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Tomatoes: the ins and outs

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By Broccoli Billy

When I planted the fall crops here I decided to dedicate one 100 foot row to growing and staking tomatoes for fall harvest in Cedar Key. I have had tremendous success with spring tomatoes but knew that a fall crop was quite risky. I have never really staked tomatoes in a production row and felt that this entire exercise would be helpful as a research project for me.

I am aware that most of the large tomato varieties begin to fail in the intense heat of June, July and August. The smaller varieties such as plum, cherry, and grape tomatoes do better but are still stressed by such intense conditions. One critical factor I considered--day from transplant to harvest! So of course for fall crops you count backwards to determine planting time, not the last day of frost as planting time in the spring.

In order for me to have some degree of success I had to have my transplants ready to set August first. I know that generally in Cedar Key area the second week of November will be the first fall frost, even though I have seen no fall frost at all. I proceeded with the same main season 90-110 day variety called Homestead, a very well known Florida tomato.

Having planted a number of 100 foot rows of tomatoes and having to bend over to harvest them, staking tomatoes is a must for my age group. The stakes are pressure treated to avoid termite and other types of damage. Four foot pieces of 2 X 4 were split lengthwise with a skill saw and pointed on one end.

With my transplants and stakes ready August first, I set my trial row up as follows: the plants were spaced 16 inches apart which matches every other emitter on my irrigation (drip tape) system. The stakes were driven every four feet with three feet above ground. I chose Raffia string to go from stake to stake by wrapping a single loop around each stake the whole length of row. Three rows of strings were used at the one, two and three foot points above ground. Going up one side of the row then the opposite side left me a one and one-half inch space between strings.

As the plants grew in size, I placed the stems between the strings until they were through the three foot high strings. Now I had to make some decisions about pruning. I removed all growth from the main stem up to the first string at the one foot level. All growth above four feet was completely eliminated. I now made a large canopy of leaves protecting the tomatoes from sun scald as I know sun scald ruins tomatoes.

One of the characteristics of tomatoes that I do not favor is their ability to produce two to three high quality tomatoes with the rest being smaller from one single plant. At this point blossom pruning, as in greenhouse culture, was employed. The actual result of blossom pruning is still in question but until it seems detrimental I will continue to do so. By design, blossom pruning tends to eliminate total fruit for a smaller, higher quality product.

In conclusion, I am confident that fall tomatoes are quite possible. Next fall I will use a variety such as Early Girl and hope there is no record setting freeze the third week of October!

Cream your cauliflower

Broccoli Billy