How to Grow Tomatoes in Florida
Varieties for Florida
Because Florida's heat and humidity put tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) at risk for disease and pest problems, the University of Florida Extension service recommends that gardeners choose tomato varieties that are identified as being disease and pest resistant and are hardy growing in the state's conditions. The extension service specifically recommends nearly three dozen varieties for Florida, and of those, more than a dozen show resistance to at least some common disease and pest problems.
The recommended varieties are not necessarily suitable for all parts of Florida, however. 'Bonnie Best,' for example, an indeterminate variety with medium-sized fruit, is noted as faring better in the northern part of the state, while 'Solar Set,' a determinate variety with large fruit, produces better than many varieties in the heat of South Florida. The determinate 'Flora-Dade' provides large tomatoes and is "highly recommended" for Florida by the extension service, while indeterminate 'Sweet Chelsea' provides abundant amounts of small tomatoes.
Timing of Planting
Florida's warm climate gives the state's gardeners the opportunity to get a head start on the growing season by planting tomatoes in the late winter or early spring, much earlier than the safe planting dates in cooler climates in the rest of the country. Tomatoes are frost tender, so they can't be planted outdoors until the danger of frost has passed, but they also become unproductive when temperatures are high, so they must be planted early enough, particularly in South Florida, to set fruit before the summer heat reaches its peak.
In North Florida, tomatoes may be planted between February and April, in Central Florida between January and March, and in South Florida between November and February. They may be planted for a late-season crop between August and September in all parts of the state.
Site Conditions and Planting
Plant tomato plants in well-drained soil and in an area that receives full sun. Set plants in the ground at a level that's slightly deeper than they were growing in their starting medium, taking care to remove any lower leaves so that they're not buried; this deep planting encourages a stronger root system, as they sprout roots along the buried stem. Space plants 24 to 36 inches apart, and allow 4 to 5 feet between rows.
Install a tomato cage over the young transplants after planting. If you install the cage after the plant begins growing you run the chance of damaging the roots.
Water transplants thoroughly at planting time, and ensure that the plants get 1 to 2 inches of water per week during the growing season. If you need to provide supplemental irrigation during dry periods, water with the entire 1 to 2 inches at once, rather than in several light waterings during the week.
At planting time, apply 1 pounds of a 6-8-8 dry fertilizer per 20 square feet of planting area in strips on either side of each row. Side dress with the same fertilizer every seven to 10 days during the growing season, beginning three weeks after planting; apply at a rate so that the total fertilizer for the season, including the initial application, totals 2 pounds per 20 square feet. Always water thoroughly after each application.
Apply compost to the planting site two to three weeks before planting the tomato transplants. Work 4 to 6 inches of aged compost into the planting site and work into the top 4 to 6 inches of soil.
To conserve soil moisture, add a layer of mulch around the tomato plants being sure not to butt it against the stems.
Evan Gillespie grew up working in his family's hardware and home-improvement business and is an experienced gardener. He has been writing on home, garden and design topics since 1996. His work has appeared in the South Bend Tribune, the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, Arts Everywhere magazine and many other publications.