Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
December, 2006
Regional Report

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It's not too early to start planning which tomato varieties you'll be harvesting next summer.

Tomato Starts

It seems a bit odd to be thinking about tomatoes during a season filled with pine trees and poinsettias. However, it's a good idea to add "purchase and sow tomato seeds" to your to-do list. This will ensure that transplants are ready to set out as soon as temperatures allow. Although tomatoes are warm-season veggies, their pollen isn't viable over 90 degrees F. Plants must develop roots, grow foliage, send out blossoms and set fruit before intense summer heat arrives in late May to early June. Transplanting early provides a jump-start.

Tomatoes should be in the ground no later than March 15 in the low desert (up to 2000 feet elevation). Anytime between mid-February and mid-March is okay, as long as tender plants are protected from frost. At middle elevations (2000-3000 feet), the planting season is March 15 to April 15. In the high desert (3000-4500 feet), set out transplants from May 1 to June 15. These ranges assume that plants will be protected from late frosts.

Tips for Choosing Varieties
When I look at tomato descriptions and their accompanying mouth-watering photos, I want to buy one of everything. It's sometimes a good thing to set the catalog down or go to another webpage before filling out my order. In the low desert, try to stick with varieties that have small to medium fruits. Those big beefsteaks crack before reaching maturity. Of course, it's great to experiment with something different, just don't put your entire tomato harvest potential in one basket.

Look for short growing seasons (days to maturity). Other characteristics to look for include disease resistance and heat tolerance. Avoid varieties that are described as having little foliage or fruits that hang above the foliage. Those characteristics were developed for easy mechanical harvesting, but in the low desert, foliage helps protect the fruit from sunburn.

Heirloom tomato varieties have exceptional taste and often come in unusual colors and shapes. 'Yellow Pear', 'Cherokee Purple', and 'Costoluto Genovese' are my favorites. Although the latter two contradict my earlier recommendations by having mid- to large-sized tomatoes and taking 78 to 80 days to mature, they are also heat tolerant and perform well in the low desert.

Tomato seeds germinate best in soil temperatures from 60 to 85 degrees F, with 85 being optimal. Sow six to eight weeks before your projected planting date. Use a sterile seed-starting mix and keep it consistently moist. After germination, seedlings need 12 to 14 hours of light daily. Rotate containers one-quarter turn regularly to ensure seedlings don't get leggy reaching for the light.

When seedlings have two sets of leaves, move them into deeper pots. Because tomatoes can grow roots along their entire stem, bury the plants so the leaves are just above soil level. This will make the root systems and plants more vigorous. Seedlings do best in daytime temperatures from 70 to 75 and nighttime temperatures cooling slightly to 65 to 75. Gradually harden off plants outdoors for a week or so before transplanting.

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