Growing Tomatoes In Desert Climate

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Tomato is a favorite in gardens but not always easy to grow in desert climate. One advantage of our dry weather however is that tomatoes are less susceptible to fungal diseases. If you are a first time grower try any of the cherry tomatoes as they are more likely to be productive with healthy fruit.

Some of the common challenges :

Root knot nematodes:
Root knot nematodes is a reluctant parasite that affects tomatoes quite often in our desert soil. The growth of the plant will be stunted and fruit yield will be extremely low once affected. The only method to reduce the parasite burden is to not grow the plant in the same area following 1-2 years (crop rotation). Adding compost/organic matter is always helpful as it draws beneficial soil insects some of which may deter the nematodes. If the plants are effected heavily by root knot nematodes in your garden every year than it will be best to grow them in large containers for few years. Peppers and eggplants are also susceptible plants and should be avoided in the area affected by nematodes as they will continue to aid the nematode population. These should not be used for crop rotation with tomatoes.

Tomato skin splitting:
In general cherry tomatoes are easier to grow anywhere and specially in dry climates. Small and medium sized tomatoes also perform well here. Larger sized tomatoes (larger than 7oz) may run into some difficulty as the fruit ripens. The dry windy climate causes wider fluctuations in the soil and air moisture which may cause the tomato skin to split open. This happens very commonly in larger fruit size but rarely in small-medium size. Once the skin splits it exposes the fruit's inside to various insects specially ants common in our desert area. Heavy mulching and drip irrigation may reduce wide fluctuation in the soil moisture and may reduce some skin splitting but may not completely prevent it as the air still is quite dry. This does not mean that these larger varieties should not be tried at all. Every garden microclimate is different and it is always worth giving your desired variety a try at least once or twice.

Blossom end rot:
The bottom of the fruit appears rotten. This is not a insect or disease but rather an effect of multiple climate and nutrient factors. Problem with calcium absorption is a common cause. Our alkaline soil and hard water makes this problem specially prevalent. Instead of adding various chemicals and individual nutrients it is best to enrich the soil with organic matter. This will not only provide a balanced nutrition to the soil but will also help decrease the soil alkalinity. There are various soil ph reducing agents also available but again we may never know exactly how much is appropriate for the soil. Adding organic matter will automatically provide the right balance. Read more on organic gardening
General information and growing tips:

Tomatoes need plenty of organic matter in soil therefore always replenish the soil with compost. Some composted manure could also be added.
All tomatoes need full sun at least 6 hours a day but in our climate if the plants can get some shade during the hottest part of the day during summer ( after 3 pm ) the yield will better. This is not always possible in every home but do try to look for spots in the garden that can get some respite from the hot sun.
Tomatoes can also be grown in large pots (larger the pot, longer the tomato will last). There are smaller varieties which can be grown in small pots as well.

The two main types of tomatoes based on their growth pattern are indeterminate and determinate types. This would be stated on the label when you buy a plant or seed packet. The indeterminate type of plant continues to grow and produce indefinitely till it dies in the winter. Therefore the plants can get very tall and will need appropriately tall trellis or tomato cage. The determinate types vary in sizes but they grow only to a certain height, often creating a bushy plant. They, however, will also need support.

Best time to transplant tomatoes to ground are mid March through April. Any transplants later than mid May will not have time to develop good root system to withstand dry hot summer. These will be very susceptible to disease and insects. However, small container tomatoes can be started later as they can be protected from the afternoon sun by having the container in an appropriate location.

Here are some of the varieties that perform well in our climate:

Cherry tomatoes:

Sungold tomato: this is one of the best tasting cherry tomatoes. Orange in color, small round fruit, it is very productive from May all through summer and fall till it dies in the winter. Plants are usually available in sierra vista growers nursery in La union, NM. Seeds can be purchased from online seed companies.

Yellow pear: A yellow color pear shaped tomato, is a heavy producer and easy to grow. Plants are available at Sierra Vista Growers

Red pear: Similar in shape and size to yellow pear but is red in color

Husky Cherry: a determinate type, bushy plant that looks good in landscape and can be planted in mixed beds or large containers.

Chadwick cherry: a large cherry tomato, red, delicious and productive

Small - medium size tomatoes:

Taxi: A yellow tomato variety, delicious raw or cooked, performs very well and highly productive. Plants are available at Sierra Vista growers

Yellow Perfection: A heirloom variety, delicious tomato. Seeds available online

San Marzano: heirloom variety, a paste tomato

Rouge D' Irak: Acidic tomato good for cooking. Seeds available at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, online.