Growing Healthy Creole Tomatoes
“Dawlin’ ya aint gottsa beat da crowds, pay a buncha money or go ova da river an make groceries by Belle Chase ta gets ya mamma’n’dem dose tasty creole tomatoes. Ya can stay by ya own house an grow dem yaself!”
Traditionally, Creole tomatoes are large, juicy, rich and flavorful tomatoes grown in the direct sunlight of hot and humid south Louisiana River Parishes where the rich and fertile alluvial soils provide ideal growing conditions. Due to their popularity, “Creole” tomatoes were designated the official Louisiana vegetable plant in 2003.
Many people mistakenly believe Creole tomatoes are one particular variety of tomato that can only be produced by planting seeds or transplants of the tomato cultivar named “Creole.” Many decades ago, Louisiana State University developed a tomato cultivar and named it “Creole,” but the cultivar ‘Creole’ did not stand the test of time and other tomato varieties have since replaced it. The word “Creole” is now used as a marketing term for many cultivars of tomato that have similar fruit.
If you are willing to break tradition, Creole tomatoes can be grown in your own back yard—No matter where you live. The key to growing a delicious and succulent tomato is selecting a suitable cultivar and providing it with optimal growing conditions.
Keys to Growing Healthy Tomatoes
- Light: All tomato cultivars require a minimum of 6-to-8 hours of direct/full sunlight per day. Selecting a location that receives full sunlight all day is best. Plants that receive less than 6 hours of direct sunlight per day often are less healthy, grow tall and spindly, produce very few fruit, and are more disease prone.
- Drainage: Whether grown in the ground or a container, tomatoes require well-drained soil. Plants grown in areas with poor drainage are more prone to root rot and disease. If you find yourself in such an area it is best to plant tomatoes in raised beds, on mounds, or in containers. Containers selected for tomato gardening should have several holes in the bottom of the container to provide adequate drainage. Tomato roots require lots of oxygen for proper development, whereas wet soil has lower oxygen content than well-drained soil. Tomato plants that are over watered or grown in wet soils often appear wilted, as if they haven’t received enough water. This is due to a weak or compromised root system.
- Soil Organic Matter: Tomatoes grow best in soil with high organic matter content. Natural soils are usually less than 5% organic matter. Regions with high temperatures and high rainfall have soils with lower organic matter content than regions with lower temperatures and lower rainfall. To increase organic matter in natural soils, the soil must be amended by incorporating composted yard debris such as decayed leaf litter or leaf mold, composted manures (horse, cow, goat, sheep, chicken, rabbit), composted sawdust or commercially available soil conditioners such as peat or pine bark fines.Commercially available soils and potting mixes are known as “soilless” media. Soilless media are composed primarily of organic matter such as peat, composted bark, wood, rice hulls, or other byproducts of agriculture. Soilless media may contain small percentages of minerals like sand, perlite and vermiculite.
If tomatoes are grown in containers soilless media should be used. This is because natural soils do not work well in containers due to the particle size and structure. The down side to using soilless media is that they lack most of the essential nutrients found in natural soils, which are composed primarily of minerals.
- Fertility: Proper fertility is essential to the growth of any plant. There are 17 essential nutrients required by all plants for proper health. Few natural soils contain adequate levels of all 17 essential nutrients.Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service to inquire about having your soil fertility levels tested. A routine soil analysis is inexpensive and tells you the exact level of essential nutrients in your soil, the soil pH, and usually comes with recommendations on how to improve your soil fertility. Soil fertility tests are also available for soilless media. Regardless of which you use, both natural and soilless media will need the addition of fertilizers to achieve the proper balance of essential nutrients.
- Soil pH: pH is the measure of acidity or alkalinity. pH is a logarithmic scale that ranges from 0 to 14, with a pH of 0 being very low or highly acidic, a pH of 7 considered neutral and a pH of 14 ranking as very high or highly alkaline.The pH level of a soil affects the availability of nutrients found in it. In very alkaline soils nutrients are usually bound to soil particles and consequently unavailable to plants. In very acidic soils nutrients are readily available to plants at levels that are toxic.
Luckily, soil pH can be adjusted to manipulate the levels of available nutrients. Lime is used to raise soil pH and sulfur is used to lower it. Soil test results provided by Cooperative Extension Services will come with recommendations for adjusting soil pH. Tomatoes grow best in slightly acidic soils with a soil pH that ranges between 5.8 and 6.7. If the levels go outside this desirable range, the tomatoes will have decreased production.
- Variety Selection: The selection of disease resistant tomato cultivars that grow well in your region is a key factor in successful tomato gardening. To find out what cultivars of tomatoes are disease resistant and perform well in your region, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service to obtain recommendations based on current research. Recommended varieties have been evaluated and selected for desirable traits such as resistance to one or more diseases, tolerance to high temperatures, high plant vigor/performance, high yield and fruit quality.
- Water and Irrigation: There are many factors to consider when determining water requirements for tomatoes. The most important one is simply providing the appropriate amount. Water requirements will vary with climate and soil type. In general, deep less frequent watering is better than frequent shallow watering. Although, newly planted tomatoes require water more frequently than established plants.If you grow your tomatoes in containers, make sure the containers are as large as possible, preferably 5 gallons or more in volume. Container grown tomatoes will need to be watered almost every day. To prevent the buildup of salts in container soil, you must occasionally allow water to run out of the pot for a couple of minutes.
- Growth Habit: Tomato cultivars have either an indeterminate or a determinate growth habit. Indeterminate or “vining” tomato cultivars grow continuously until season’s end, whereas determinate or “bush” tomato cultivars grow to a determined height and stop growing with a cluster of fruit at the top of the plant. When the last cluster of fruit ripens on a determinate variety the plant dies.
- Staking and Training: Most diseases associated with tomatoes are soil borne, so caging, staking, trellising, and training tomatoes reduces disease by limiting contact between plants, fruits, and the ground. Indeterminate cultivars are not recommended for container gardens because plants require sturdy staking, trellises or caging due to growth potential. Determinate cultivars are suited for container gardens because of their sturdier compact growth habits and limited height.