The time for spring tomatoes is over.
Most have few fruits on them, and those that are there are riddled with damage from stink bugs and leaf-footed bugs. The leaves of the plants are dead on the bottom from early blight, and curled on the top from brutal, unrelenting full sun. It is too hot to set fruit.
It’s time to say goodbye.
The flip side of this is that July is an excellent time to start dreaming of the fall tomato crop, a true blessing that many home gardeners forget about. Seeding tomatoes now for fall planting is a luxury that few other locations in the United States enjoy. Start seeds in trays, either indoors or in a shaded area where they will not dry out daily. Use a sterile potting mix containing no compost to ensure that your new transplants will be disease-free.
Choose varieties that are quick-maturing and heat-tolerant. You will likely need to order seed. The LSU AgCenter recommends several varieties for fall specifically, including the following: Spitfire, Florida 91, Heatwave II, Phoenix and Solar Fire.
These are all medium- to large-fruited varieties that are good for slicing and fresh consumption. You should be enjoying tomatoes in September, through the first killing frost.
Tomatoes germinate best in room temperatures of 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Once they have germinated, they grow best in temperatures of 65-70 degrees. A typical home may be a good place to start them, especially near a bright window or underneath grow lights. They will also germinate outdoors in the heat and humidity, but be sure they are in a location that is out of direct sunlight and not in a greenhouse (which will cook them!).
A good, even moisture is needed to get them off to a good start. Water trays from the bottom using a capillary mat system or a shallow water-holding tray. Avoid getting the tomato leaves wet; this can invite fungal pathogens. If they begin to grow too leggy, increase the light or move them to a sunnier location (careful to not fry them or dry them out!).
In six weeks, they should be ready to plant outside. Remove the bottom leaves and plant tomatoes deeply — they will grow lateral roots from the buried stems. Water from below, making sure that they have adequate water in the heat of summer. Beds should be well-draining, in full sun, and fertile. Add some 8-8-8 or compost following the recommendations of your most recent soil test. As tomatoes begin to grow and flower, side dress them weekly with a little 8-8-8 or compost. Tomatoes are very heavy feeders and need sufficient nutrition to grow properly.
For more information, check out the LSU AgCenter’s Vegetable Planting Guide.
Q: I am growing milkweed and seeing tons of aphids and little red and black alligator-shaped bugs right around the flowers and buds at the top of the plant. I know aphids are not good. How should I kill them and what are those other bugs? — Sally
A: Sally, yes, the aphids are bad and can be washed off with a gentle blast from the hose. The other bug you are describing, however, may make you reconsider. These are ladybug larvae and are voraciously eating the aphids. You may want to let them be. Nature is good at balancing out the predators and the prey. Ladybugs eat many garden pests and should keep many of them in check naturally. — Anna Timmerman