Problems growing tomatoes in South Florida

matt_d_pMay 19, 2008

Ive been having severe problems.

The first is with critters, but Im working that out.

The second though is with disease.

Specifically, after my plants reach 2-3' tall they start showing signs of some type of fungal or bacterial wilt (Im guessing based on symptoms) wherein, depending on the variety, the plants either start yellowing of leaves at the bottom of the plant which rapidly spreads to the rest of the lower leaves, then works its way up and kills the plant (brandywine for example does this) OR the leaves simply wither without yellowing, starting from the bottom of the plant and moving up (cherokee purple, black krim and white wonder were like this).

Last year was terrible, 18 plants one day looked great, 3 days later theyre half dead, 2 weeks after that I ripped em all out (angrily and while cursing might I add).

I only have a small yard and have been trying container growing (harder for critters to get up into the pots, worked okay).

Last year I think I watered too much (almost every day) and believed that contributed to (or caused) the problem, however now Im not so sure as I watered this last batch minimally and the disease or wilt or whatever seemed to crop up even faster.

I have a theory though, and please tell me what you think:

The potting medium, being a peat/perlite/no soil blend (Lamberts potting mix mixed w Black Cow compost) holds loads of water and I think that the plant, not having roots throughout the pot yet, only consumes what is near and the rest of the water just hangs out absorbed by the media. Meaning that disease-causing fungi or bacteria can take up shop and infect the plant. In other words, the media never seems to completely dry out, but will dry out where the plant is able to feed. Ive verified this with a moisture gauge, taking readings from right in the root area, and out toward the edge of the pot. I found that while the area under the plant is drying the outer areas may well read as 'wet'.

So Im thinking that container growing may not be so good for the plants in the south florida heat (Im only growing now to test my 'overwatering' theory, not expecting fruit, got some but doubt theyll survive the wilt) and may be way too conducive to proliferating disease, exacerbated by the recommended container media which I think doesnt drain well enough. Perhaps a different mix?

I am going to try growing in-ground again with some type of cage setup(critters absolutely destroyed the veggie garden I started one fateful year) but this disease thing really has me ready to give up.

I got to taste some black krim, mortgage lifter, brandywine, cherokee purple, and white wonder last year, but not nearly as many as I had hoped, and want to give it another go this fall but not sure how to proceed considering the problems Im having.

Any input would be greatly appreciated and thanks for reading!

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For planting in the ground, I would make sure that for almost a month before you plant you have your garden area covered with a black tarp to really "cook" the soil. It'll kill off a lot of the pests that can lead to diseases. Good luck.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2008 at 4:41PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Hi Matt - disease problems are relatively rare with container growing - one of it's big advantages. But the 2 biggest problems with container growing of tomatoes is (1) not using a big enough container, and (2) the mix you use. They lead to highly stressed plants that are far more open to any passing bacteria or virus that a healthy plant can shake off.

From what you have posted, I would hazard the guess that your containers were way too small and your mix was far from ideal. Maybe try 1/2 whiskey barrel size for each plant and MG with Moisture Control (no added manure) has gotten really good reviews and it drains very well. It has added time release fertilizer which you can supplement as needed. Now I am not a big advocate of MG products, just passing on what others have said about it. Mulch the top of the containers well to help stabilize the moisture levels and consider a drip irrigation set-up on a timer.

3rd point is that in So. Florida you ideal planting/growing times are so very different from the rest of us. Many have posted that very early spring and late fall down there works much better.

You may also want to contact your local county AG extension office for tips on growing tomatoes in your area - they are a wealth of info on proper planting time, ideal varieties for the area, chronic disease problems in the area, etc.

Because of your heat and humidity (something I share living on the shore of a large lake) earlier use of a preventative fungicide will help.

I hope some of this is of help to you.


    Bookmark   May 19, 2008 at 5:32PM
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Matt, I'm probably south of you and just planted again two weeks ago, in containers. Mostly 7gal for bush cherry types, 10gal for smaller vines, and 15-20gal for lg vines. All in straight ProMix.

Here's what works for me this time of the year. And yes, you can grow tomatoes in the summer here. It's the rain you can't beat not the heat. It gets a lot hotter up north.

1. Check with a local source for seeds and ask them what varities they have had good reports on. Or check Bonnie Plants, they seem to select what works well.

2. Use shade cloth. I'm using 30% black, but it needs to be replaced and I'm going to try 50% white when I re-order. White should be cooler and disperse the light better.

