|Written by Aupoet|
¬† Growing tomatoes in the south, takes planning and learning some gardening tricks. Tomatoes, being tropical plants, love the heat to a certain extent, and can take the humidity if cared for properly. One of the benefits of growing tomatoes in zones 8 or 9 is the long growing season the area provides. With some planning and luck, a tomato garden in the south can bear tomatoes for 9 months out of the year. There is nothing like a tomato garden filled with over flowing tomato cages weighed down with fresh tomatoes.
1.¬† Pick a site for growing tomatoes in the fall or early winter. The site should get full sun all morning and some shade in the heat of the afternoon. Don't be fooled into picking a tomato garden site during the winter that is sunny due to the surrounding trees being leafless. Those trees will be shading the site come summertime. Tomatoes need at least 7 hours of direct sun a day, but during the long hot southern summers they will suffer and not set fruit when the temps stay above 90 degrees, so some afternoon shade will be helpful. The site should drain well and be within easy reach of a water hose so the plants can be watered during any dry spells. The gardening site should have good air flow so the tomato plants will dry quickly after summer rains and heavy dews. This will help cut down on tomato fungus problems. Many people say not to grow tomatoes where tomatoes, potatoes, or okra, have been grown before during the last few years. I find if the following tomato growing steps are followed then there will usually be no problems with soil borne tomato diseases or nematodes.
2.¬† Have the soil tested if possible and prepare it the fall before planting. Tomatoes will grow in almost any type of soil as long as it is well drained and they get the sun and water they need, but to increase the tomato crop and have strong healthy plants, it helps to improve the soil. The soil should be slightly acidic with a pH of between 6.2 to 6.8. Crushed Limestone can be used to raise the pH and organic compost and sulfur can be used to lower it. If the soil is mostly sand or clay then it will benefit from working in equal amounts of compost and manure. Dig out the holes where the tomato plants will go to a depth of 18 inches, spacing them some 2 foot apart. In the bottom of each hole place about 6 inches of fall leaves, old hay, grass clippings, or shredded newspaper. Any kind of organic matter that will break down well can be used. Add a couple of handfuls of cottonseed meal, blood meal, or bone meal in each hole. Place a shovel full of some kind of rotten manure, cow, horse, rabbit, or chicken, on top of it all. Use a hose to fill each hole with water and let it soak in. Now take the soil that was removed from the holes and amend it with some good compost or topsoil. If the soil is mostly heavy clay add in an equal amount of clean sand so it will drain well. You want a soil that will hold together when a moist handful of it is squeezed into a ball. Don't forget to work in any lime or sulfur needed to adjust the pH. All the organic material added to the soil will improve its water holding ability if sandy and its ability to drain well if it is filled with clay. The organic material will also help to fight off nematodes, a major tomato pest. If nematodes are a major problem in you soil, read my other article about controlling nematodes. Now fill the holes and let the soil mature over the winter.
3.¬† While the soil is maturing, look through some seed catalogs or gardening websites to decide what kind of tomatoes you want. Some tomato varieties recommended for the south according to the University of Florida, include: Better Boy, Tropic, The Improved Brandywine, Suncoast, Walter, Solar set, Big boy, Arkansas Traveler, and Floramerica, for large slicing tomatoes, Roma, Sweet 100, Florida Petite, Red cherry, Sweet million, and Patio, for small salad and paste type tomatoes. Tomatoes come in either determinate or indeterminate types. Determinate tomato varieties will only grow to a certain height, being more bush-like, and they tend to produce larger crops in a shorter time. Indeterminate tomatoes will keep on growing throughout the growing season producing large vines and will bear smaller crops over a longer period. Most tomatoes will not set fruit when the temperatures rise above 90 during the day or stay above 75 at night, so in the south it is best to plant varieties that will bear before the days get hot. With determinate tomatoes an early spring planting will bear a crop before the heat sets in and then a second planting can be made in the fall. Indeterminate tomatoes can be planted to bear once in the spring and then kept alive through the hot summer to bear again in the fall, but the plants must be pruned and kept healthy through the summer. Look for varieties that are disease and nematode resistant as these are two of the biggest killers of tomato plants. Resistant tomato varieties will be marked "VFN" on the seed packet or plant description. Find out about the different tomato varieties available by visiting my website, growitveg.com, which is all about vegetable gardening and contains many useful links.
