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How to Prepare Your Soil for Planting Tomatoes

According to the University of Missouri, tomatoes are the most popular plant for home gardens. In my personal experience, there is not another vegetable that can beat the look or taste of a perfect, vine-ripened tomato. To get these luscious tomatoes, you first must prepare the soil in the garden. I've found that a well-prepared tomato bed will produce more, larger and better tasting tomatoes, as well as preventing nematode damage to the roots. Be sure to place your garden in a site that gets at least six to seven hours of full sun each day, or you'll be eating green tomatoes all summer off of spindly, sickly vines.

That All-Important Organic Matter
Tomatoes love well-draining, humus-rich soil. Unfortunately, they are also prone to damage by root-knot nematodes, so the more organic matter in the soil, the fewer nematodes. I always spread a 6-inch deep layer of compost or composted manure on the top of the soil and turn it into the soil well to a depth of 12 inches with a shovel, rake or garden tiller every year. You really can't have too much organic matter for tomatoes.

The Essential Soil Test
Soil testing is one thing many gardeners overlook, and it can make the difference between boom and bust in your tomato bed. Test your soil after adding organic material, as this can change the pH and nutrient value of the soil. Most local agricultural extension services will provide a soil test kit and do the testing free or for a minimal charge. Soil test kits can also be purchased at local garden centers or online. Follow the instructions for the soil test to the letter to get accurate results. This test should be done four to six weeks before planting, to give plenty of time to receive the results.

Soil pH and Micronutrients
Once you receive the soil test results, apply the soil amendments as directed. Tomatoes like a neutral to slightly acidic pH, so there will probably be instructions for adding lime or sulfur. If your soil is nutrient deficient, the test will recommend supplementation for that as well. Mix the amendments recommended into the top 12 inches of the soil with a turning fork. Smooth and level the soil with a garden rake.

Give Your Tomato Plants Room to Grow
Different varieties of tomatoes take different amounts of room. If you grew the tomatoes from seed, the package may have spacing requirements. If not, a general rule-of-thumb is 12 inches apart for dwarfs, 15 to 24 inches apart for staked plants, and 24 to 36 inches apart for trellised or ground bed plants. Vigorous growing indeterminates should be given 4 feet between plants and 5 to 6 feet between rows. In my experience, if you have extra room, spread them as far apart as possible and you'll get much more fruit.

Now you're all ready to put those tomatoes in the ground, knowing that they will be given the most beneficial soil conditions available. In a couple of months, you will be reaping the fruits of your labor and thanking yourself for taking the time to prepare the bed properly beforehand.

Personal Knowledge and Experience
University of Missouri Extension: Growing Home Garden Tomatoes

South Florida Gardening Month-by-Month: What To Do In February

Papayas killed by a freeze can be replanted from seed and will bear within a year.
February is a very busy month in South Florida gardens. Temperatures are warming in most of the area, and insects are coming back into activity.

Insect control in South Florida

Check plants for scale and mealybug activity. Hornworms will be appearing on tomatoes, as will various fungal and wilt diseases. Make sure to keep foliage dry, watering in the morning, as wet conditions aggravate these diseases.

Spider mites are still around, as they thrive in dry weather, so make sure to keep a watchful eye. Removing them is done with a strong stream of water directed
under the leaves. Systemic chemical sprays are available to treat spider mites, but the water spray does just as good a job, and you can't use systemic chemicals on edibles.

Cleanup and Pruning

In warmer areas, where no further freezing temperatures are expected, pruning can begin toward the middle/end of the month. In colder inland areas, it's best to wait out February and begin pruning and cleaning plants in March. Early pruning will cause plants to put out new growth, which can be damaged by subsequent cold spells.

Cleaning up dead foliage and grass is essential before the insects and diseases that harbor in them have time to spread to your plants. Removal and replacement of mulch is best done now as well.

