very effective tomato flower pollinators; avoid using pesticides on blooming plants that could kill pollinators. Pesticide dusts should never be used, as they are much more likely to be moved around and contact beneficial insects. If you’re growing in a screen enclosure, you can gently shake blooming tomato plants to increase pollination.
Harvest at the right time
Pick tomatoes when they are almost their mature color. If you wait until they are ripe, more pests will eat them before you have a chance to pick them.
Tomatoes stop producing fruit when temperatures are about 85°F in our humid climate. When production declines, it’s best to pull up plants for summer instead of waiting until plants become diseased.
Store tomatoes properly
If tomatoes are not yet ripe, place them stem-end up indoors. Do not refrigerate tomatoes. Chilled tomatoes will not finish ripening, and cold ruins the flavor of tomatoes.
For more information on gardening and farming contact the UF IFAS Extension-Osceola: http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/osceola/ , 321-697-3000.