Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
January, 2002
Regional Report

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Pear tomatoes bear prolifically in the low desert.

Time for Tomatoes!

Sow tomato seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before transplanting out after the last frost. In the low desert, the last freeze usually occurs somewhere between February 15 and March 15, depending on your microclimate. Check with the County Cooperative Extension or local weather station for the average last frost in your locale.

What Varieties to Plant

Some tried and true varieties that thrive and produce in the low desert are Early Girl, Celebrity, Champion, Sun Gold, Yellow Pear and cherry tomatoes. Cherokee Purple and Genovese are two heirloom varieties that I tried last year that were extremely tasty.

Cherokee Purple has a purplish-pinkish skin color and juicy flesh. The plant seemed to do well longer into the heat than other varieties. I first tasted Genovese at a farmer's market, where people seemed skeptical to try it because the fruit is so deeply ridged or lobed, and looks almost misshapen. But the flesh is sweet and tasty making it well worth growing.

It's fun to experiment with other varieties. Read catalog descriptions and choose those with short days to maturity, small to medium sized fruit (less likely to crack before maturity in our heat), or bred for hot summers. As a general rule, the big beefsteaks don't perform as well in the low desert as they do in other parts of the country.

Prevent Damping Off Disease

This fungal disease can quickly kill seedlings. The best prevention is a sterile environment. Use a solution of one part bleach and 9 parts water to sterilize containers. Choose a soilless potting mix containing some combination of peat moss, vermiculite and/or perlite.

Sow Seeds

If using six-packs or individual pots, sow an extra seed in each compartment, since not all will germinate. Cover lightly with potting mix and keep consistently moist. Seedlings should receive plenty of bright light or they will grow leggy and spindly. When transplants have 2 to 3 sets of true leaves, transplant into the next sized container for development. Harden off before transplanting outdoors to reduce shock. This means setting them outside for a few hours per day in a sheltered location, gradually increasing the time outdoors over a period of a week or so.

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