Grow Your Own: Tomatoes and Other Summer Fare


Before 1820, individuals didn’t need to zip line over alligator pits when they could just  eat a tomato for a whiff of fear induced adrenaline? Yes, there was a time in agricultural history when North Americans assumed tomatoes were poisonous because they were members of the nightshade family.

According to Heather Hausenblas, associate professor of Kinesiology at J.U., in 1820 a fearless man ate a tomato on the steps of the Salem, N.J., courthouse to prove tomatoes were harmless. Maybe he was embarrassed that we were so far behind other folks. Europeans had been chomping tomatoes about 300 years before his dripping feat. Aren’t we glad he risked his life for Florida’s biggest commercial crop and America’s favorite garden fruit? And yes, tomatoes technically are fruit not veggies. One pundit quipped that true wisdom is knowing tomatoes are a fruit, but not putting them in the fruit salad.

Some other tomato wisdom is required to break the code on the baby plants and seeds from local big box emporiums. Because gardens vary in size, the two key terms are DETERMINATE and INDETERMINATE. Determinates seem to lose their determination to grow vertically after about 1’ to 3’. They also ripen their fruit about the same time over a 4-6 week period. Their wild siblings, the indeterminates (like indie folks everywhere), just keep stretching out and up, thus requiring cages or stakes. The indeterminates produce tomatoes throughout the growing season.

There are other off-putting codes on the commercial plastic tags: V, N, F, FF, T, A, ST, TSWV. You don’t have to translate them, just know that each one stands for an evil virus or canker that you, the gardener, do not want to have affecting your personal tomatoes. In other words, the more initials, the better.

Other basics are spacing, fertilizer, planting, irrigation and pruning. Most of this esoterica can be found in IFAS Publications at Of course, all of this is to assume that one is courageous enough to try to raise something in the summer that will be easier to raise in the fall. Still, there are some tomatoes that seem almost impervious to the rising summer temperatures. Sun Gold is very sweet and bright orange. Dwarf Wild Fred is another one that receives kudos from Mary Puckett, Duval’s IFAS veggie goddess.

For gardeners who don’t require the adrenaline rush that growing tomatoes provides, more traditional May veggies are featured on UF’s calendar site, Some tried and true May veggies are: eggplant, snow peas, buckwheat, peanuts, and sweet potatoes and, of course, the ultimate Southern favorite–okra.

For folks who think okra always comes with a side of slime, there is a grilled okra recipe that flitted around the internet in 2014 and received kudos from a number of serious foodies (and even from a few chefs who cooked north of the Mason-Dixon line). It goes as follows: slice okra or leave whole. Toss gently with olive oil, sea salt and black pepper. Preheat a grill pan on the stove or preheat the grill to medium. Add the okra to the hot pan or grill and cook 5 to 6 minutes per side. Remove when crispy.

Then, let the snacking begin!


About Victoria Freeman