planting a tomato garden
My tomato garden in 2020 has had a wild ride since February. Between my (mostly failed) hydroponics try, a surprise snow, an unpleasant discovery about trees and seeds that either didn’t sprout or didn’t thrive, I’ve had to make lots of changes. So now that it’s May, what’s really growing in my homegrown tomato garden?
Tomato Varieties in the Garden
I’ve started tomato seeds from a lot of different varieties, but not all have sprouted and thrived. Some were definitely due to user error (mine), some seemed to be issues with the seeds themselves. For example, I planted six seeds of Red Robin, but only 1 sprouted — go figure. But, here’ a list of what I have in the garden, or are within a couple of weeks from going into their final place in the garden.
- Vorlon (which I have nicknamed “Kosh”)
- Blue Beauty
- Girl Girl’s Weird Thing
- Alice’s Dream
- Red Robin
- Earl’s Faux
- Stormin’ Norman
- Tennessee Yellow Cherry
- Dwarf Arctic Rose
- Dwarf Wild Fred
- Sleeping Lady
- Red Brandywine, Potato Leaf
- Unlabeled dwarf (might be BrandyFred, but not sure yet)
- Cherry Princess Sweet Surprise
Who’s Doing What?
The first four to go outside were Red Robin (miniature early determinate), Vorlon, Blue Beauty and Girl Girl’s Weird Thing (all mid-season indeterminates). They went outside far too early, but in the case of Vorlon, Blue Beauty and Girl Girl’s Weird Thing (which I will abbreviate GGWT), I had to rescue them from a failed hydroponics experiment. And also, I am still trying to find my way growing in Tennessee versus Florida — in late February, my Florida tomato garden was fully planted. So, I jumped the gun — my bad.
Before I tell you how they are all performing, I will say this — next year, I won’t be starting my seeds in late January, because they are ready to go outside by mid-March, and it’s just too chilly for them to thrive. The seeds I planted in March have done the best overall, since we didn’t get really stable weather until late April. (Even then, we got s surprise late freeze in early May, three weeks after our last average frost date.)
Vorlon is the tallest by a fair amount, but GGWT wins the prize for overall size — it’s grown up and out. Blue Beauty is wimpy as a plant, but it’s got more open blossoms than the other two combined. However, for all three of these plants — they started setting out blossoms before the May freeze, and all the blossoms aborted. The second set for each all failed. They are now all in flower and crossing fingers, they will set some tomatoes this time. I guess that is what happens when you try to plant out too soon!
Alice’s Dream and Stormin’ Norman are in the process of creating a large number of blossoms — and they were some of the early March seed starts. Tennessee Yellow Cherry also has a good number of flower buds forming.
Earl’s Faux is a little slow when it comes to flowering, although it’s starting to form buds. It was a mid-February seed start, so it had more cold weather to contend with. I have to admit though — it’s a beautiful plant!
Jochalos is starting to blossom, as is Dwarf Arctic Rose. My unlabeled dwarf tomato is also starting to form buds.
The rest (Dwarf Wild Fred, Sleeping Lady, Aussie, Red Brandywine Potato Leaf and Cherry Princess Sweet Surprise) are a couple more weeks from being ready to be set out into their final garden spots — they were the last sets of seeds I started. I’ve potted them up at least once (twice in the case of Dwarf Wild Fred), but they are in the holding spot — dappled sunlight for a few hours then full sun for another two or three hours.
Some varieties I only have one plant, but some I have multiples. I ended up with three Earl’s Faux, two Alice’s Dream, two Stormin’ Norman. I also have two Aussie (although one might not make it) and a second Tennessee Yellow Cherry. I thought I was losing the older Tennessee Yellow Cherry to the cold, so I started a new seed. Surprise — the original one made it through the rough weather. Hmm, I think I may have two Red Brandywine Potato Leaf plants as well.
I did not grow Pink Brandywine this year. It’s a luscious tomato, but it never produced really well for me when I was in Florida. However, I decided to give Red Brandywine Potato Leaf a try, and see what happens.
So What About the Trees?
This is another thing I’ve had to learn the hard way. In South Florida, our trees never dropped leaves, and also I knew about how many hours of sun the various parts of our yard got, even allowing for changes in the sun’s angle during the year.
