Tomato Tips: Keys to Success

Tomato Tips: Keys to Success

Tomatoes rank high among the favorites for home gardeners, cherished for their versatility and flavor. Whether planted in traditional garden beds, confined to containers, nurtured in hydroponic setups, or suspended in hanging baskets, tomatoes thrive in the Florida Panhandle given the right care and understanding of essential growing principles. With a bit of advice and a dash of perseverance, achieving a beautiful harvest of delicious tomatoes is not only fun but also fulfilling. Check out these tips for successfully growing tomatoes in your home garden.

A bin of cherry tomatoes UF/IFAS Photo by Amy Stuart

In the Panhandle, we’re fortunate because we can start planting tomatoes earlier than many other places. But because tomatoes thrive in warm weather, it’s important to wait until the risk of frost is gone before putting them outside. If you’re eager to begin, you can start growing tomato seedlings indoors. Once the weather warms up, you can move these seedlings outside. Another option is to plant tomatoes in lightweight containers. This makes it easy to protect them if there’s a late frost or freeze by moving them to a safer spot. However, don’t delay planting your tomatoes for too long! They need time to grow and produce fruit before the summer heat sets in. Once nighttime temperatures stay above about 80 degrees consistently, larger tomatoes might stop growing fruit. But smaller types like cherry and grape tomatoes usually do just fine.

Some tomatoes, called determinate or “bush” types, grow to a specific size and don’t need pruning. Their fruits all ripen together within 1-3 weeks, which is great for container gardening and canning. Then there are indeterminate or “vine” tomatoes, which keep growing and producing fruit all season long. These kinds need support like stakes and some pruning to keep them neat and tidy in the garden.

Tomatoes are sun-lovers, needing about four to six hours of sunlight every day. So, when planting them, choose a sunny spot in your yard. Before planting, consider getting your soil tested by your local Extension office. You’re aiming for a soil pH between 6.2 to 6.5, which is ideal for tomatoes. Also, enrich your soil with organic materials like composted manure. When planting your tomatoes, it’s helpful to bury them slightly deeper than they were in their original pots. This encourages better root growth.

Florida’s warm and sometimes damp weather can cause problems with insects and diseases that harm tomatoes. To avoid these issues, it’s smart to pick tomato types that can resist common diseases such as verticillium wilt and fusarium wilt, as well as pests like nematodes. Check the seed package for information about resistance. For this region, some good choices are the ‘Better Boy’ and ‘Celebrity’ varieties. If you prefer heirloom tomatoes, think about trying ‘Cherokee Purple’ and ‘Green Zebra’.

Tomatoes are better able to resist disease and dry off quickly after rain showers when they are trellised.
Photo credit Anh Ngo Hoang (Pixabay)

For tomatoes that keep growing, like indeterminate ones, people often use wire cages, stakes, or trellis systems to support them. It’s a good idea to put these supports in place either right before planting or shortly after, so you don’t mess up the plant’s roots. As the tomato plants get bigger, you can use clips or ties to attach them to the support. Another way is to put stakes between each plant in a row and weave string through them to help support the plants as they grow taller.

To stop small problems before they get big, make sure to inspect your plants often for signs of bugs or diseases. If you want to learn more about dealing with these issues, you can check out the Tomato Insect Pest Management guide on Gardening Solutions website:

Just like people need food to grow, tomatoes also need specific nutrients to thrive. Using a fertilizer with a ratio like 6-8-8 or something similar will provide these essential nutrients for your plants. You can choose between a liquid fertilizer mix or granular fertilizer. It’s important to fertilize when you plant your tomatoes and continue to do so regularly during the growing season to keep them healthy and strong.

Pick a location for your garden that’s near a water source, like a hose or watering can. Drip irrigation is a good choice because it gives the right amount of water and helps keep leaves dry to prevent diseases. Make sure watering your plants is convenient for you. Aim to water your garden with about 1-2 inches of water each week to keep your tomatoes healthy.

Tomatoes growing on a vine. Photo taken 05-20-21

Successfully growing tomatoes requires attention to detail and consistent care. Ultimately, providing your tomatoes with the proper care such as adequate water, sunlight, and nutrients, is essential for their health and productivity. With these practices in mind, you can look forward to a harvest of delicious tomatoes from your Panhandle garden. For more information about growing tomatoes in the Florida Panhandle, contact your local County Extension Office.

