Organic Gardening on the Gulf Coast - Lessons and tips from Foley's Cooper Farm

Unlocking the secrets of tomato cultivation: Cultivating the Coast with Kitti Cooper, presented by Saunders Yachtworks

Your guide to tomato varieties, pest management, growth challenges and more


Tomatoes, the quintessential summer crop, hold a special place in the hearts of gardeners and food enthusiasts alike.

However, cultivating tomato plants requires more than just planting seeds and hoping for the best, especially in regions like South Alabama, where the climate poses unique challenges to growers. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the art and science of growing tomatoes in South Alabama, from selecting the right varieties to combating pests and diseases and implementing advanced techniques for optimal growth.


Before diving into the intricacies of tomato cultivation, it's essential to understand the two main categories of tomato varieties: indeterminate and determinate.

Indeterminate tomatoes: These varieties are akin to marathon runners, boasting prolific growth and vines that continue to extend throughout the growing season. Indeterminate tomatoes require sturdy support structures such as stakes, cages or trellises to keep them upright as they produce fruit continuously. Their extended harvest period makes them ideal for gardeners who enjoy fresh tomatoes throughout the season.

Determinate tomatoes: In contrast, determinate varieties are more like sprinters, with a compact growth habit and a predetermined height. They set the majority of their fruit within a specific timeframe, making them perfect for gardeners seeking a concentrated harvest for canning or preserving purposes. Determinate tomatoes are also well-suited for smaller garden spaces or container gardening.


Blight and nematodes are among the most common challenges faced by tomato growers in South Alabama. Employing proactive strategies is crucial to minimizing their impact on your tomato crop.

Blight prevention: Blight, a soil-borne fungal disease, thrives in warm, humid conditions prevalent in South Alabama. To reduce the risk of infection, create a barrier between soil and foliage using materials like cardboard or mulch. Mulching below ensures the least amount of dirt is splashed onto the plant especially when we can get our crazy summer heavy rain storms. Pruning lower foliage enhances airflow and reduces the amount of leaves that soil can be splashed onto, which can spread fungal spores upward, which is why you always see it start from bottom. Consider applying organic fungicides preventatively during periods of high disease pressure to help protect your tomato plants.

Nematode management: Root knot nematodes are microscopic pests that can cause stunted growth and reduced yields in tomato plants. Add marigolds to your vegetable garden to prevent nematode pest damage. The nematodes invade plant roots and cause various deformities in the roots. If you've ever pulled your tomato plant up and the roots look like a big knot, this is root knot.

Marigolds produce compounds that are nematicides, a compound that kills nematodes.

The nematodes actually invade the marigold roots in the same way they invade a tomato root. The difference is that once the nematode is inside the marigold root, the natural nematicides of the plant kill the nematode and prevent it from breeding. Over time the population of nematodes decreases.

Blossom end rot: This is when the bottom of your tomatoes turn black and rot. This is a sign of calcium deficiency. Eggshells don't work fast enough in this instant, but tums do. When planting a tomato place one tum in the hole to help keep a curb on blossom end rot. The more rain we have the more calcium is depleted from the soil so this method can be added multiple times within the season as needed.


Stink bugs are notorious pests capable of causing significant damage to tomato plants. Implementing integrated pest management techniques is essential for keeping their populations under control.

Stink bug strategies: Stink bugs, with their armored exteriors and voracious appetites, can wreak havoc on tomato plants if left unchecked. One effective method of control is to vacuum them up using a dust buster while they are still in their juvenile stage, before they develop their tough outer shells. Disposing by flushing down a toilet or feeding them to chickens eliminates the need for harmful chemicals, keeping your garden pest-free and environmentally friendly. Your neighbors may think you're crazy for vacuuming up your garden, but hey, this is still organic gardening plus the instant satisfaction.

Note: if you see small orange bugs on your tomato plants, those are baby stink bugs. There is a beneficial bug called an assassin bug, but they are far and few between here due to them not liking heat. Additionally, an assassin bug kills pollinators, so it isn't as beneficial as the hype.


Beyond disease and pest management, advanced techniques can further enhance tomato growth and productivity in South Alabama's unique climate.

Pick tomatoes in the breaking stage to avoid splitting: Gardening on the Gulf Coast is like gardening in a whole other grow zone, but it is all about being proactive.

When we get these sudden heavy rain storms, especially followed by a man-made steady watering schedule with hot, hot drought, what happens is your fruit will begin to panic absorb all the water it can to prepare for another "drought." It begins to absorb water much faster than the skin can grow to accommodate it, which causes it to split.

This is also why during a drought it is important you are giving your garden a heavy soak of water everyday and not just a short sprinkle everyday. We have very sandy soil that drains quickly, so holding water is more common when we get these coastal floods that our soil conditions cannot properly drain in time.

You should water steadily on a schedule daily as well as water heavily prior to a big rain storm in forecast to avoid splitting.

When to pick a green tomato to ripen to red on the counter: If your tomato crop is ready-ish but still green but slightly blushed with red/yellow, pick your tomatoes while they are in the "breaking stage." Picking in the breaking stage also ensures you reap the rewards of your fruit before bugs or weather do.

So, what is the breaking stage?

Once a tomato begins to turn from unripe green to slightly pink (or yellow, orange, etc., depending on the variety), it stops taking nutrients from the plant. It is what is known as the breaking stage. Once a tomato begins to break is when you can pull your tomato to bring inside safely to ripen on a window sill or counter top.

Tomatoes produce what is called lycopene, which is a form of carotenoid. That is the same thing that make carrots orange; it is an antioxidant full of vitamin E. This is what makes tomatoes turn red (or ripen). The lycopene is stored in the tomato, and once the tomato breaks is when the lycopene begins to work and continues to work being off the vine by a reaction of nutrients already stored inside of the tomato.

There is little benefit to leaving a tomato on the vine past breaking to finish this process since it is no longer absorbing nutrients. Some can argue on the flavor of vine-ripened vs. counter-ripened tomatoes, but personally a home grown tomato will always taste better no matter what than a store bought one.

Tip: Rotate crops with beans to enhance nitrogen in soil. Tomatoes are heavy feeders and beans release nitrogen into the soil.


In the fertile soils of South Alabama, growing tomatoes is both an art and a science. By understanding the nuances of tomato varieties, implementing proactive disease and pest management strategies and employing advanced techniques tailored to the region's unique climate, gardeners can cultivate a thriving tomato crop year after year. So, embrace the challenge, nurture your tomato plants with care, maybe introduce a dust buster into your organic pesticide routine and savor the delicious rewards of a bountiful harvest. Happy gardening!