3. Have some break for after 4pm sun. If not, wrap your pots in bubble wrap and heavy duty aluminum foil to keep them cool.

4. Don't over fertilize in the summer. I use a granular in the winter, but only 1/2 strength liquid in the summer.

If you're in Miami forget the AG office. Dee could not grow a tomato if his life depended on it. LOL


    Bookmark   May 19, 2008 at 6:47PM
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"The potting medium, being a peat/perlite/no soil blend (Lamberts potting mix mixed w Black Cow compost) holds loads of water and I think that the plant, not having roots throughout the pot yet, only consumes what is near and the rest of the water just hangs out absorbed by the media."

If the plant is out in the sun, sucking up a lot of water, before it's rooted in the whole pot. Just start it out in a little more shade.
I would not use the Black Cow at all. Just a little Black Cow mixed in a whole lot of ProMix can throw the whole mix off and make it hold water.

You could add more vermiculite to help it dry out faster too.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2008 at 6:58PM
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Hey I just posted the birds are attacking question, I live in Cape Coral Fl. didn't see yours till after I posted, yeah I have the same type fungal situation you do, according to what I've been reading, fungicide is supposed to work great but no one's told me which kind is best, also they said to trim all the closer bottom leaves and leave just top growth when you start them as lower leaves spread fungus from your soils being splashed up when you water. Maybe you can answer my bird/fungal question with an actual name of a fungicide that works and won't poison my kids? P.S. watering at dusk sucks, I just got tore the heck up by mosquitoes. Joys of Florida:)

    Bookmark   May 19, 2008 at 9:00PM
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Thanks for the replies!
My containers are pretty big, around 20 gallon, but after reading your replies I think Im going to stop using the compost. Which is hilarious to me because so many 'how to grow tomatoes' books and guides insist that good compost is the key. I have looked into Promix but cant locate a retailer near me (Im in West Palm area, specifically Boynton), so I think I might try the miracle grow stuff since I can get that.
Maybe try some promix in the fall. (kinda pricey, no?)
I was only growing these plants in the off season to see about the disease issue, and now Im going to try again with non-compost mix. But yes, down here our grow seasons are in the fall and through to spring.
But Im going to try growing some summer maters anyway!
Interestingly, after wrestling with this issue (disease) for over a year and 3 batches of plants, having repeatedly looked up trying to solve my problem on the intertubes, I saw a post here in this forum about roots getting cooked in pots. Which led me to an article on earthboxes. Which led me to a website on earthboxes. Which led me to an article on container growing that I had not seen before. Which explained in great detail how to successfully grow in containers NOT using compost, putting your pots up on bricks, stuff like that. (I have it saved at home, at work at the moment... working).
So! Im going to start some new seedlings and see what happens this summer, and with newfound optimism and hope!
I will also consider shade cloth, just not sure how I would go about setting it up.
My determination is back though, thanks!

    Bookmark   May 20, 2008 at 10:18AM
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"Which is hilarious to me because so many 'how to grow tomatoes' books and guides insist that good compost is the key. "

In the ground, but not in pots. As you have figured out.;)

"I have looked into Promix but cant locate a retailer near me (Im in West Palm area, specifically Boynton), so I think I might try the miracle grow stuff since I can get that."

I get ProMix BX at AFEC in Homestead.
Check for a nursery supply, fertilizer supply, in your area.

"I saw a post here in this forum about roots getting cooked in pots."

That was more that likely me.

We fight afternoon sun here and after 4pm the sun heats the pots enough to cook their roots.
Which sounds like exactly what is going on with you.

I wrap my pots with bubble wrap, then cover that with heavy duty aluminum foil. That keeps them cool.

"So! Im going to start some new seedlings and see what happens this summer, and with newfound optimism and hope! "

I just planted cherry types again a few days ago.
Yes, in the Keys.
Cherry types do great here this time of the year as long as you keep them in the shade after 4pm.

"I will also consider shade cloth, just not sure how I would go about setting it up."

I'm getting fancy with mine this year.
4X4 uprights, 2X4 frame
and gommets in the shade cloth
I'm putting the shade cloth on cables so it slides across the frame.
That way I can pull it over and tie it when I need it, or push it back out of the way all by myself.

