grow your own

by ALINE CLEMENT
My daddy’s beefsteak tomatoes were the talk of the neighborhood in my hometown of Danville, Virginia. They were huge, red, meaty globes so juicy I had to eat my BLT over the kitchen sink. Each bite made me wince as the acidic juices flowed onto my tongue, and I kept a towel nearby to wipe my chin when I was done.

My husband and I left Virginia for Florida in 1977. Working full time and raising a family left no time to have a garden. Thus, the taste of those wonderful fruits faded into my childhood memories. Fast forward 20 years to when Dad’s eyesight was fading and we invited him to move to Jacksonville to live with us. He made the move somewhat reluctantly, and we rang in the year 2000 together.
That spring I asked Dad to show me how to grow tomatoes and he, a retired educator, enthusiastically complied. We picked a sunny, well-drained spot in our backyard and dug half a dozen holes 18-24 inches deep. We placed four to five sheets of newspaper in the bottom and dropped in a small bucketful of composted horse manure. Next, we sprinkled a cup of 6-8-8 fertilizer onto the manure before filling the hole about two-thirds full with good soil. Picturing our harvest, we almost salivated as we buried our Better Boy plants halfway up the stalk to ensure a strong root system.
As we watered the young plants, Dad cautioned me that too much water might promote disease and fruit splitting. He said we probably wouldn’t need to fertilize our tomatoes again because we had provided what they needed when we dug the holes. Our plants were indeterminate, which meant they would continue to grow and produce tomatoes if the weather didn’t get too hot, if they were properly cared for, and if we provided support for the vines by tying them to stakes driven into the ground nearby.
That year was perfect! We ate BLTs to our heart’s content, enjoyed thick slices of tomato with our breakfast, and made tons of fresh spaghetti sauce.
Perhaps the best thing about our garden was the time Dad and I spent together enjoying our gardening success and bemoaning the occasional problems- mostly the caterpillars we plucked off the plants whenever we spotted them. After that year, Dad’s health started to deteriorate and we didn’t get to enjoy another season of gardening together. I don’t think I have eaten a really good tomato since.
Dad died in 2004, a few years before I became a Master Gardener. Most gardeners know that when you move to Florida, you have to learn an entirely different way to garden. Imagine my surprise when I read about “mounding,” a way to grow tomatoes in Florida that almost exactly described the process my dad had taught me! It was interesting that my dad, a gardener from the “old school,” had utilized a process that worked in both Virginia and Florida.
It got me thinking about trying my hand at growing tomatoes again this year. Once again, I’m salivating as I look at the lovely tomato plants for sale in the catalogs. When my plants arrive, I’ll use the planting process my daddy taught me.
If you’re hungry for juicy tomatoes, there are other processes you can use to grow your own. Refer to the University of Florida’s Tomatoes in The Florida Garden (www.edis.ifas.ufl.edu/vh028) for all the varieties that will grow here as well as the keys to success.
Some recommended varieties for our area include Better Boy and Beefmaster, which produce large, meaty fruits and require support for the vine, Celebrity, a bush-type tomato perfect for porch or patio container gardening, and Floragold, a yellow-orange cherry tomato that grows well in a hanging basket. If you’d like to try an heirloom tomato, Cherokee Purple was a big success at some of the Duval County Extension community gardens last year.

About Aline Clement

Aline Clement is a master gardener with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS.