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Tomatoes for the Florida garden

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The classic red tomato is a staple of the American summer diet. From hamburgers to summer salads, a ripe tomato is a hallmark of summer.

Tomatoes need to be planted after the danger of frost has passed. Plants can either be purchased from a local nursery or can be started from seed. In general, starting plants from seed is much cheaper and increases the variety of plants that can be grown. Tomato seeds can be planted in pots beginning in February and either grown indoors or outside on warm winter days until the danger of frost has past. Tomato plants are easily transplanted from pots into the home garden. One of the most common issues with growing tomatoes in Florida is the lack of fruit production from otherwise healthy plants. The most likely explanation is that it is too warm. Tomato plants have difficulty in setting fruit when nighttime temperatures are above 70F or when daytime temperatures approach 90F.

There are two types of tomato plants, “determinate” and “indeterminate”. Determinate plants are generally more compact and grow to <4 feet in height while indeterminate plants can reach >10 feet if properly supported. The second major difference between these two types of plants is when the fruit ripens. Tomatoes from a determinate plant will ripen all its fruit within an approximately two-week period. These are excellent choices for backyard gardeners who are interested in producing sauce or require a large crop within a short timeframe. After producing fruit, determinate tomato plants will die. Indeterminate plants will produce fruit until frost. Blooms, immature fruit and mature fruit are found on the same plant. If the home gardener desires fruit throughout the growing season, indeterminate plants are an excellent choice.

In North Central Florida, cherry tomatoes are much easier to grow than larger varieties. Excellent cherry (small fruit) tomato choices include Sweet million (red), Snowberry (yellow) and Sunsugar (yellow/orange). Growing different colors can spice up a salad and may even entice a kid to try one. Many online stores sell “rainbow” mixes of tomato seeds for <$3. The varieties listed above are all “indeterminate” and will produce fruit throughout the growing season. However, it is difficult to grow tomatoes past the 4th of July in North Central Florida due to warm temperatures.

One advantage of living in Florida is that that there are TWO tomato-growing seasons (mid-March through July and late September until frost). When temperatures begin to cool in late September a second crop of tomatoes can be planted in the home garden. These plants should produce fruit before the first frost of the year, however this crop can be “lost” in years when North Central Florida experiences an early frost.

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