Matt, when you have time, please post the link to the article you found.

good luck

    Bookmark   May 20, 2008 at 11:22AM
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    Bookmark   May 20, 2008 at 1:46PM
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Matt, ran across this post at Dave's Garden forum and this guy who lives in Louisiana is using a modified mittleider setup using grobags with an auto watering setup and compost manure/peatmoss as the growing medium. He uses inorganic ferts which he sprinkles on the plants once a week. Nice setup and you don't need much space. Also check out a Product called Actinovate for your disease problems. It's organic, used as a soil drench and foliar spray. Here's a link to the container setup.

Here is a link that might be useful: Modified Mittleider system

    Bookmark   May 20, 2008 at 3:24PM
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Matt, that's a great article. He mentions a lot of things that you don't hear very often, and all true.

Here are the only things I do differently. You may or may not want to try some of them, but I'll throw them out there for you to think about. ;-)

1. I mentioned the bubble wrap and aluminum foil to keep the pots cool.

2. I mix any time release bloom special granular fertilizer in the bottom 1/2 of the potting mix before I pot.

3. I put about 2" of gravel in the bottom of my pots, then the double window screen, then potting mix. Gives better drainage and air to the potting mix. Plus elevates the dirt like he mentioned the bricks.

4. I used a little bit smaller pot - 15-20gal - and only plant one plant per pot. That way if one messes up on me, I don't disturb another plant to replace it.

5. Here's a trick I was taught for down here.
When you plant the tomato, mound the dirt up in the middle of the pot, and leave a donut like depression all around the outside of the potting mix next to the outside wall of the pot.
When you water, water around the edge of the pot in that depression.
When we get a week or two of rain, cover the top of the potting mix with plastic wrap or aluminum foil, all the way over the edge of the pot.
The mound you made, like an ant hill in the middle, will let you make a teepee so the rain runs out of the pot, not in it.


    Bookmark   May 20, 2008 at 3:34PM
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Good stuff, thanks guys/gals!
Renewed determination...

    Bookmark   May 20, 2008 at 6:24PM
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I know the advice of adding gravel or pot shards is an old one and hard to give up but it really has been shown that the rocks, etc don't help with drainage at all. It actually hinders it. They apparently change the 'perched water table' level so it is better to leave them out entirely. Most articles and books still perpetuate the myth that rocks, etc improve drainage.

When I read not to add anything to the bottom of the container a few years ago--I said THAT CAN'T BE RIGHT. EVERYBODY ADDS GRAVEL FOR DRAINAGE. I took 2 pots, one with and one without and 2 tomato plants. The one WITHOUT the gravel did remarkably better. It wasn't even close. I have never added anything to the bottom of pots except maybe screening since.

Here is a link that might be useful: Potting mixes in containers

    Bookmark   May 20, 2008 at 6:37PM
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I used to never use gravel in the bottom of the pots.
Until I started fighting root rot every time we get a week of rain.
ProMix holds a lot of water and unless your pot is pretty much root bound, it's going to stay soggy. Even then, plants don't take up enough water when it's cloudy and raining.

When you use a couple of inches of gravel, then put the window screen on top of it, you are creating an air pocket under the potting mix. Also, along with the air, the entire bottom surface of the potting mix can drain.

I like that, I can flush my pots out a lot faster and better. You can't flush out the area dead center in a pot without elevating the potting mix.

Your link is talking about adding gravel to the bottom of a pot - without - covering the gravel with window screen to elevate the potting mix. What you link is talking about is that gravel is denser than the potting mix and will not drain or aerate as well - when it is mixed with the potting mix.

Elevating the potting mix above the gravel with window screen is two different things.

From your link:
"Some have suggested the placement of gravel in the bottom of containers improves drainage. In fact, the gravel decreases the total volume of medium with favorable aeration. The pores at the interface of the container medium and gravel must be saturated before water will move down into the gravel. This means that a layer of medium with near maximum water content is positioned above the gravel rather than on the container bottom. Therefore, the effective height of this container is reduced by the depth of the gravel in the bottom."

What I'm talking about is creating a bottomless pot. Because of the window screen, the potting mix is elevated off the bottom of the pot by a couple of inches.
There are no pores at the interface of the container medium and gravel, because the gravel and potting mix are not touching and are not mixed together.

Make any sense?

    Bookmark   May 20, 2008 at 8:43PM
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Corrie, I did not catch that you were adding the screen on top of the gravel.

I haven't had any root rot problems so haven't really needed to do anything to correct such a problem. So for me I like to utilize the full depth of my containers hoping in turn to maximize yield.

But I am very big on side-by-side experimentation so if you find that the gravel and screen gives better results for you that is great.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2008 at 10:04PM
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Planned to put some tomatoes in 5 gal pots but am wondering if they will be big enough. Any comments?

