It's the New Year and southern vegetable gardeners know it means one thing: time to start thinking about tomatoes. In many areas, tomatoes seedlings are started indoors in January and set out in the garden in March and April. Now is the time to start ordering your seeds.
Growing tomatoes in the South can be tough sledding. Between the heat, nematodes, insects, and diseases, it can be a struggle to get a good crop of fruit. For the best success, start tomatoes early to get them established before the heat of summer sets in. Amend the soil with compost before planting and add any other fertilizers needed based on a soil test. If you have clay soil, consider building raised beds. These allow the soil to warm up and dry out faster in spring. Once your tomatoes are established, consider mulching the pathways between plants with pine straw or hay mulch. It will keep the soil moist and cool in summer.
The most important decision to make about growing tomatoes in the South is the variety. Often, planting the right variety means the difference between success and failure. Look for varieties adapted to southern growing conditions: they flower and set fruit in the heat, and they tolerate nematodes and damage from most of the major tomato diseases.
Here are some tried-and-true varieties for your garden this summer:
Floramerica - Developed at the University of Florida, this variety has tolerance to 15 different diseases. The 8- to 12-ounce scarlet fruits have a meaty texture, making them great for cooking and canning. This determinate plant produces fruit in 70 days from transplanting.
Heatwave - This determinate plant produces 7-ounce red fruits in 68 days. "Heatwave" loves the heat and can set fruit with temperatures as high as 97° F. It also tolerates many diseases.
Heinz 1439 - A great, red canning tomato on a determinate plant, this variety produces 6-ounce fruits 76 days from transplanting, and has good crack tolerance and wilt disease tolerance.
Spitfire -This determinate variety has the crimson gene that causes the interior of the fruits to have a bright red color. It produces 8- to 10-ounce fruits 68 days from transplanting and has good crack and disease tolerance.
Solar Set - Another product of University of Florida research, this determinate variety sets its 8- to 9-ounce red fruits in 90° F heat 70 days from transplant. It also has good wilt tolerance. Some consider it the best tasting of the heat-tolerant varieties.
Sunmaster - Sunmaster produces 8-ounce, red fruits on determinate plants in 72 days from transplant. It has the ability to set fruits during high temperatures, and also is tolerant of nematodes and wilt diseases.
For seeds of most of the tomato varieties mentioned here, go to Willhite Seed Company, www.willhiteseed.com.
Lighting for Germinating Seeds
Q. I use large trays with lots of cells to start my seeds. Some of the seeds have germinated and some have not. When should I put the tray of seedlings under lights?
A. A rule of thumb is to set seed flats under lights when one-third to one-half of the seeds appear to have germinated. Generally, seeds of the same kind will germinate within a day or two of each other, assuming they're planted at about the same depth. If you wait too long, the early ones will get leggy and suffer from lack of light.
If you planted many different types of seeds in the tray, some will probably take a bit longer than others to germinate. Some people cut large trays into sixpacks and plant different seeds in each sixpack. That way, they can put the germinated seeds under lights, while the slower-germinating seeds are still on the warming mat to hasten germination.