Everglades Tomato Doesn’t Disappoint

Everglades Tomato Doesn’t Disappoint

For me, tomatoes are the most difficult (and expensive) vegetable to grow. I even try to discourage people from growing tomatoes in Florida. Tomatoes are susceptible to damage from a plethora of diseases and insect pests AND they require a lot of maintenance and fertilizer. However, I now have a tomato variety I can recommend – The Everglades Tomato.

The Everglades tomato (Solanum pimpinellifolium) is a different species than the traditional tomato (Solanum lycopersicum). Other names for this tomato are the wild tomato or currant tomato. The plant produces an abundance of small tomatoes (about 1/2 inch diameter) with thin skin. Unlike most tomatoes, Everglades tomatoes keep producing throughout the heat of summer. They are even tolerant of brackish water and salt winds.

Everglades tomatoes should be cared for like any other indeterminate (vining type) tomato. Like most gardeners, I like to plant tomatoes a little deeper (two inches or so) than they were planted in the tray/pot. This allows for more adventitious roots to develop from the buried portions of the stems. I also like to trellis these plants with tall stakes and twine or some other support to improve air circulation. However, I have read that Everglades tomatoes grow just fine rambling on the ground. Make sure to give them a little more space than other tomatoes regardless if you stake them or not. Fertilize and irrigate just the same as you would for other tomatoes.

harvested Everglades tomatoes
A bountiful harvest of Everglades tomatoes. Photo Credit: Connie Gladding, Master Gardener Volunteer, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Clay County

Of course, just like any plant, Everglades tomatoes aren’t perfect. Their small size makes harvesting a little more labor intensive and their thin skin is easily torn. But I’m able to look past these faults because of their excellent flavor. I’ve also noticed Everglades tomatoes are not immune to caterpillar/moth pests. Fortunately the caterpillars only seem to feed on the leaves, because the tomatoes are so small.

Whether you’re a chef or just want a sweet snack, you should give Everglades tomatoes a try. Just search the internet for seed sources or ask a friend for a cutting.

Correcting 3 Common Tomato Growing Mistakes

Correcting 3 Common Tomato Growing Mistakes

2022 has been a good tomato growing year for many Panhandle gardeners, myself included.  It would have been difficult to have better climatic conditions to aid a terrific tomato harvest.  After enduring a late frost just before Easter, the Panhandle then experienced two mild months in April and May that combined with nearly a month of dry weather during fruit development to deliver an excellent fruit set season with minimal disease and insect pressure.  However, despite the favorable growing conditions, I have talked with several gardeners that once again struggled to yield a good crop of fresh garden tomatoes.  Why is that?  With the Panhandle tomato home gardening season nearing its conclusion, now is a perfect time to revisit 3 of the most common mistakes that prevent an excellent harvest!

Not Starting Early – Since Memorial Day, the rain and heat have really ramped up.  These hot, wet conditions are perfect for developing tomato plant problems like fungal and bacterial diseases, not to mention the fact that tomato plants will stop setting fruit once nighttime temperatures rise above 75 F.  While spraying fungicides preventatively can certainly help decrease disease incidence, the absolute best thing a gardener can do is try to get ahead of the disease-bringing heat and humidity by starting plants early when more favorable growing conditions prevail.  So, what is early?  I try to have tomato transplants in the ground by March 15 or soon after*.  If you plan to grow plants from seed, they should be started indoors mid-January for planting outdoors in mid-March.  Most tomato varieties take between 60 and 80 days to mature after planting, so a mid-March planting date normally yields harvestable tomatoes by the middle of May, comfortably beating the June disease deadline.  *Planting early means protecting plants from occasional late frosts.  Be prepared!

Not Scouting Your Plants – Pest and disease problems are a lot easier to manage if caught early and the best way to do that is to spend time with your plants.  If you scout (just walking by and giving plants a short inspection) daily, you’ll learn what tomato plants and the beneficial insects that hang around all the time are supposed to look like an and be able to spot abnormalities and bad bugs when they occur.  While tomato diseases and pest outbreaks can certainly cause a lot of damage in a short amount of time, they don’t reach disastrous levels immediately – be vigilant and catch them early!

Not Fertilizing and Watering Correctly – It takes a lot of energy for a tomato plant to grow a nice, bushy plant AND yield an abundance of America’s favorite vegetable (or fruit, depending on who you ask).  To produce that necessary energy, gardeners must ensure plants receive adequate nutrition and water.  Here’s my general prescription.  At planting, apply a general purpose, slow-release fertilizer according to the label rate (for example, Osmocote, Harrell’s, or similar) and gypsum (a calcium supplement that helps prevent blossom end rot) at one pound per hundred square feet of garden.  Then, supplement later in the season with a quick-release general purpose fertilizer sufficient to drive growth and fruit development.  Watering is more of an ongoing concern.  For the first couple of weeks of the tomato plant’s life, you can get by with watering once a day or every other day.  As the plants get larger and the days get hotter however, watering twice daily is often needed to prevent wilting down in the heat of the day.  Allowing tomato plants to wilt, even for a little while, is an excellent way to encourage blossom end rot and a subpar harvest!