Also, how much and when should I fertilize the plants? I bought some Home Depot tomato and vegetable fertilizer, 12-10-5, is this sufficient?

I just removed several tomato plants, all of them became really "leggy" with small but tasty fruit. They seemed to be really root bound. Is that because they need more space?

Thanks for any suggestions....

A REAL newbie

    Bookmark   January 19, 2009 at 5:02PM
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jodoinl, hi

5gal buckets are fine for the small/dwarf tomatoes. I would not try to grow a big tomato in less than a 10gal. 15-20gal would be even better.
Bigger pots are a lot easier and more stable, small pots can be a lot of work trying to keep the plant happy.

Follow the directions on the box. See if it says anything specific for tomatoes. 12-10-5 is a little higher in N (the first number) than I like, but you can make it work. Don't over fertilize tomatoes, you'll end up with big huge house plants that are bug magnets and produce few tomatoes. I would take what the instrustions say and cut that down to 1/4th.

Small pot, stress, small fruit, it can happen.

Since you say you are a newbie, I would stick to plants from Home Depot/Lowes/Walmart/Kmart etc and look for early/fast producers that are also 'bush' for you pots.

There's nothing worse that getting discouraged, and those types of plants will get you started. They should fruit well for you and fast enough that you won't have a lot of disease problems too.

Now is the perfect time to plant for zone 10. Just watch the weather. We can have some really cold nights in Feb/Mar. Just bring your pots in if you need to.

There's a lot of tomato nuts on the Florida Growing Forum, come visit!

Here is a link that might be useful: Link to the Florida Forum

    Bookmark   January 19, 2009 at 7:27PM
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I agree with Corrie, 5 gal. is a wee bit small (though some do use them) for an Indeterminate (grows until frost), but a small determinate (sets all fruit then stops) might work.
instead of 12-10-5 fertilizer look for something higher in phosphorus (2nd #) and potash( 3rd #) ex: 5-10-10 , 5-15-10.
A bigger container means less frequent watering, and use a boat load of mulch on top of the container to preserve/regulate moisture.
Have fun with Gardening! It's sometimes hit and miss, but we all learn from others advise.

Happy gardening.

    Bookmark   January 19, 2009 at 7:50PM
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I know this is an old post, but I am struggling with growing tomatoes in my yard. I have to warn you i am a total noob.
I live in south Florida and potted the tomatoes first (mixture organic soil and regular soil from the yard) and they grew very fast to a bout 4-5 inches tall then I moved them to the yard again mixing the soil with organic and yard soil.

The tomato variety I choose is "ox heart", because i love them , but I don't know if they can even withstand the heat, bugs and diseases in SoFla.

I planted about 6 plants about 7-8 inches apart and they grew up for about 12 inches before they started getting leaf miners , then yellowing of the bottom leaves, one of the plants completely shriveled so I removed it.
Then in a few weeks as the heat came they almost stopped growing and wilted ... only one is blossoming , but the blossoms end up dropping without turning into fruit.

I have used the fish based fertilizer and no chemicals (I was trying to go organic)

I am sure they are sick with some fungus or something I just dont know what it is or could it be the heat?. They do get direct sun light for most of the morning and early afternoon and then they are shaded by the fence.

I have been trying to water regularly too , but they are just sitting there looking very sad and not growing at all... which makes me so sad too

I dont want to grow them in pots if possible .. I have a huge yard and would like to utlize it ... any advise is greatly appreciated.


    Bookmark   May 26, 2011 at 2:05PM
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I two saw this post for similar reasons. I live in south west florida, and haven't had a garden in a few years got tired of bugs,& weeds. I have never had heat the problem. (execpt in pots) We lived in VA for 4 years the heat was insane.... 98-100 for the months july-sept and the tomatoes did fine...
The biggest problem here has been the bugs. This year I started with heirloom seed, and a few varities from homedepo. They have done well, and within the last 2 weeks the homedepo plants don't look as good, the leaves are yellowing and turning brown. I though fungus was to blame but after some much needed weeding and multching. I noticed ANTS..... I'm having a heck of a time getting rid of.. I have tried DE, Borax, peppermint, dish soap, seven dust and last night coffee grounds. any sugestions for that would be helpful. And SS i would look to the soil and see if there is a bug problem to be the blame. These ants are living on the inside tunneling through the stems to get to the flowering parts of the plants.

    Bookmark   June 5, 2011 at 4:21PM
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