Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
March, 2012
Regional Report

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Heirloom tomatoes may have funny shapes, but they taste wonderful!

Tomato Transplanting Tips

Nothing beats a delicious tomato eaten straight from the garden. Tomatoes are considered warm-season vegetables, so it may seem odd to plant them when we're still experiencing cold temperatures. However, in the desert, the low desert in particular, tomatoes need a jump-start on the season so they can develop roots, grow foliage, produce flowers and set fruit, all before the summer heat furnace cranks up.

Tomato pollen isn't viable over 90 degrees F, so at that point, fruit set will stop. If you wait to plant until Memorial Day, for example, as many new residents do because that's what they did "back home", your plants will be crispy toast within days. It is just too hot for them to get growing. Tomatoes should be in the ground by March 15 in the low desert (up to 2000 feet elevation). 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. Always protect from any late frosts in your area.

Harden Off Plants
Set tomato pots outdoors during the day and bring them in at night for about a week before transplanting in the ground. If you have a protected location, next to a warm wall out of wind, for example, where they won't experience too much cold you can leave them out over night. This process helps toughen the plant before transplanting. The day before transplanting provide a good soaking with a water-soluble fertilizer so the entire root ball is moist.

Plant Deeply
Experienced gardeners often pass along advice to bury much of the tomato stem, up to the plant's set of first true leaves. The reason is that tomato plants can generate roots along the entire stem, which helps create a stronger plant. Research in Florida verified this conventional wisdom, showing that plants that had been buried deeply bore fruit sooner and produced considerably more fruit. If you have a tall transplant, lay it on its side in a transplant trough that is wider than it is deep, with the top of the plant above ground, of course.

Hinder Cutworms
Cutworms come out of the soil at night, chew through stems, and then hide in the soil during the day. If cutworms have been a problem in your garden in the past, put a physical barrier around your young tomato stems and cutworms can only chew them if they happen to come up inside of the barrier. Depending on plant size, cut the bottom off a plastic container, like a yogurt cup, cottage cheese container, or milk carton. Slip it around the plant and push it down a couple of inches into the earth. Allow an inch or so lip to show above the soil. Place the barrier as close as possible to the stem without disturbing the root ball.

Trellis (or Not)
Some gardeners swear by various cages and trellises for tomatoes. Some desert gardeners prefer to let the plants sprawl on the ground, believing that the scrambling foliage helps protect the fruit from sunburn. Maybe try both methods and decide if one works better for you. If you do cage your plants, be sure to use an extremely sturdy support. I like homemade rectangles made of concrete reinforcing wire. Many of the slender funnel shaped wire cages sold for tomatoes do not offer sufficient strength, especially in our windy conditions.

Remove Blossoms
If you purchased large transplants already in bloom, pinch off the flowers before transplanting. You want the plant to expend its initial energy on producing roots and new growth at first, then later on flowers and fruit.

Feed the Plants
Apply a fertilizer formulated for vegetables according to package instructions for the first month. After they start flowering and setting fruit, taper off fertilization or switch to a complete organic fertilizer, assuming you have organically rich soil. You want to be careful not to over-feed with fast-acting nitrogen, which will promote excessive foliage growth at the expense of flowers and fruits. Organic fertilizer decomposes and becomes available to plants more slowly in the soil than inorganic (chemical) fertilizer.

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