When tomato season rolls around in 2023, remember to start early, scout often, and water and fertilize correctly.  Follow those few tips and you’ll be well on your way to a great harvest in 2023!  For more information about growing tomatoes or any other horticultural or agricultural topic, contact us at the UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension Office at 850-674-8323 or email  Happy Gardening!



Growing Tomatoes: GIP Live Reference Materials

Growing Tomatoes: GIP Live Reference Materials

The February Q&A on Growing Tomatoes offered valuable tips for the home gardener to be successful with tomatoes in 2022.  Below are the reference materials related to specific questions that were asked.

Let’s start out with the panels favorite tomatoes including hybrids and heirlooms.

Evan:  Supersweet 100, Sungold
Larry:  Amelia, Brandywine, Cherokee Purple
Sam: Better Boy, Tasti Lee, Sweethearts
Matt: Mountain Magic, Mountain Rouge, Bella Rosa
Daniel: Black cherry and Big Beef

Why are tomatoes red?

Can we grow tomatoes year around?

I have very sandy/loamy soil. Do I have a chance at successfully growing tomatoes?

What is the best time to start tomatoes in North Florida?

If one grows in raised beds, should one rotate where in the bed tomatoes are planted?

If you plant tomatoes in mid-March, how long will they continue to produce fruit?

I’m thinking of trying hydroponic gardening on a few tomato plants this year. Do you think a 50/50 mix of perlite and vermiculite would be a good approach for a soil medium? I’d like to use 5-gallon buckets and keep maintenance to a minimum.

What tomatoes grow best in inland Bay County? Coastal vs inland considerations.
Best type for all day sun (speak to tomatoes light requirements)

What is the best tomato variety for Northwest Florida? I need one go-to variety for both regular tomatoes and cherry type.

How to get more tomatoes, less vine?

My tomatoes get black on the bottom and rot. What causes this and how do I prevent it?

Do tomatoes need a lot of water?

Why do my tomatoes split/burst/crack while on the vine?

Any suggestions for how to handle especially wet years like last summer? My tomatoes really suffered.

How do I keep the leaves from getting dark spots that spread and kills foliage? 

How do you string tomatoes vine to a stake?

What causes catfacing?


Every year I’m having trouble with an amazing amount of insect infestations on my tomatoes & peppers I grow in containers. What can I do to help?

How do marigolds (which variety) or basil aid tomatoes?

Please talk about save tomato seeds to grow. Some can’t afford to buy potted tomato plants.

Can you add nutrients into the soil from last year’s tomatoes to reuse again this year?

Tomato Pruning Tips

Tomato Pruning Tips

With the traditional planting date of Good Friday behind us, the home tomato gardening season in the Panhandle is in full swing.  While tomatoes are the most persnickety veggie we grow, there are several practices you can adopt to help you succeed: selecting an adapted variety; regularly scouting for insects and disease; and watering and fertilizing appropriately.  However, the most overlooked practice for success gardeners can adopt is proper pruning.

‘Big Beef’ Tomato with lower leaves removed. This is an excellent disease reduction practice. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Correct pruning does a couple of positive things for tomatoes.  First, it reduces the incidence of disease by preventing leaf contact with the soil, opening the interior of the plant, and allowing better airflow.  This is important as many plant pathogens reside in the soil and only need a splash of water to travel onto plant leaves.  Also, densely foliaged plants trap warm, moist air in their canopies, creating a perfect environment for disease to flourish.  Letting the plant canopy “breathe” through pruning prevents that negative environment from forming!  Second, correct pruning of “suckers” (extra growth points that can develop into shoots) helps tomato plants develop optimum yield and fruit quality.  By removing suckers, more water, nutrients, airflow, and light are directed to the main stems, where the majority of tomato fruit production occurs.  Failing to remove suckers (especially on indeterminate varieties) can result in reduced yields, increased disease, and generally messy plants!

With the reasons for pruning tomatoes established, the next step is learning exactly what to prune and how to do it in a sanitary matter.

