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Time For Tomatoes

Last night the topic at the Pensacola Organic Gardeners Club was tomatoes: what kind to plant, when to plant, and how.

The gulf coast has several challenges facing would-be tomato growers including a climate that gets hot quickly and stays hot leading to a short growing season, a receptive environment to molds, fungi, and other enemies of tomatoes, sandy soil, and wet humid weather which makes it more difficult for the tomatoes to pollinate.

Area gardeners shared their successes and tips for how to overcome these challenges.

  • What kind?

    Plant multiple varieties with different lengths of grow time. Not only will this diversify your “portfolio” of plants but if you choose different grow times you should get tomatoes in waves to keep you eating them through the summer.

    Suggested varieties included Early Girl, Big Boy, and Lilliput. These tomatoes are of different sizes and grow times. Early Girl has the shortest time from transplant to harvest while Lilliputs are smaller grape tomatoes and, with luck, will produce straight through the summer.

  • When?

    If you plant to start from seed you want to get them started now to get them established before transplant. Seedlings should be available in garden stores by mid February and you will want to plant in the ground by mid-late April. If you want to get scientific the “when” depends on soil temperature which you can raise by putting plastic sheeting over the intended grow area or by planting in containers. The soil temperature you need is 65F.

  • How?

    Gardeners agreed that having the healthiest plants possible before transplant is key. If you are growing from seed this means getting your seedlings plenty of light so they don’t waste their energy searching for light (also known as being “leggy”). As the plant grows some branches will produce flowers (and therefore fruit) and some will only produce leaves. The branches with just leaves are called suckers and you can remove them so the energy of the plant goes to the branches which will fruit. These “suckers” can be rooted and planted to become new full size plants.

    You want the main artery of the plant to be thick and healthy when ready to transplant- some gardeners transplant several times in pots, while they are most protected, to get the plants as large as possible beforehand- this might require a greenhouse.

    If you purchase seedlings for direct transplant make sure they are healthy and watch them carefully as they grow- you can do some of the same protective measures like pruning suckers and planting deeper. Alternately you can raise seedlings for a few weeks in pots and then transplant into the ground.

    When planting the gardeners recommended several types of organic amendments to the soil including a tablespoon of epsom salt, composted organic material, and several pounds of horse manure. If you really want to know what your soil needs consider getting it tested from the Escambia County Extension Service so you don’t amend with unnecessary components, or worse, create a toxicity.

    Heat is one of the foes of tomatoes so while you want the soil above 65F to plant both the air and soil quickly become hotter than the tomato (and the gardener!) prefer. Planting deeper (you can plant the stem of a tomato plant and the fuzz and tiny spikes on the stem will branch out as roots) encourages deeper root growth to cooler soil.

    Another consideration is not to over water. Tomatoes need water but watering too much doesn’t encourage the deep root growth you want.

The Pensacola Organic Gardener’s Club meets on the fourth Monday of the month at the Downtown Branch of the West Florida Public Library. Membership is $10/person or $15/family. Meetings begin at 6:30 pm and last until approximately 8:30 p.m. February’s topic is pruning fruit trees.

This post was originally published on January 20, 2015 on the Seagrass & Satsumas Tumblr.