Few things top the taste of homegrown tomatoes. But know from the start that tomatoes are not easy to grow here. Forewarned, here are my six tried and true tips for producing tomatoes in the Old Pueblo.
Get the right stuff. You must have heat-adapted varieties. Some of the best varieties are local varieties. This includes Sunmaster, Lemonboy, Scarlett Express and the lovely cherry tomatoes Gardeners Delight, Sweet 100 and Sun Gold. Other nationally produced tomato varieties that do well here include Celebrity, Heat Wave, Early Girl, Dona and the paste type Roma.
Start them early. Tomato pollen dies in temperatures topping 92 degrees. Thus to get fruit, you must get your plants grown and flowering as quickly as possible. Next year, start seeds indoors on MLK Day. This year, go with seedlings from the nursery. At this stage, the bigger the better, even if the sets are root-bound and the pots top heavy with big plants. Usually I caution against root-bound plants, but tomatoes are one of the few plants that will grow new roots from the stem. Thus plant your tomato plants deep. If they are large enough, remove the lowest set of leaves and plant as deep as where the leaves were.
Give them a good home. Tomato plants produce best a rich loamy acidic garden soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7.0. In our area, this means in a container with potting soil or in a well amended area in the ground. For container-grown tomatoes, the bigger the pot, the better. Ideally, select a container at least 16 inches in diameter and a minimum of 16 inches deep.
Give them good care. This means both water and fertilizer. You should keep the soil evenly moist (avoid letting it get too dry between watering). If you are growing in pots, this will mean daily watering. Even in the ground, daily watering is generally needed as temperatures get over 90 degrees. Fertilize with a slow release as you first plant, then at age six weeks start fertilizing with a bloom or fruit fertilizer, one rich in phosphorous. Avoid general fertilizer or excessive nitrogen. It will cause more leafy growth at the expense of fruit set.
Support them. Tomato plants are surprisingly fragile. They need to be caged or staked. I prefer cages over stakes as the cross pieces help support fruiting branches. My problem with commercial cages is they are not tall enough. Hog wire wrapped into a four- or five-foot tube works well.
Protect. Tomato fruit can get sun scald, thus developing fruit needs some shade. This is one additional benefit to cages over stakes. You can drape the cage with a piece of shade cloth and not break leaves. Shade cloth will also help extend the productive life of your plant. Once daytime temperatures are in the mid-90s, shade will help them survive the heat.
Tomatoes are easy to grow here if you start with the right stuff and give them what they need to thrive. And the reward … priceless!
Got plants but not sure how to care for them? Want to start a vegetable garden but need some tips? I will be your "garden coach" and help you move forward with your landscape or gardening plans. Give me a call at 292-0504. Please leave a voice message.