This post is about my experience and things I’ve learned growing tomatoes in the tropics. Yes, of course you can grow tomatoes in the tropics, but it’s a little different to growing cherry, heirloom, grape, beefsteak and slicer tomatoes in more temperate climates. I grew up growing tomatoes in a temperate environment, where winters didn’t support tomato growing. In the tropics you can grow tomato plants all year round, just about, and they’ll grow as perennials endlessly giving you cuttings for new plants. It’s not totally easy and some times of year are better for growing tomatoes than others, but here are a few tips and tricks for growing, planting, and sewing tomatoes in a hot country in summer and winter, wet monsoon season and dry season.
Growing Tomatoes in The Tropics
Should You Plant Seeds or Buy Tomato Plants?
Either is absolutely fine but seeds will give you dozens of plants for the cost of one larger plant from the garden centre. Tomatoes actually like to be transplanted and sunk into their permanent home deeper, so we don’t worry too much about transplantation shock with tomatoes. But why not get your tomato plants for free?
I find when buying seed that it’s best to buy online from a specialist seed vendor. Seeds from supermarkets have a tendency to not germinate sometimes. But, if they’re all you can get, grow them. Work with what you’ve got, always.
How To Get Tomato Plants For Free
Do you have tomatoes in your fridge? Take the seeds and plant them. You never know, some might grow. Some people dry them and ferment the jelly off but in my experience, they grow straight from the fruit. You’d be amazed how many plants you can grow for free from store-bought food. Alternatively, do you have a friend of neighbour who grows tomatoes? Ask very nicely for a cutting and they may be able to give you a few. You see, most tomatoes need pruning. They tend to throw out side shoots from their “armpits” that most gardeners will remove to keep the plant more open. These side shoots root really easily if you pop them in a jam jar of water for a few days. Once you see some nice roots forming just pot them up, nice and deep.
What time of Year To Plant Tomatoes in The Tropics?
Now is a good time. Now is always a good time. If you have seeds, plants or cuttings, just plant them up and nurture them. For sure, some times are better than others. Scorching dry season heat and lack of rain will make your tomato’s life harder, monsoon deluges likewise, but I’ve had success growing tomatoes from seeds, cuttings, and starts at just about any time of year. Throw the rules out the window, just grow them. As I said already tomatoes often grow as perennials in the tropics, I have tomato plants that are three years old and many are clones from cuttings so, technically, the same plant. The easiest times to grow tomatoes would be the less extreme times of year, not too hot, not too wet, not too dry.
What Varieties of Tomato Can You Grow in The Tropics?
I’ve not yet found one I couldn’t grow. At first I had more success with cherry tomatoes than larger varieties but as my tomato handling expertise grew (particularly my soil know-how) I found that really I could grow anything. My favourites and most productive varieties are roma (plum) tomatoes for cooking, black russian, a slicer, for just being beautiful and impressive, black grape, a nice purple cherry and a nameless random cherry that’s been giving us abundant food for years. I have no idea what variety it is nor where it came from.
How To Look After Your Tomato Plants
Plants need sunshine, water, nutrients and good soil. Good soil contains microorganisms, fungi, worms and decaying matter, it holds moisture well. Really, gardening is all about growing good soil. You’ll hear talk of tomatoes needing specific nutrients, potassium, nitrogen, calcium and so on. And what about dolomite, blood and bone, and fish emulsion? Relax, it’s not hard and nothing to be scared of.
Keep your soil moist. This might mean you have to water them twice a day when it’s hot and dry, it might mean never in the wet season. Just keep the soil moist. Don’t ever water plants in full sun if you can help it, and try not to splash water on leaves in the sun, this can burn them. Wilting is normal, it’s the plant’s natural defense agains dehydration, but if your plant goes beyond a mild wilt it could die. We don’t want that. Also tomatoes don’t like to be sopping wet. Mine mostly survive the wet season, but they don’t like it. I raise mine in pots or raised beds so that they’re not sitting in a puddle for weeks.
Tomatoes will also need support. Flimsy tomato cages are useless, don’t buy those. Tomato plants can get absolutely enormous, higher than the house, so they will need support. I use canes (longer the better) and string and I’m experimenting with growing them up strings. However, my favourite tactic is to plant determinate tomatoes (like romas) rather than indeterminate, they’re just more manageable. Some of the indeterminate cherries sprawl on and on. I have to keep cutting them back to size. Where a tomato stem touches the ground it will likely root, this is how they would grow if they were still wild. If your fruit is too low it can rot and, often, be eaten by rats and mice. I wish my cats could go outdoors to help with that!
New Plants Need To Be Looked After More
Young plants, seedlings, and newly rooted cuttings are like babies and you have to nurture them. They won’t yet have a robust root system to access all that water and all those nutrients. They might have a lot more green than they do root. This will make them much more likely to dehydrate in the heat. Keep a close eye on them. Maybe keep them out of the sun when it’s very hot or move them under cover in torrential rain. This is easy in pots. Generally, the bigger the pot and the better the soil or compost it contains, the more fabulous your tomatoes will be. Keep their soil moist but not soggy. Some people pinch off the first flowers so that the second bunch of blossoms will be on a stronger plant. I don’t, I’m always far too excited about the prospect of tomatoes. You see, there really is no right way and wrong way, do what works.
At What Time Of Year Will Your Tomatoes Bear Fruit
I don’t think I’ve yet had a month with no tomatoes. They struggle in the wet, but still, there are usually a few. My most productive time for tomato harvesting is after the wet season, to the start of the wet season. Any time but the wet season! Optimum time seems to be about May onwards, our autumn into winter and spring. My tomatoes, just 16 degrees south of the equator, don’t like the hot, wet, humid summers at all. Pests are a major issue for me and my tomatoes in the wet. But I obstinately refuse to use pesticides or anything artificial on my garden. My best and only bug defense is squishing.
I’ve been sharing photos of my garden to Instagram for a few years now, I can easily look back and say yes, on that day last year I was picking tomatoes. I need to go back and check. Sometimes I even share daily harvest photos. Today it is mid-May, my main tomato harvest time is just beginning and things are looking really exciting out there, but also I’m starting new tomato plants from seed and cuttings. They should also be fine. As with every post on this site, this one will evolve, grow, and bloom. This is my hobby, my notes, my know-how. I am a scientist by training, a biologist actually. I experiment, test, and make notes. Welcome to my notebook.