Tomatoes are popular in Las Vegas gardens. Along with being popular, they are also finicky.
I’ll be giving an in-depth seminar on tomatoes at 8:30 a.m. Saturday and March 10 at the Springs Preserve, 333 S. Valley View Blvd., to show you how to conquer these challenges. In years past, this seminar filled up, so call 822-7700 to reserve your seat.
Most Las Vegans brought their tomato-growing tricks from elsewhere and attempted to employ them here. In most cases, they encounter frustration and disappointment.
Forget the past. You live in a desert where temperatures exceed 100 degrees during the day and stay above 75 degrees at night. Tomatoes hate these temperatures so protest by aborting blossoms. Flowers also abort when temperatures dip below 55 degrees in the spring. To conquer these temperatures, plant them before April 1.
Because of our hot weather, Las Vegas has a short growing season for tomatoes, so select short-season varieties. I hear good reports about Celebrity, Early Girl, Brandywine, Champion, Heat Wave, Better Boy, Hawaiian, Heartland, Patio and a host of cherry tomatoes. Your nursery has its favorites, too. Plant more than one variety to increase your chances of success.
There are two kinds of tomatoes: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate or bush tomatoes grow to a compact height, set fruit and ripen within two or three weeks. Patio is a classic example. Indeterminates produce fruit throughout the season. Early Girl is a typical example.
You can plant hybrids or heirlooms. Hybrids bring qualities from one parent and cross it with another, improving it and bringing lots of vigor into the hybrid for one reason or another. Heirlooms are open-pollinated and their seeds have been handed down for generations. They are generally extremely favorable. Brandywine is the usual example.
Tomatoes need highly organic soil. If you use native soil, expect fewer and smaller tomatoes.
There is no substitute for organic matter to amend your soil. It opens your soil, provides drainage, encourages soil microorganisms, regulates soil temperature, holds moisture for future use and becomes a nutrient storehouse. Nurseries sell this organic gold.
Seed packets tell you to plant tomatoes in a sunny location. For best results, plant them where they receive morning sun and afternoon shade. I also cover mine with a 60 percent shade cloth to prevent fruit sunburning and deter leafhoppers. It also raises the humidity. Or plant your tomatoes in pots to protect them from the sun’s rays.
Here is a way to hasten maturity. Dig a 6-inch trench and lay plants in the trench keeping leaves exposed. The shallow, warm soil stimulates rooting along the stems for earlier blooming.
Because of our unpredictable spring weather, cover the soil around plants with plastic. As the weather warms, mulch your plants to cool your soil through the summer.
Gardeners are afraid to fertilize tomatoes for fear of aborting flowers. This is true, but I find them aborting because plants are starving. To cope with this, I spray mine with a soluble fertilizer such as “Super Bloom” every two weeks. It has all the necessary nutrients to keep your plants producing.
As mentioned, tomatoes abort flowers if temperatures drop below 55 degrees. When this happens, I spray mine with tomato blossom fruit set.
You may need to assist tomatoes to set more fruit as temperatures climb into the 90s. Direct a jet of water at the blossoms. The moisture raises the humidity and lowers the temperatures and at the same time dislodges the pollen to pollinate the fruit. Once temperatures get above 95 it is just too hot to set fruit.
Now for the tough months: June, July and August. The heat really knocks tomatoes for a loop. Their blooms abort until it cools in September. Or in late July, cut your tomatoes back halfway or plant new tomatoes for a fall crop.
Keep soil moist, but not waterlogged. It’s amazing how long tomatoes can go between waterings when deeply irrigated. If tomatoes show signs of wilt, irrigate. I place drippers by each plant and if I see stress, the drippers get water fast.
Don’t plant too many tomatoes. A family of four who loves tomatoes needs about six plants.
Yes, growing good tomatoes in Las Vegas is challenging, but you’ll succeed if you perform a few desert tricks.
Linn Mills’ garden column appears on Sundays. You can reached him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 526-1495.