Growing Tomatoes in South Louisiana

    First, a word about Creole Tomatoes. The term "Creole" is now mostly a marketing term. The LSU Agricultural Center no longer lists a variety specifically called Creole. However, there are still some seed companies selling Creole tomato seeds and our seeds come from one of them. However, no one really knows whether this is truly the original "Creole" tomato that your grandpa (or great-grandpa) grew in his garden many years ago. But these seeds do grow into good, strong, open pollinated plants that produce quality fruit that has a good taste when vine-ripened. This variety is related to the old standbys called Floradel and Floralou.

    At farmers markets and grocery stores you will see tomatoes labeled Creole that have been brought in by local farmers. I really don't know of any farmers anywhere in south Louisiana who are growing open pollinated tomatoes any longer. But since Creole tomatoes are so popular and the marketing term is so successful they continue to call their tomatoes Creole since they are grown locally in south Louisiana. Welcome to the world of creative marketing.

Growing Tips

Bacterial Wilt
    Bacterial wilt is one of the most serious problems that affect tomato plants. The wilt is caused by bacteria getting into the plant from either the soil or from insects. As the bacteria multiply they clog up the vessels of the plant. This prevents water from moving normally through the plant and the upper part of the plant wilts. No matter how much you water an infected plant it will still continue to wilt.

    Unfortunately the only thing you can do for plants infected with bacterial wilt is to pull them up and dispose of them. Be careful where you put them because you do not want to simply move them to a place where the disease will continue to breed. Some people burn the infected plants, but if you have a lot of plants this can be impractical as well as dangerous.

    Bacterial wilt is very persistent and pernicious. It can remain in the soil for over a year and it can even infect the stakes you used on your crop. If you wish to re-use your tomato stakes from a crop that was infected from bacterial wilt they will need to be disinfected. Rinse them with a product that will kill bacteria and leave them in the full sun for at while afterward. But be advised that even this may not remove all the bacteria right away. Wait at least a full year before using the stakes again.
    Don't plant another tomato crop in the same section of your garden for at least two years. Plant the next crop of tomatoes in a different area. You should probably do this anyway.

Blossom-end rot
    Blossom-end rot is not a virus or a bacterium. It is a physiological disease caused by a calcium imbalance in the tomato fruit. Affected tomatoes have dark, dry, sunken spot at the bottom of the fruit where the blossom fell off.

    Blossom-end rot has different causes. Improper watering, which results in extreme fluctuations in soil moisture can trigger the problem. That is one reason growing tomatoes in containers is more difficult than in the garden. Plants in pots tend to dry out fast and as the plants grow larger they will dry even faster.

    So if you grow tomatoes in pots check them frequently and water them well. Do not let the soil in a pot dry completely. Only a cactus can thrive in such conditions. If you notice that your plants are getting some yellow leaves at the bottom of the plant (moving upward) that is an indication that you are not watering well enough.

    Excessive phosphorus can also interfere with calcium uptake. Use a balanced fertilizer. Use fertilizers high in phosphorus only if a soil test indicates that you need it. Phosphorus is the middle number in the fertilizer analysis. Fertilizers such as 15-30-15 are not recommended if you have had problems with blossom-end rot. Use 20-20-20 or 20-10-20 instead.
    A calcium deficiency in the soil can also cause blossom-end rot. Have your soil tested before adding lime. The test will also tell you how much lime to add, if needed.

    A quick way to deal with an existing problem of blossom-end rot is to use a product labeled to control blossom-end rot, specifically in tomatoes. These products contain calcium in a rapidly available form, which will usually alleviate the problem to a certain degree. The best bet is to be sure your soil is right for tomatoes by testing it before you plant.

Other Problems - Rotten Fruit
One other problem is rotten and mushy fruit caused by breaks in the tomatoes' skin. Inspect your tomato fruit frequently. Save your damaged tomatoes. If any have small wounds caused by splitting or holes from worms you should pick them in the pink stage and allow them to ripen off the vine. Once the tomato skin is broken microorganisms get inside and cause rot. Rinse and dry the fruit and keep them indoors to ripen.

Dropping Blooms
If you have a problem with flowers falling off and not producing tomatoes you should not be concerned unless all the flowers fall off. Once the plant is developing as many fruit as it can handle, - the main crop - it will tend to drop the rest of the flowers as it continues to produce. Be sure you keep your plant well watered and fertilized to minimize these problems.

Heat Problems
    Finally, as the summer wears on and weather gets hotter and dryer you will probably see a decrease in quality of the fruit and a poorer fruit set since the heat affects pollination in tomatoes. The highest quality tomatoes are usually harvested in late May through June. After that the heat takes its toll.

    The so-called heat-set or heat tolerant "Heatwave" varieties tend to continue to set fruit in the heat to a certain extent. Also, small-fruited cherry tomatoes and some Roma varieties tend to remain productive despite the heat. Some other superior heat tolerant varieties are Florida 91, Phoenix, Taladega and Sunmaster.

    Be aware that by mid to late summer, intense heat, fruit rot, and pests such as caterpillars, birds and stink bugs take a heavy toll. So keep your plants well watered and mulched and watch for bugs during the summer to ensure a good harvest.

Looking ahead to the Fall
    If you did well with your spring planted tomatoes you can plant another crop in Late July, August or early September for a fall crop that will have plenty of time to produce loads of tomatoes before the cold weather comes.

Variety recommendations

Large varieties:
Big Beef - 12oz, f1hybrid, AAS winner
Celebrity - 10oz, f1 hybrid, AAS winner
Better Boy - up to 16oz, f1hybrid
Creole - 8 to 12 oz variable, open pollinated, Heirloom

Small fruited varieties:
Sweet Million - 1 inch fruit, f1 hybrid
Small Fry - 1 inch fruit, f1 hybrid, AAS winner
Juliet - 1.5 inch oblong, grape, f1hybrid, AAS winner

Heat Set varieties: (large fruit)
Florida 91 - 12 oz, f1hybrid
Phoenix - 10-16 oz, f1 hybrid
Sunmaster - 10oz, f1hybrid
Taladega - 10-12oz, f1hybrid
Murial - 8oz, Roma, f1hybrid

Here at the nursery we have most of these varieties and usually one or two others since we want to try something new each year.

In conclusion
    The main planting time for tomatoes in South Louisiana is from mid March thru late April. But some farmers and gardeners start planting as early as mid to late February and then pray to avoid a late freeze. Growing early tomatoes is a crap shoot.
    If you get a late start and plant later than the third week of April it is usually a good idea to plant Heat Set varieties since they will continue to set fruit even when it gets hot.

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