Most homesteaders have hopes of growing most of their own vegetables, and tomatoes are usually at the top of their list. What you may not know is that there are unique challenges to growing this garden staple in tropical climates.
Growing tomatoes in tropical areas (like Hawai’i) requires that gardeners choose the right variety of tomatoes, and pay close attention to temperature, moisture and sunlight to ensure better harvests.
Here’s the good news: if you start growing tomatoes in tropical areas, you can keep re-growing from the same plants for years! Without cold winters to kill the plants, you can have repeat harvests from just a few plants.
First Things First, Variety
The most important aspect of growing tomatoes in a tropical climate is choosing the right variety. Cherry tomatoes are definitely the easiest to grow in a climate like Hawai’i, they do better with the sun and high humidity, and result in good (although small) tomatoes.
If you’re not a fan of the bite-size cherry tomatoes, look at hybrid varieties that have been tried and tested by the University of Hawai’i horticulture department, namely: Anahu, Healani and Kewalo types.
These have been found to be more resistant to common tomato-plant diseases and better adapted to tropical conditions than, say, a beefsteak tomato plant.
Another great feature of these varieties? You don’t need to construct a trellis for them to climb up, or do any pruning whatsoever. They also produce fruit in a short amount of time, compared to other popular varieties of tomatoes.
Where Tomatoes Grow Best
Humidity and sea breezes aren’t ideal conditions for tomatoes to grow in. Neither are overly warm temperatures. You wouldnʻt want to grow tomatoes on the beach in the tropics, but move inland a bit between 200ʻ to 800ʻ elevation and youʻre looking at prime Tomato growing zone.
While tomato plants like plenty of sunlight, you may need to give your plants half-shade in order to keep the temperature within cooler ranges.
If your soil is muddy or gets a great deal of rain, consider planting your tomatoes in pots, for better drainage and to ensure better soil, too. Better yet, grow them in a growhouse where you can control the amount of water they get.
Preparing The Soil For Planting Tomatoes
Put your compost to use in the garden! Prepare the soil with about ⅔ soil, ⅓ organic material or compost.
Soil with good drainage is ideal for growing tomatoes, so if you’re growing tomatoes in pots, don’t pack the dirt in too tightly, and ensure there is sufficient drainage in the pots.
If you’re planting in the garden, avoid areas that have pooling after a rain. Remember, tomatoes don’t like too much water. I grow mine under cover so that I can control the amount of water they get.
Planting Tomatoes – When & How
As I said before, tomatoes prefer a cooler temperature range, so plant after the hottest months of the year. If you plant too-soon and your growing plants get too hot, you risk the blossoms just falling off before they become fruits or the fruits dropping before they get a chance to turn red.
On the other hand, don’t let them get too wet in the rainy season, either. They like sunlight, and cool weather.
In Hawaii, I like to get tomatoes started in January thru March or September thru October. If you choose the fall months, donʻt expect any fruit until the next growing season.
You can plant tomatoes from seeds, seedlings or cuttings.
Planting from seed takes longer, of course. So keep this in mind if you’re trying to avoid hot temperatures.
If you’re going for cherry tomatoes, simply buy some organic cherry tomatoes from a farmer’s market and keep the seeds to plant. But, if you want some of the hybrid varieties mentioned above, you should order them specially.
Alternatively, you can plant from seedlings (sort of a no-brainer, there). But, what many people don’t know is that you can also plant from cuttings. Some varieties of tomatoes do not need to be trimmed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go ahead and make a cutting to start off a new tomato plant!
Cages, Trellis or Poles?
If you’re looking for something to help keep your tomatoes off the ground, I suggest poles of some sort. A good idea is to use poles leaning against a fence. You can use natural items like long tree limbs, or old broom sticks, situated near a sturdy fence (also provides that extra bit of shade, if you need).
Occasionally, you can string twine around a few heavy arms of the tomato plant to help it lean against the fence and keep growing well.
One year I grew a lot of tomatoes. Iʻm talking three 100ʻ rows of tomatoes. We would put stakes down every 4 feet and connect them with twine to make our own trellis system. As the plants grew, we added another level of twine. This was an easy method of trellising hundreds of plants at one time.
Feeding Your Tomatoes
Feed the soil and you feed your plants. Tomatoes like slightly acidic soil, and calcium and magnesium. If you think your soil needs a boost, try these easy options:
- Add ground fish meal (for calcium) to your soil (for calcium)
- Sprinkle epsom salts around the tomato plants
- Mixing ground egg shells with your compost
Use good compost along with your original soil when planting initially, for an even better start.
When It Comes To Harvesting Tomatoes
Here is the good news: you don’t need to have a ‘tomato season’ in the tropics. Tomatoes can grow year-round!
You might experience a drop in performance around the rainy season and hottest times of the year, but you’ll probably still get a few tomatoes popping up, even then.
Cherry tomatoes do even better, so you can expect the little bite-sized tomatoes to make regular appearances in your vegetable garden.
Don’t wait until your tomato is fully red in color to pick it. Birds or other garden pests might be vying for it, too. Instead, pick the tomato when it’s three-quarters of the way red and allow it to ripen the rest of the way in the safety of your kitchen pantry.
Tomato Pests & Diseases To Watch Out For
Humans aren’t the only ones who appreciate tomatoes, unfortunately. Some pests you will need to keep away from your plants include fruit flies, whiteflies and garden slugs.
Allowing your plants to grow up (on a pole or trellis) will help keep away slugs, and you can use netting or paper bags to keep fruit flies at bay.
Nematodes and fungi are the biggest culprits in regards to tomato-related diseases. Wet weather and overly-wet soil are some of the conditions that lead to these issues; good prevention is soil that drains well and to avoid over-watering your tomato plants.
Growing tomatoes in the tropics is so much better than in temperate climates. As long as you choose varieties that do well in areas like Hawai’i, and take precautions about heat and water, you can enjoy an endless growing season of tomatoes from your own homestead!