“You can’t do it,” part II: Heirloom tomatoes in Florida

Or, “Oh yes, you can!”

It can be done in the heat of June. It can be done with compost (mushroom). It can be done with no Miracle-Gro. You can raise heirlooms here, you know.

The short-lived debate

So once again, I took the bait. I was talking with another gardener in my favorite local hardware store in July, the one with the big nursery and knowledgeable nursery manager whose name rhymes with Shmanet, and the conversation went something like this:

Me: “What are you growing?”

Her: “No vegetables until fall.”

Me: “I’m actually am doing pretty well with tomatoes right now, although they probably won’t fruit until then.”

Her: “They won’t make it in this heat. Good luck with that.”

Me: “They’re actually doing OK, even the heirlooms.”

There was a long pause, and then my fellow shopper turned back to the indoor succulents, silencing my urge to pull out my phone and show her the equivalent of a billfold full of family photos, most of them of tomato plants.

In the phone were pictures of tomato vines and bushes much taller than the average woman (me, cough cough). There were heirloom grape tomatoes, heirloom beefsteaks, hybrid cherry tomatoes and even some larger fruiting varieties that were just starting to produce.

Sweet 100 hybrid vining up a native tree on July 30, 2019.

There were also pictures of healthy seedlings building strength for the transplant – the same seedlings another lady at the community garden turned down flat. She, too, said there was no chance until fall.

“We don’t even try,” she said.

Well, why not? There are plenty reasons to try. I began trying back in June, after considering the pros and cons of heirlooms.

Why you should grow heirloom tomatoes

They taste better

All it takes is just one taste of just one variety that was just picked off the vine. Each variety tastes different and each gardener’s fruit from each variety tastes different because, like wine, tomato taste is a complex interplay between soil nutrients, weather, plant genetics and chance.

You can’t say any of the above about factory-farm tomatoes picked green, ripened with ethylene gas and trucked across the country.

Whether you grow your own or buy them at the store, try our all-natural veggie wash soap, which is residue free and disinfects naturally with cinnamon oil.

They’re better for you

Tomatoes are heart-healthy and full of vitamins, nutrients and antioxidants that help fight a host of diseases, from obesity to cancer to heart disease. Store-bought tomatoes are bred for survival, mass production and for skins that can survive cracks and falls but are not bred for health benefits. Plus, they are picked green and ripened synthetically, resulting in bland taste and far less nutrition.

They’re $$expensive$$ at the store

Non-organic heirlooms cost $3.99 a pound at Publix and more at upscale grocery stores and health food stores. For the price of one large tomato of indeterminate freshness, you could have grown dozens of plants from 1-2 packets of seeds.

Plus, they’ve lost a sizeable amount of nutrition by the time they make it to your harissa-flavored chicken or Caprese salad. You’re getting far less vitamins and taste for your buck.

Overcoming the obstacles

So, why is it that no-can-do Jacksonville-area gardeners say that you can’t grow tomatoes in the heat, especially finicky heirlooms? If you no-can-do you no-can-can (or eat fresh). Har.

Well, here are the agreed-upon obstacles, and here are some solutions. Let me know in the comments how well you do, or better yet, email me a photo for our reader gallery.

It’s too hot

There’s no question it gets so hot here I’ve seen birds pull worms out of the ground with oven mitts. According to the AccuWeather website, June through August months see average daily temperatures in the low 80s too low 90s with nighttime lows in the 70s. When it gets to around 75 degrees at night, most tomatoes will stop setting fruit, according to the University of Florida. But some won’t, and the others can be growing and building strength until temperatures moderate.

That said, August gets the green light for transplanting tomatoes, according to the University of Florida. We sell all-heirloom, all organic seedlings here, many with hundreds or thousands of years of history.

The number one tip I can offer is to use a strategic blend of light and shade. For me, that looks like placing my two dozen plants beneath the shade of some native trees, which have lacy but not dense foliage. I pruned the canopy in other areas with denser shade to let in more light, and it helps the tree at the same time. (Although look up your specific variety of tree to see how much pruning is too much or badly timed).

You can also prune your tomatoes to two main branches, and train them right up the tree with any kind of scrap fabric or leftover bread tie you want.

The number two tip is to grow heat-tolerant varieties for your tomato fix while you wait for the bigger, tastier varieties to appear. Yellow Pear is a delicious heirloom plant that gives you beautiful fruit in small clusters about the size of your palm. It fruits reliably. Sweet 100 is a hybrid with plentiful and tiny tomatoes. Both have that intoxicating pop of tomato flavor fresh off the plant or in a same-day salad.

It’s too wet/too dry

This one seems hard, but it isn’t. In order to help your tomatoes develop deep, strong, manly roots, water once a week for a good long time, about an inch a week. If they are in pots, you should see water come out of the bottom. If they are in the ground, water until it pools and then let it sink slowly in.

They’ll have to reach deeper for the water as the soil dries out, leading to deeper and more efficient roots.

If you’ve gotten a lot of rain that week, don’t water. If it’s only sprinkled a couple of times, put your finger in the ground on your usual watering day. If it’s drier than a wrung-out sponge, water as usual.

There are too many bugs

Mockingbird parents love to feed their babies lots of those pesky bugs all summer long.

Nature, when left to herself, is so efficient it’s scary. When you forgo chemical fertilizers that kill everything – beneficial as well as harmful insects, good plants as well as bad ones – you have no balance for nature to work with. However, if you plant the right plants for your area, they will attract the right pollinators and predators for the bad bugs.

If you have plenty of bugs, you will attract plenty of bugs that eat bugs, and birds that also eat bugs. After all that predation, there will be few enough left over to handpick or spray with non-chemical pesticides. One cheap trick is vinegar spray, one-third cup a vinegar to two-thirds water, shaken up and put in a cleaned and recycled spray bottle. (NOTE: This will lead to damage on the leaves so concentrate on the tiny bugs you can’t pick off. It can damage foliage so don’t do this with seedlings)

For underground pests like nematodes, I plant marigolds all through the garden because their roots exude a natural, subterranean pesticide that the bad bugs don’t like.

I don’t know which ones to plant

The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science and your county extension offices are the experts when it comes to plant variety and helping plants thrive. That’s why the government funds them! Here are some recommendations from the experts.

Heirloom tomatoes (from largest to smallest fruit): Mortgate Lifter, Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Black Cherry. Hybrids: Celebrity, Better Boy, Bonnie Bes, Sweet 100. For a more complete heirloom list, go here. For a more complete hybrid list go here.

Proof of truth:

San Marzano tomatoes

I have two dozen healthy plants, from robust seedlings to 8-foot-tall giants, surviving, thriving and setting fruit in my garden right here. I’m no magician. If I can do it, you can do it.

Ready to grow? We’ll start your seedlings for you. Check out some options here.

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