  • Get rid of any foliage that could encounter the soil, generally all leaves occurring on the lower 12-16″ of the plant.  All kinds of nasty tomato destroying diseases, like Early Blight and Bacterial Leaf Spot, reside in the soil and are just waiting to be splashed onto your plants – don’t let that happen.
  • Determine how many primary shoots you want your plant to have.  Leave enough lower suckers to achieve that number (generally just one, two, or three as more than 3 primary stems gets hard to manage), and prune or pinch out all the rest.  To prevent stress from pruning, be diligent in removing suckers when they are still small, 2” or less.
  • Always clean and disinfect your pruners before making a cut on a tomato plant.  This is best accomplished by rinsing the blades with warm soapy water, drying, and following with by a quick alcohol spray.  A 10% bleach solution will also work, but if not thoroughly rinsed after, bleach can corrode pruner blades and other working parts.  If you make cuts on a plant that appears diseased, repeat the sanitizing process before you begin pruning another plant as “dirty” pruners are an easy way to spread pathogens in the garden.

    Developing vegetative “sucker” that will need to be removed. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

While tomatoes are indeed a difficult vegetable to grow, learning to prune them correctly will greatly help to make this a successful season.  If you just keep leaves off the ground, suckers pinched, and pruners cleaned, you’ll be well on your way to less disease, prettier plants, and more tomatoes to pick.  For more information on growing tomatoes and any other horticultural topic, please contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office.  Happy Gardening!

Spring Vegetable Gardening in the Florida Panhandle

Spring Vegetable Gardening in the Florida Panhandle

The weather is warmer and plans and planting for spring vegetable gardens are in full swing. Last week many vegetable gardening topics were addressed in our Gardening in the Panhandle LIVE program. Here are all the links for all the topics we discussed. A recording of last week’s webinar can be found at:

Home grown Squash. Gardening, vegetables. UF/IFAS Photo by Tom Wright.

Getting Started

The place to start is with UF’s ever popular and comprehensive Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide

Many viewers expressed interest in natural methods of raising their crops. Take a look at Organic Vegetable Gardening in Florida

The Square Foot Vegetable Planting Guide for Northwest Florida helps plan the layout of your garden

Maybe you would like the convenience of starting with a fresh clean soil. Gardening in Raised Beds can assist you.  Also see Gardening Solutions Raised Beds: Benefits and Maintenance

Here is a guide to Fertilizing the Garden

The Florida Panhandle Planting Guide will help you decide what to plant and when:

The Ever-Popular Tomato

To start your journey to the best tomatoes, start with UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions – Tomatoes

If you are looking to grow in containers:

Vegetable grafting is gaining in popularity, so if interested, look at this Techniques for Melon Grafting:

Blossom end rot occurs when irrigation is irregular and the calcium in the soil does not get carried to the developing fruit. The U-Scout program has a great description of this common problem:

Our moderators talked about some of their favorite tomato varieties. Josh Freeman is partial to Amelia, a good slicing tomato. Matt Lollar shared some of the best tomato varieties for sauce: Plum/Roma types like BHN 685, Daytona, Mariana, Picus, Supremo and Tachi. For cherry tomatoes, Sheila Dunning recommended Sweet 100 and Juliette.

Whatever variety you choose, Josh says to pick when it starts changing color at the blossom end and bring it indoors to ripen away from pests.

Garden Pest Management

Let’s start with an underground pest. For those of you gardening in the native soil, very tiny roundworms can be a problem. Nematode Management in the Vegetable Garden can get you started:

Leaffooted bugs are quite a nuisance going after the fruit. Here is how to control them:

Cutworms are another frustration. Learn about them here:

Maybe your tomatoes have gotten eaten up by hornworms.

There are beneficial creatures helping to control the pest insects. Learn to recognize and conserve them and make for a healthier environment. Natural Enemies and Biological Control:

If the beneficials are not numerous enough to control your pests, maybe a natural approach to pest control can help. Natural Products for Managing Landscape and Garden Pests in Florida:

Fungal and bacterial problems can also plague the garden. Go to Integrated Disease Management for Vegetable Crops in Florida for answers:

Get control of weeds early and consult Controlling Weeds by Cultivating & Mulching

Companion planting is a strategy that has been around for ages and for good reason: Some good flowering additions to the garden that Sheila talked about are bee balm, calendula, marigold, nasturtiums, chives, and parsley.

And Some Miscellaneous Topics…

Peppers are another popular crop. Get some questions answered here:

When can we plant spinach in Northeast Florida?

Figs are a great fruit for northwest Florida. Get started here: and with this