Planting time: Southwest Florida tomatoes go in the ground now for fresh holiday salads

Dixie golden giant is an heirloom tomato with a rich yellow color and exceptional taste. It can weigh as much as 2 pounds.  
Linda Sapp/www.tomatogrowers.com

Dixie golden giant is an heirloom tomato with a rich yellow color and exceptional taste. It can weigh as much as 2 pounds. Linda Sapp/www.tomatogrowers.com

Support your plants with a cage design that wraps and supports the plant, or try using stakes. Linda Sapp/www.tomatogrowers.com

Support your plants with a cage design that wraps and supports the plant, or try using stakes. Linda Sapp/www.tomatogrowers.com

What tops your Christmas or Easter salad better than wondrous, garden-fresh tomatoes from your own backyard?

Nothing, that’s what. And if you are intrigued by tales of glorious fresh tomatoes that can be grown nearly year-round in Florida but have no real idea of how to make them happen, you aren’t alone.

“When do I plant? What about the heat?” you wonder. Or “I see thousands of tomatoes! Which ones really work?”

Ask Linda Sapp, horticulturist at Tomato Growers Supply Company in Fort Myers (www.tomatogrowers.com): “Start with just a few tomato plants, and be prepared to learn by doing,” she says. “Include a robust variety such as a grape or cherry to ensure success and an easy harvest.

“Building confidence is important when learning to grow your own food.”

When to plant

Now is the time. Tomato season in Southwest Florida is winter: As soon as the temperatures drop, tomatoes are ready to plant. With careful selection, though, seeds can be sown in mid- to late-September.

You want to know the time required from seed to fruit in order to time your plantings, although this can be more of an art than a science. Use 90 days from seed to fruit for planning purposes. When planning for Christmas fruit, count backwards from mid to late December. You can plant in September for Christmas fruit, and you plant in January for Easter. With these two plantings you will have a plentiful supply.

Mike Gill at Driftwood Gardens says that “the number of days quoted on seed packs may be reduced by about 30 percent” in Southwest Florida. His advice? “Plant and see.”

How to plant

You should know that those big, juicy tomatoes that continue producing over a long season are called “Indeterminate,” and generally need a cage or stake because they keep growing. The bushy “determinate” tomatoes are short season: The bush reaches maturity and then produces fruit, requiring successive plantings. For home gardeners, staking or caging is useful for either type of tomato, allowing easy access to the fruit, and keeping leaves up in the breeze.

What are “heirloom” tomatoes? These are simply a variety of tomato that has bred true for 50 years or so. Sometimes there is a story with the variety, sometimes not. Are they better? Sometimes yes, sometimes just different. And fun.

Support your plants with a cage design that wraps and supports the plant, or stakes that accept tied tomato branches. Many home gardeners simply use whatever is available. Find a simple example at The Tomato Stake (www.thetomatostake.com). A device called a Veggie Support is available at www.veggiecage.com and Growers Supply offers fancy models, squiggled metal in rainbow colors. Local stores carry stakes and cages in season. A simple tube made from light fencing also works nicely.

In either case, set out your seeds in well-drained soils that have been amended to hold a bit of moisture between waterings. Follow the spacing directions on the seed packets. Full sun is a must, at least six hours per day.

What to plant

Sapp says that “choosing varieties is partly personal preference.” For the fall season, recommended strong, dependable varieties for humid weather include:

■ First prize is called by Tomato Growers “the kind of tomato home gardeners would love to grow for a county fair entry.” Huge, juicy 10- to 12-ounce fruit appear over the course of a long season on vigorous plants.

■ Better bush VFN is just right for the container or square-foot gardener. The stems are quite strong, meaning little staking is needed. The very early 8-ounce fruit is rich and tasty, appearing in about 68 days, and perfect for slicing.

■ Homestead 24 will set fruit even in hot weather like this. Fruits are luscious, meaty critters great for slicing or stuffing. The vine is large and strong; staking or caging is a must.

“Grape Tomato” Could be the easiest of all and is perfect for containers. These cherry tomatoes are sweet and complex at the same time, and are often eaten right off the vine — before making the trip to the kitchen. The vines are vigorous and need caging. Clusters of a dozen or so tomatoes are ready in about 65 days.

While you are busy picking your first planting, you will also be busy with your second crop. Sapp adds: “Planting tomatoes more than once during our growing season is an option for all gardeners, beginning or advanced.”

Plant the same varieties if you wish, but consider a few different tomatoes for the second season:

■ Brandywine regular leaf has huge, 10-16oz fruit that slices bigger than a sandwich! It’s a vigorous heirloom tomato with fruit in about 80 days

■ Lemon boy is a very strong plant — a sensible, sweet and beautiful yellow 8-ounce fruit.

■ Dixie golden giant is another heirloom, showing a richer yellow color with truly exceptional taste. This fruit is huge, as much as 2 pounds. The plant is large and must supported.

MaryAnn Thompson, buyer for Driftwood Gardens, takes a wider view of recommended plants, mentioning “Better Boy,” “Celebrity” and “all of the Italian Roma tomatoes.”

Nothing to be afraid of here. Growing tomatoes is as simple as tying a shoe lace. And even if your efforts get tripped up, Southwest Florida’s weather encourages you try it again.

Resource: Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide: edis.ifas.ufl.edu/vh021

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