How To Grow Tomatoes (in the tropics)
Usually labeled as easy, tomatoes are heat loving, but there are some caveats if growing them in the tropics.
They absolutely thrive in the heat, but not too much. Proper planning for when to plant and following a few basic care routines will help your fruits succeed.
Tomatoes are also delicate plants once they get a fungus or soil problem. Prevention is the best medicine, if you plan for what could go wrong your tomatoes will be much happier. If you want to wing it, the first year will teach you most everything you need to know about your soil health, sun hours and plant temperament. Just make sure to keep a daily journal so you can learn as you go.
When To Plant in the Yucatan
(and when not)
Most all vegetables planted in the Yucatan
start September and October.
I seed for tomatoes almost every month from September-March
“I want tomatoes all year” I hear this all the time
Spoiler: you probably won’t have them all year here in the Yucatan.
Many of you are watching me harvest tomatoes in May and wondering if you can plant now. Of course you can, but the plants seeded in April, May and June will need A LOT of hands on care. The seedlings are very fragile and the extremely hot temperatures and high uv light during May and June in the Yucatan will likely be too much for them. It takes a lot of time and knowledge to balance the sun, shade and water this time of year, therefore, I call it too much work and don’t usually start any tomato seeds from April-August.
The plants I seeded in February-March are those that are giving me their fruits now in May. You need to make sure your plants are big and strong by the time the heat of the Yucatan starts. Those started in early March are about halfway through their life cycle and with continued proper care (like shade from the strong sun and high uv) will continue to grow into the rainy season.
Many tomatoes will survive June, but once it is rainy regularly most all tomatoes will get root rot. Certainly if you are lucky or especially skilled a strong and healthy tomato can last longer, but you have to be very dedicated to removing pests, preventing rot and fungus. During these times, I prefer to grow seasonal food like corn, beans and pumpkins in my limited space and save the tomato seeds for the easier more mild half of the year. However if you are a steadfast tomato fan keep seeding and taking care of your babies, you should not be discouraged, we all know the more you practice gardening the better you get.
Water at ground level
I often break my own advice and water overhead because with my current water system it is faster, but to be honest tomatoes are much happier with water directly to the soil around the base of the plant. It helps their leaves stay free of fungus as well as create a stronger root system. Tomatoes are basically made from water and the only way to get the water into the fruit is through the plant’s roots. Watering directly at the base of the plant helps this happen.
Because tomatoes are made of water keeping them consistently watered is key to preventing cracks and keeping fruit large and plump.
In the mild season October-February I usually water the plants every other day.
When it heats up in March or April I start to water my tomato plants daily.
Airflow – Plant placement
In all planting it is important to know how much space each type of plant you have.
Tomatoes usually want 2 feet or (60 cm).
Prune or use the string method
It is not uncommon to prune or pinch back tomato plants.
Partly for airflow and fungus prevention, but mostly for bigger fruit production.
When left on their own tomatoes almost become bushes or long trailing vines. They will absolutely produce fruit this way, but if you care for them and remove extra growth they will have more energy (and water) to focus on big healthy fruit.
There are endless trellises and cages in the garden section, but I have been using the string method for years and it is my favorite for easy, good looking tomato plants. It keeps my space free of mess and gives me more room to grow companion plants for the tomatoes as well. I hope to write more specifically about this trellis soon, but I learned from youtube and practicing.
Tomatoes are extremely heavy feeders and you will want to add a good layer of compost each time you plant a new one. I often do direct composting when I have the time, or I make my compost the long way.
The thing all tomatoes in the whole world are prone to is root-knot nematodes.
A plant ailing from root-knot will be stunted usually only growing a few feet tall and will generate very few fruits. The leaves will begin to curl and change color from health green to light green or yellow.
Like most garden pests, treating nematodes starts with prevention.
Because nematodes can’t move and aren’t visible, I treat all new soil in my garden with the sun to kill unwanted nematodes. Just and FYI this is a hot weather pest, in cold places where the ground freezes root-knot nematodes will naturally die each winter season.
Since you have to space tomato plants 2 feet apart anyway it is a great option for companion planting methods. A marigold planted at the base of each tomato will also prevent unwanted nematodes.
Believe it or not evn hot loving plants have a limit and anything consistently in the 100s will start to stress your tomatoes. It’s not necessarily the heat that is getting them, it is the exceptionally high UV light during the hot months April-June.
Using sunshade in the form of store bought covers, tree placement and homemade palm leave panels are all effective methods. I use palm leaves and am writing more about this topic soon. If you have any questions about sunshades in the meantime, please let me know.
Heirloom, cherry, something else?
There are countless types of tomatoes in seed catalogues and lining the nursery shelves.
How do you pick the right one?
First things first as a matter of transparency, heirloom tomatoes are usually the hardest to maintain. They take to pests and diseases faster, but are delicious and in my opinion worth the work. If you are looking for a low maintenance plant don’t choose a heirloom variety. I suggest most cherry tomatoes for beginners. Cherry tomatoes are also naturally more heat resistant.
Lastly, prevention of all leaf and fruit pests is easy but you must do it regularly.
I use soap and water spray almost weekly.
I also use neem oil, garlic and onion concentrations too.
Find out more about my homemade organic pest prevention – here.