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Want to grow robust tomatoes? Pick a proven performer

move over, Big Boy. Same goes for Early Girl, Brandywine and Big Beef. When it comes to raising tomatoes in Florida, the right variety equals victory in the garden.

Although you'll find those varieties in local garden centers, as well as total losers that aren't even labeled by variety, don't be fooled by the product packaging showing luscious, ripe red tomatoes. That hardly happens here, despite your best efforts.

You're better off picking varieties that are proven performers in our climate. The University of Florida has tested a wide variety of tomatoes for pest and disease resistance and fruiting potential, with kudos going to Better Boy, Bragger, Celebrity, Duke, Floradel, Flora-Dade, Floramerica, Manalucie, Solar Set, Sun Coast and Walter large-fruit varieties.

The university found the best small fruit varieties to be Cherry, Chelsea, Florida Basket, Micro Tom and Sweet 100.

Retired horticulturist Allen Cordell, who has grown countless tomatoes at the Florida Botanical Gardens and Pinellas County 4-H gardens, swears by Celebrity, Better Bush and Sweet 100. Grow one of those in a full-sun container or raised bed with the recommended soil mixture (see today's main story), fertilize monthly with a complete organic and water as needed, and you're practically guaranteed a fruitful crop.

Although you can grow tomatoes year-round, they require cool nights to produce fruit. Big-box retailers often stock tomatoes in early summer, when they are out of season. Don't waste your money. Mid September is the best time to plant tomatoes, Cordell says.

It's also the ideal time to plant other favorites, such as peppers, beans, eggplant and squash. But choose the best varieties for Florida. According to the university, look for these best varieties at garden centers and in catalogs: Sweet peppers (Big Bertha, Early Calwonder, Jupiter, Sweet Banana and Yolo Wonder); hot peppers (Habanero, Hungarian Wax and Jalapeno); and green beans (Bush Baby, Bush Blue Lake, Cherokee Wax, Contender, Harvester, Provider, Roma and Tendercrop).

For a complete list of crops to plant this month and their recommended varieties, go to the university's Web site at

Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.

Want to grow robust tomatoes? Pick a proven performer 09/05/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 10, 2008 7:25pm]
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