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Edible Gardening Series: Question of the Week – Tomato seedlings

By Sarah Bostick and Carol Wyatt-Evens

Gardening in Florida can be incredibly rewarding and incredibly frustrating, at the same time. If you are new to the region, you soon learn that gardening in the Sunshine State can quickly become a full-time job. While our subtropical climate is perfect for growing an abundance of different vegetables, fruits, and herbs, it also can present some overwhelming challenges.

We can help! UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County agents and staff have created an online edible gardening resource center. The website features short videos from our 25-episode “Edible Gardening Series” webinars, along with blog posts and resources lists for episodes. Get help on an array of topics that befuddle many gardeners.

 

This week’s Question of the Week is:
What do I need to know about tomato seedlings?

 

We are doing our blog posts a little differently this week! Rather than focusing in on one topic, we are answering all of the questions asked our Tomato 101 class in a series of four themed blogs. Here is a Q&A for the “What do I need to know about tomato seedlings?” theme:

 

Q: If we start tomatoes from seeds what is considered transplant size?  From what size of plant should we start counting the days to harvest?

tomato seedlings in red pots

Very young tomato seedlings – not ready to transplant. Photo credit: J. Garget (Pixabay)

A: When you open a seed catalog, you can read about how many days each variety takes to reach its first harvest. The earliest ripening tomato varieties take about 55 days from transplant to harvest and the latest ripening varieties take about 90 days. These days-to-ripeness numbers are a guide rather than a hard and fast rule.  The count starts when you transplant a seedling into the ground (or a

large container). If you start with a very young small seedling, first harvest will happen later than if you start with a large, sturdy seedling.

It is a good idea to transplant tomatoes that are no less than 6 inches tall and have a nicely developed root system. Bigger is better, but there is also such a thing as too big! Tomato seedlings can very quickly outgrow the small pot they were started in, resulting in a bound-up root system and pre-mature flowering.

 

Q: How late can I plant my seedlings and still get tomatoes if they are a 70-day variety? I am in Sarasota county, Florida. 

A: In Sarasota County, Florida (about 2/3 of the way down the state on the coast), most tomatoes succumb to heat, humidity, disease, and pests by the time May rolls around. So, if you assume that May 15th will be your final harvest, pull out your calendar and count backwards 70 days. That takes you to March 6th. If you plant your 70-day-to-ripeness tomatoes on March 6th, you will likely only get a few harvests before your plants succumb to disease. Most people in our area plant their spring tomatoes in February. Very skilled gardeners in our area can keep plants happy and healthy to extend harvesting through June – that is something to aspire to!

If you live further north in Florida, there is too much risk of frost to plant tomatoes outside in February. Check with your local Extension Office to figure out the best planting date for your exact location.

 

Q: Is it too late to start growing cherry and grape size tomatoes? When is the best time?

A: In general, cherry and grape tomatoes ripen more quickly than other varieties of tomato. But like most things with growing tomatoes, this is not a hard and fast rule, so check the days-to-ripeness guide on the varieties you are interested in growing. This means that you can plant many varieties of cherry and grape tomatoes a few weeks later than many of the larger varieties of tomato. Another benefit to growing cherry and grape tomatoes in the springtime in Florida, is that their fruits generally hold up better (less prone to cracking) after heavy rain. Some cherry/grape varieties are more prone to cracking fruit than others, so if you choose to plant cherry/grape varieties later in the spring, make sure you choose a variety that claims to be resistant to cracking or splitting.

 

Q: How are resistance ratings determined?

A: This is a great question! And a hard one to answer. First things first: what is a resistance rating? Open any seed catalog and you will find short codes made up of letters next to many varieties of seeds. These codes correspond to how resistant a particular variety is to particular diseases. A variety can have either an “intermediate resistance” (IR) or a “high resistance” (HR) to a particular disease. One common disease in tomatoes across much of the country is Early Blight. If a tomato variety has been scientifically determined to have a high resistance to Early Blight (EB), you will typically see it noted in one of two ways in the seed catalog: HR: EB or EB (HR).

There is an international non-profit organization that does much of the work of creating world-wide standards in the seed industry. They are called the International Seed Federation (ISF). The answer to how resistance ratings are determined is also a very complicated, technical one. To read a bit about how this process happens, visit ISF’s website:

 

Q: Are tomatillos grown the way same way as tomatoes?

A: In general, tomatillos are grown the same as tomatoes with a couple of small differences. Tomatoes are self-fertile, meaning that even if you only have one tomato plant, that plant will produce fruit. Tomatillos are not self-fertile, so they need to be in close proximity to at least one other tomatillo plant in order to produce fruit. Tomatillos can grow to be very large, sprawling plants and generally have much better natural disease resistance and require less water and fertilizer than tomatoes. For most gardeners, tomatillos are much easier to grow than tomatoes. If you have never eaten tomatillos, give them a try! They are absolutely delicious and are a common ingredient in many recipes from the desert Southwest through Mexico and much of Central America.

 

 

For answers to more common tomato questions, click on the links below:

 

The Edible Gardening Series and blog series is a partnership between the following UF/IFAS agents and Sarasota County staff:

  • Sarah Bostick, Sustainable Agriculture Agent
  • Carol Wyatt-Evens, Chemicals in the Environment Agent
  • Mindy Hanak, Community & School Gardens Educator
  • Kevin O’Horan, Communications Associate

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