Here in East Tennessee, I discovered that my main garden area was getting shaded out when the trees started leafing out. What started out as six hours of full sun dwindled to maybe three hours at one point, with some dappled shade for perhaps another hour. Thankfully, the sun’s angle has changed enough so that the area gets a couple of hours of dappled shade and a little over four hours of direct sun. Not as much as I really want, but our yard is so full of trees I am having to make do.
I did find two other spots that receive about six hours of full sun through the course of the day, so I have more tomatoes there. Plus some peppers, beans, cucumbers, squash and assorted other herbs and flowers.
I also discovered that there is a family of rabbits somewhere nearby, as well as some dastardly squirrels and a chipmunk. Since all my plants are in containers, the bunnies haven’t been a problem yet. Not sure what’s going to happen when the cukes start to trail over the sides.
Definitely not sure what the squirrels and chipmunk will do, when faced with the temptation of garden fruit. Good or bad, I also have some hot peppers which are planted amongst the various tomatoes and other plants. I also discovered that squirrels do not like the smell of peppermint (story for another time), so I have several types of mints and fragrant herbs scattered around as well.
If you live in the (really) Deep South, it’s time to plant seeds soon for a Spring crop. If you live in the frigid North, it’s time to buy those seeds for starting in just a few short months.
Yep, it’s time to think tomatoes!
Planting a Tomato Garden in the South
If you live in the really southern part of the US (like I do in S Florida), you can plant your seeds soon (even right now) or even find tomato plants at your local garden center. I planted a bunch of seeds yesterday, in preparation of a Spring crop of ripe tomatoes. But since it still can get chilly and I can even have a touch of frost where I live, I plant my tomatoes in containers. This way, if frost is in the forecast, I can move the plants into the garage for the night.
Right now I have three tomato plants of three different varieties in 5-gallon pots, one having blossoms. Seeing as it’s Winter, I have them in a spot where they can get full sunlight from about 11 am to 4 pm. I also have six more tomato seed varieties that I planted yesterday. Right now, my well-grown plants are:
- A determinate red medium-sized tomato (the one with flowers) called Patio – photo above.
- An indeterminate bicolor tomato called Mr. Stripey.
- An indeterminate really big red beefsteak tomato called Park’s Whopper.
So, if you live in the Deep South, it’s time to start your tomato seeds indoors between now and the end of January (depending on how far north on the Deep South you live). The seedlings can then be transplanted outside as soon as all danger of frost is past. You can find tomato seeds in local garden centers as well as online. I have to admit, online is my favorite way to get seeds.
A special note to anyone like me who lives in Florida; as you well know, our summers are hot & humid and the sunshine very strong. Summer in Florida really isn’t the best time of year to grow tomatoes. I’ll cover more about tomato-growing in the summer in Florida in a different post.
USDA Plant Hardiness Zones
No matter where you live, know what plant hardiness zone you live in. Here’s a link to where you can put in your zip code, and you’ll get your zone.
Like I said, local climate plays into this. You can live in the Mid South, but if you are gardening at altitude (like around the Smokey Mountains), your zone will be colder than if you were growing in a more coastal environment.
Tomato Gardens in the North
Time to get those seeds! Since you won’t be planting them right away, you have a little time to peruse your tomato variety options a bit more. You probably don’t have seeds available in garden centers yet, but you can browse and order them online.
So what seeds do you buy? It really depends on your climate, and how long and warm your summers. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, I’d choose a tomato that sets fruit early. The cooler Summer climate means it will take longer than average to grow those tomatoes until they are ripe on the vine, which is why you need an early-producing tomato. Some varieties you could try include Early Girl, Matina, Stupice, Early Wonder.
If you live in a climate with a pretty warm and sunny late Spring and Summer, you can grow both early and mid-season varieties. You can try a later-season beefsteak if you can grow your tomatoes in a greenhouse or indoors under grow lights and have good-sized plants ready to go outside as soon as the last frost is past. Some mid-season tomatoes varieties to think about include Better Boy, Big Beef, Eva Purple Ball, Sioux.
So those are some ideas for your tomato garden. It’s time to either plant seeds or buy seeds, so you can have luscious, vine ripe tomatoes as soon as possible!