4.¬† Decide whether to buy tomato seed for planting inside some 6 weeks before the last frost in your area or wait and try buying tomato plants when the local garden centers have them. With tomato seed you get a much wider choice of varieties such as hierloom tomatoes, but the seedlings will be leggy and weak if not provided with lots of high intensity light and warmth. Usually local garden centers will provide tomato varieties well suited for their area. When buying tomato plants, look for ones that are stocky, thick stemmed, with bright green leaves, that are not root bound. Don't buy the plants until you are ready to set them out. Late Feb. or early March are the usual times for setting out tomatoes in the deep south, but it is best to check with other area gardeners to find out about timing in your area. Be ready to protect the young transplants if cold weather strikes and harden off the tomato seedlings before setting them out. Hardening off tomato plants means to gradually get them accustom to the conditions they will be growing in outside. The first day set the young tomato plants outside, sheltered from the wind but in the sun for around three hours. The second day let them stay outside for 4 to 5 hours and be sure to not let them dry out, which is easy to do if they are in peat pots. On day three, leave them out for half the day and by day four they will be ready to take a whole days worth of sun.
5.¬† When planting the tomatoes, dig a hole in the pre-prepared site that is deep enough to cover the stem of the tomato plant up to the upper set of leaves. Tomato will form roots along the buried stem. If the plant is growing in a peat pot, be sure to tear it open around the bottom so the roots are free to expand. Fill in the soil around the plants and water them in well to settle the soil. Watering with a water soluble, foliar fertilizer will help the plants get over the shock of transplanting. A protective plastic surround, like a milk jug with the top and bottom cut out, placed over the young plant and pushed into the soil, will guard against cold winds and cut worms that might attack it.
6.¬† Mulch the tomatoes to help keep the soil from drying out and to help keep it cooler during the summer. Plastic sheeting can be used and red plastic is said to promote tomato health, but plastic will not help to improve the soil like organic mulches. Almost any kind of organic material can be used for mulch, leaves, straw, old hay, and layers of newspaper, will all make good mulches that will break down to improve the soil. Tree bark should not be used as a mulch around tomatoes as it takes too long to decay and will actually take nitrogen from the soil as it decays. Before spreading the mulch, run a soaker hose down the row of tomatoes right along the stems, then cover it with the mulch. Now when they need watering, the water will go right where it is needed and not be wasted to evaporation. Place wire tomato cages around the tomato plants to support them as they grow.
7.¬† When the tomato plants first show signs of new growth, fertilize them with a high nitrogen fertilizer such as 16-0-0. The first number on a fertilizer shows the percentage of nitrogen it contains by weight. Use around 1 oz.(2 tablespoons) of this strength fertilizer for each plant, sprinkling it around the plant about 6 inches from the stem and raking it into the soil well. After some 2 weeks fertilize again with a balanced fertilizer like 4-8-8 or 5-10-10, following the same directions. If using a liquid fertilizer follow the directions on the label. If your plants look yellow with darker green veins and have curled leaves, then the soil may be deficent in magnesium. Epsom salt used in a foliar spray at the rate of 1 tablespoon per gallon at bloom time and about a week later, will alleviate the problem. Do not use high nitrogen fertilizers or manure compost on the tomatoes after they are over a couple of weeks old or you will have lots of greenery and little fruiting.
8.¬† Once they start setting on green tomatoes, the plant's roots should have reached the rotted materials in the bottoms of the holes. They should need little in the way of fertilizing until the fruits are ripening. The most important thing is to keep them well watered. Insufficient and spotty watering is the major cause of many tomato problems like blossom end rot, fruit dropping, and stress related diseases. The plants need a good soaking every 3 to 4 days, with the soil being wet down to a depth of 10 to 12 inches. Test the soil before watering by digging down into it. because too much water will weaken and kill tomatoes also. Always water the tomatos deeply to promote deep root growth. When the fruits start to ripen, fertilize the plants again with the balanced fertilizer using it the same way as before.
9.¬†Watch for tomato pests such as hornworms, fruit worms, aphids, white flies, and stink bugs. Neem oil is good for aphids and white flies, Dipel will kill most caterpillers, and stink bugs can be hand picked or knocked into a container of turpentine. Read up on some of the many web articles on how to deal with these pests. Birds require some different tricks though. If you only have a few plants, the individual tomato fruits can be covered with paper bags when they start to turn red. For larger gardens, net covered supports can be erected over the plants to keep birds from eating the tomatoes. Read my articles about making a bird barrier and ways to protect¬†a garden from birds.
10.¬† For determinate tomato varieties, after they have made a crop and the summer heat has caused them to quit bearing, it is best to pull them up and put in new plants in the fall. With indeterminate tomatoes, withhold all fertilizers and trim them by half when they quit bearing due to the heat. When it starts to cool off some in the late summer, start fertilizing them again. Give them a good dose of low nitrogen fertilizer like 4-10-10 and work it into the soil well. You should start seeing blooms and fruit in about 2 weeks. As far as pruning bearing tomatoes, that is up to you. If you remove all the side shoots and suckers, you will have fewer but larger tomatoes. In a small garden, pruning may be necessary to keep the plants under control especially indeterminate varieties. Want to know more about vegetable gardening like how to handle garden pests, picking the best vegetable varieties for your area, and how to improve your soil? Go to my website Grow it Vegetable Gardening for many more helpful articles.