Planting and Fertilizing

February is the last best month for planting shrubs and edibles, such as blueberries. Bare root roses can also be planted this month, making sure to keep them watered well during this dry season.

While it's tempting to fertilize your plants when the first growth appears, it really should be postponed until March, when soil temperatures rise and there is absolutely no chance of frost killing off the new growth. Fertilizers will not be taken up into a plant until soil temperatures reach 70 degrees, so applying them now is simply a waste.

Starting Seeds

February is a great time to start seeds for your late spring and summer crops. Many vegetables can still be planted this month, and summer vegetable seeds such as eggplant and peppers can be given a jump start for planting later on.

Annuals such as marigold, zinnia, and cosmos can be started now. These are very heat resistant plants that will grow and bloom right through the summer.

The mild temperatures across most of South Florida make gardening very pleasant in February. Chores that are torturous in the summer are best done now before the heat hits and keeps us all inside for most of the day.

Photo Credit: Atamari [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

South Florida Gardening Month by Month: What to Plant In February

Photo credit: Michael Wolf CCSA 3.0 / Wikimedia
February gardening in South Florida is generally a time of preparation, cleaning and replanting. Temperatures are warming, and there is generally no chance of a hard freeze. Now is the time to plant that vegetable garden you didn't get around to in September, or second vegetable crop can now be planted in order to get in a harvest before the summer heat hits. February is also a perfect time to refurbish those freeze damaged beds, or start a new one.

There is still time in February to plant most of what you didn't get planted in January. What most of our northern transplants consider summer vegetables still have time to bear before hot weather. February is a great month in the South Florida garden, and with the wonderful cool weather, one of the most productive months of the year.

Annuals to plant in February in South Florida:

Ageratum Hollyhock BegoniaPetunia Candytuft
AlyssumDianthus Celosia SalviaVinca
Marigold Nasturtiums Cosmos Portulaca Impatiens

Vegetables to plant in South Florida in February:


Bulbs to be planted in February in South Florida:

CaladiumBlood LilyLiliesDaylily

Florida Gardening 101: What Are the Different Kinds of Hibiscus?

The first plant most northerners moving to Florida want in their yard is a hibiscus. They usually have the single red tropical hibiscus in mind, because they've seen them in pictures and movies. The truth is, hibiscus is a very large family of plants, and includes not only tropical, but several other varieties suitable for growing in Florida.

Tropical Hibiscus

Pictured above, tropical hibiscus is native to Hawaii, not Florida. They are easily identified by their shiny leaves. It's unknown exactly when the first tropical hibiscus plant was brought to Florida, but since then, an entire industry has sprung up around these spectacular plants. Hybridizers are constantly coming up with new varieties, with larger, showier flowers. Unfortunately, most of these fancy tropical hibiscus hybrids are more demanding to grow, and not as cold hardy as the older varieties. The easiest tropical hibiscus to grow are actually the original, single red and single pink flowered varieties. They bloom more prolifically, and have fewer problems.

Tropical hibiscus do best in zones 9b and above, but mature plants can survive the freezes in 9a and come back from the base if you mulch the bottom 3 inches well during the freeze.

Hibiscus Syriacus
Perennial Hibiscus

Perennial hibiscus is a name given to a large group of hibiscus that go dormant in the winter, and come back in the spring. Some of the perennial hibiscus , such as H. mutabilis (Confederate Rose) die completely down to the ground, while others, such as Hibiscus syriacus (Althaea), are woody perennial shrubs that simply go dormant and leaf out in the spring.

Hibiscus moscheutos
Hardy Hibiscus

Hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos) are actually members of the mallow family. These are the "Dinner Plate" and "Frisbee" hibiscus with large, showy flowers, and are hardy in much colder climates, so are a favorite of some northern gardeners. Hardy hibiscus usually do not come in colors other than white, pink
or red. Hardy hibiscus die back to the ground in winter, and return in the spring, growing larger every year. They many times do not survive our hot, wet summers for over 2-3 years before succumbing, but are much longer lived in cooler, drier climates. Fortunately, hardy hibiscus can easily be grown from seed and bloom the first year.

