Last year I offered my six tried-and-true tips for producing tomatoes in the Old Pueblo. Then I was bombarded with very detailed and specific questions. Yikes! Folks, they only give me space for 500 words while entire books have been written on this topic!
My six tips? Get the right stuff. Start early. Good home. Good care. Support. Protect.
• Get the right stuff. Heat-adapted varieties are required. Smaller fruiting varieties tend to be less troubled by birds or calcium problems. Some folks feel shorter season (70-day or so) varieties do better. Then there is the “determinate” versus “indeterminate” choice.
Determinate, or bush-type tomatoes, top off at a specific height and bear a full crop all at once. Determinates are good choices for container growing. Indeterminate, or vine-type tomatoes, never top off and continue producing until killed by frost. Most heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate.
There are over 1,500 varieties. Here’s what readers are growing: Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Beam’s Yellow Pear, Bella Rosa, Black Cherry, Black Prince, Carmello, Costoluto Genovese, Earygirl, Eva Purple Ball, Gardener’s Delight, Goose Creek, Green Grape, Hawaiian Tropic, Heartlands, Heat Wave, Homestead, Isis Candy, Mexico, Momotaro, Mrs. Maxwell’s Big Italian, Mule Team, Neves Azorean Red, Orange Roma, Pink Brandywine, Pruden’s Purple, Red Currant, Red Grape, Salisaw Cafe, San Marzanos, Solar Set, Stupice, Sun Master, Sun Gold, Super Sioux, Sweet Pea, Taxi, Thessaloniki, and Zarnitza.
• Start early. Tomato pollen dies with temperatures above 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, but this year go with seedlings from the nursery. At this stage, the bigger the better, even if they are root-bound and top-heavy. Normally I caution against root-bound plants, but tomatoes are one of the few vegetable plants that will grow new roots from the stem.
You can plant your tomatoes deep. If they are large enough, remove the lowest set of leaves and plant as deep as where the leaves were.
• 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 very well amended soil. One reader chanted, “compost, compost, compost,” to my answering machine. She’s absolutely correct. Amend your soil, plus add more acidifiers, like coffee grounds, through the season.
• Good care. Water must be on a regular basis. Several readers installed the new drip tubes with drip every six inches (as opposed to soaker hoses) and are very pleased with the results. Fertilizer should be a bloom or fruit fertilizer, rich in phosphorous. Avoid excessive nitrogen, as it encourages leaf growth at the expense of fruit set.
• Support. Tomato plants must be caged or staked. Most readers cage to help support fruiting branches. Everyone complained that commercial cages are not tall enough for indeterminate types. Hog or sheepwire wrapped into a tube works well. Such homemade cages are large enough that they can be draped with shade cloth or bird netting as needed.
• Protect. Too much sun can scald tomato fruit. Plant your plants close together to create a dense canopy of shading leaves. Also protect fruit from birds.
Tomatoes are fairly easy to grow here if you start with the right varieties and plan on regular, consistent care. The reward is so incredibly flavorful, it can be worth the effort.
Dr. Soule will be at the Oro Valley Public Library this Saturday, April 9, from 9 a.m. to noon as part of its Live Green Oro Valley Event. She will discuss “Herculean Herbs for the Heat” and have her new book, “Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing & Using Them Today,” available for sale and signing.