Here’s the best way to do it.

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Home & Design -

hands dirty over the years re­fin­ing the best meth­ods. Glenn Hu­ber­man, a long­time Fairchild vol­un­teer, and Mary Neustein, Fairchild’s man­ager of adult ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams, both have had luck us­ing an EarthBox, a planter in­cor­po­rat­ing a wa­ter reser­voir, fill tube, soil cover, and with other op­tions avail­able like cast­ers. (I’m not pro­mot­ing or en­dors­ing any prod­uct or tomato va­ri­ety. I’m just ex­per­i­ment­ing as a fel­low South Florida gar­dener.)

One ap­peal of the EarthBox is there should never be a ques­tion on proper wa­ter­ing. The plants can ab­sorb what they want by wick­ing mois­ture up from the reser­voir with­out con­cern that the soil will turn soggy, a con­di­tion that would en­cour­age rot. Af­ter the ini­tial wa­ter­ing, only the reser­voir is filled; the plants are never wa­tered from the top again.

Sec­ond, though any pot can be moved, I like the mo­bil­ity of the cast­ers. Toma­toes will need 6 to 8 hours of sun a day, and in win­ter that may not be at­tain­able if the plant is in the ground in the wrong spot and im­mo­bile.

I’ve pre­vi­ously tried heat­tol­er­ant va­ri­eties. Be­sides the sprawl­ing Ever­glades toma­toes, I’ve also found some suc­cess with Pa­tio Choice Yel­low, a plant de­vel­oped for con­tainer grow­ing in small spa­ces. It’s a de­ter­mi­nate va­ri­ety (stops growth when fruit sets) and was pro­duc­ing tasty, cher­ry­sized yel­low fruit. But just as it started to thrive, stray cats found my yard and knocked the planter over so the poor plant had an un­timely demise.

Both grow­ers rec­om­mend the Juliet va­ri­ety of tomato as nearly fool­proof (Sweet Mil­lion and Gar­den Gem are also suit­able).

Juliet is a Roma/plum, and in­de­ter­mi­nate va­ri­ety, mean­ing it con­tin­ues grow­ing, flow­er­ing, and fruit­ing, whereas de­ter­mi­nate tomato plants stop grow­ing when fruit sets. Deter­mi­nates stay smaller, and fruit ripens pretty much si­mul­ta­ne­ously. In­de­ter­mi­nates can vine them­selves to ten feet or so, but Juliet is said to reach about 6 feet. They still re­quire sup­port and prun­ing near the base to en­sure good air­flow. An EarthBox will ac­commo- date two of these.

South Florida presents var­i­ous tomato threats, so look out for sus­tained high tem­per­a­tures, es­pe­cially at night. Hu­mid­ity af­fects pol­li­na­tion also; too hu­mid, and pollen is not dis­persed suf­fi­ciently. Spo­radic or sud­den ex­ces­sive wa­ter­ing can cause the fruit to crack, an­other plus for the reser­voir. The other po­ten­tial prob­lems, like temps and hu­mid­ity, aren’t as eas­ily over­come.

Blos­som drop is a con­di­tion that causes the flow­ers to drop, and of course no flow­ers means no fruit. Its causes are nearly any­thing that stresses the plant like high tem­per­a­tures — es­pe­cially high night­time temps — or ex­ces­sive cold (un­der 50). Even a de­lay in pol­li­na­tion can cause blos­som drop.

Toma­toes may also suf­fer a host of other prob­lems. A ma­jor threat is from tomato horn­worms, which are the cater­pil­lars (lar­vae) of the

five-spot­ted hawk­moth. Neustein says she hunts for them in early evening, and can hear them chew­ing! They will de­fo­li­ate a plant in a mat­ter of hours and then move on to de­stroy the fruit. Pick them off by hand and throw them to the birds. You may also con­sider us­ing the nat­u­ral soil bac­terium Bacil­lus thuringien­sis, called “BT. It’s of­ten avail­able as a spray that will kill horn­worms be­fore they can de­stroy your plant.

Blos­som end rot is an­other ail­ment. If the fruit, es­pe­cially while still ripen­ing, de­vel­ops a dark, de­pressed spot on the bot­tom, it’s prob­a­bly end rot. Dis­card any such fruit right away. Adding dolomite to the soil, prefer­ably be­fore plant­ing, bal­ances soil pH and adds cal­cium to help avoid blos­som end rot.

Back to the Juli­ets. Mine are planted, are about 2 feet now and staked to a small trel­lis in full sun. So far they’re fine, though one is a bit weak look­ing. They should take a cou­ple more months to bear fruit.

Neustein’s op­ti­mistic rec­om­men­da­tion: When your Juli­ets are pro­duc­ing loads of toma­toes, cut them in half ver­ti­cally (they’re ob­long), lay them on a sheet pan, sprin­kle with a bit of olive oil, salt and pep­per and roast them for 45 min­utes at 400 de­grees. Add them to spaghetti or eat as is.

There are likely as many tomato-grow­ing meth­ods as there are tomato va­ri­eties, and there are loads of those, so ask around and

KEN­NETH SETZER Fairchild Trop­i­cal Botanic Gar­den

The en­emy: tomato horn­worm cater­pil­lar.

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