Edible Hibiscus

Edible hibiscus are usually ornamental as well as useful. As a matter of fact, okra is a member of the edible hibiscus family. Hibiscus sabdariffa, known as Florida cranberry, or sorrel in the Caribbean islands, has red calyxes that are used in salads, cooking, and to make a very tasty ginger wine. Hibiscus acetosella (Cranberry Hibiscus) has edible leaves, flowers, and flower buds. Albemoschus manihot (formerly Hibiscus manihot), a close relative of okra, is listed in the "Plants for a Future" database, as both its leaves and flower buds are edible.

Most garden centers in Florida, especially in the big box stores, only carry tropical hibiscus, and sometimes the hardy hibiscus in the summer. You will usually have to order plants or seed for the others.

In online forums, when you ask "Why is my hibiscus dying?", don't be surprised to get a reply of "What kind of hibiscus?" Knowing the different types can get you a more accurate and useful answer.

More about hibiscus:

Why Are the Leaves on my Hibiscus Turning Yellow?

I Am Really Impressed with Dollar Seed

DISCLAIMER: I am not being paid for, nor was this post solicited by Dollar Seed. It is my honest opinion, nothing more, nothing less.

I found Dollar Seed awhile ago, looking for beefsteak tomato seeds, but had forgotten about them until this year when I wanted some cheap seeds for my new place. If you like no-frills, old timey heirloom varieties, this is an excellent place to get a bargain. Their seeds are all non-gmo, organic and heirloom. I got a notice the other day that they were having a sale, and I swear, I wish I'd had more money, because I surely would have bought more. As it was, I ordered 12 bags of seeds at the sale price of $.75 each. Shipping was about $3.25, I think. It was less than the $12 I had in PayPal -- yes, you can pay with PayPal, which makes it so convenient for me.

The seeds came in a padded envelope, nicely labeled in zipper plastic bags (they sell these, too), and I was amazed at the number of seeds in each packet. The packet even has a germination rate on it. There is nothing fancy, no planting instructions, but I guess if you're ordering these seeds, you know how to plant them.

I got these varieties, which are some of my favorites:

Cosmos "Sensation Mix" - 200 seeds
Gaillardia aristata - 145 seeds
Common Thyme - 220 seeds
Chives - 125 seeds
Okra "Clemson Spineless" - 60 seeds
Nasturtium "Jewel Mix" - 25 seeds (large seeds)
Tomato - Beefsteak 91 Seeds
Tomato - Roma 91 seeds
Pepper - California Wonder 55 seeds
New Zealand Spinach - 17 seeds (uncommon plant, so this is a great amount for the price)
Yellow Straightneck Squash - 39 seeds
Boston Pickling Cucumber - 32 seeds

As you can see, there is nothing fancy here, just common varieties, but they are some of the most popular and best growing varieties as well. They do have some interesting varieties I'd like to try like Chiogga  and Detroit Gold beets and "Great White" tomato. With what you save buying the common varieties from Dollar Seed, you can buy a few of those fancy-schmancy hard-to-find seeds from some other place.

I got so many seeds that I am sharing with a friend who has a tiny garden spot and only needs a few seeds of each, and since I have a small garden spot too, I will have some left over for next year.

There are about 100 varieties of vegetable seeds and quite a few flower and herb seeds as well. Some of them come in bulk and they also have a few varieties of sprouting seeds. They also have garden seed kits and a big box of one of every variety they sell in the store for a great discount.

But if you read their About Us page, you will see the best reason to buy from them. Part of their profits go to feed the poor, and they donate seeds to schools and outreach programs. It's a great way to help people and help yourself to some great seeds at big savings.

Check them out. I don't think you'll regret it. I certainly don't.