Hello happy gardeners! I hope your gardens are all growing well. Today I would like to talk about growing Tomatoes in the Desert Southwest. Even if you have never dreamed of planting a full vegetable garden, chances are you have tried at least one time or another to grow tomatoes at home. Perhaps you purchased a nice looking potted plant on your way out of the hardware store, or maybe it was the latest tomato growing gizmo selling for $9.99 at the drug store, either way what happens most often in Arizona is those lovely potted tomatoes from the store often leave us disappointed because they either die off, or never bear the bounty promised on the packaging.
Growing tomatoes successfully in the desert takes a little more persistence than other crops but with a few simple steps it can be done with great success.
Growing Tomatoes in Tucson
Preparation and timing is more crucial to successfully growing tomatoes in our climate than perhaps any other crop we grow in our vegetable gardens. Preparation begins first by selecting varieties of tomatoes that are known to grow well in our climate. By selecting these tried and true varieties you will be giving yourself the best possible chances for maximum harvest. As a general rule, the cultivars that preform the best in our climate are those that are small in size and quick to mature. A large variety of cherry and pear types fit this description. Yellow Pear, Texas Wild Cherry, Punta Banda, and Large Red Cherry are some very common types available around Tucson starting in mid-to-late February. Other varieties to consider include Roma, Pearson, Stupice, Flamenco, and Nichols’ Heirloom. Avoid large tomatoes that the seed catalogs often tout. Large fruit tends to crack before it fully ripens.
Tomatoes are susceptible to a large number of pests and diseases in addition to the cultural challenges they present. When choosing a variety of tomato, you should also pay close attention to the types of disease resistance present in the different varieties. When deciding on a variety of tomato, Look for initials on the tag such as VFNT, these initials on the plant labels indicate a particular resistance to some of the most common pests and diseases such as Fusarium and Verticilium Wilts, Nematodes and Tobacco Mosaic Virus.
Tomatoes will do best with some afternoon shade, so plant near an eastern facing wall or on the north/east side of taller plants like sunflower, amaranth, okra, or sorghum. Tomatoes plants can grow very large so make sure to provide at least 3-4 square feet of growing room per plant. Supporting your tomatoes with cages will help to keep diseases from becoming a problem and will also help when harvesting. Tomato cages sold at hardware stores will not hold up, it is best to custom your own cages using heavy duty concrete reinforcing wire with a 6 inch spacing big enough to reach through.
Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so before planting be sure to amend the soil with plenty of well balanced organic fertilizers like alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, and worm castings. The planting area should also be amended with soil sulfur and generous amounts of compost prior to planting. At the time of planting trim all but the top two or three leaves of the tomato plant. Dig a shallow trench and about an inch deep the length of the plant. You may have to dig out more soil to accommodate the root ball. Gently lay the plant sideways and backfill the trench leaving only the top leaves exposed. Overtime, the fine hairs on the stem of the plant will produce a strong root system that will reward you during the summer with higher yields.
Tomatoes enjoy the company of beans, marigolds, nasturtiums, and basil, so be sure to plant some around your tomatoes for some added color and organic pest control. Tomatoes also like to be planted in groups with other tomatoes, but avoid placing other large amounts of other nightshades together such as peppers and potatoes. If all goes well, you should start to see your first harvests in may with the main harvests in June. You can encourage fruiting by giving your plants a shake in the morning before it gets to hot, this will help to distribute pollen more effectively. Production usually drops off in late June and July, but it will pick back up again. You can also try planting a new batch of tomatoes in August for a fall harvest.
If you have any questions at all, please send me a message, or visit my Facebook page And as always, Happy Gardening!