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Tomato Timing in the Desert

OK, this just feels weird, setting out tomato plants in November. But here in Palm Springs it is one of the recommended times, especially for Determinate types. I'm also trying one Indeterminate, Pineapple - one of my all-time favorites - just as an experiment. I'll start the rest of my Indeterminate heirlooms and tall hybrids around Christmas, setting them out in late February to get a crop before the killer summer temperatures and low humidity arrive in late June.

Last year, my first season here, I was surprised to discover that my most successful varieties were those that were developed for the far north - Glacier, Manitoba, Siberian, and Clear Pink Early. I only planted them because I still had seeds and wanted to try shorter varieties that could be grown in a small wire cage, no longer having a big garden area to work with.

I found Manitoba to be very productive, but a little too tall and the fruit was too mild-flavored for my taste. Clear Pink Early was, as usual, loaded with delicious thin-skinned sweet fruit and produced over an extended period of time - unusual for a Determinate type. Glacier and Manitoba both had a great number of tasty Ping-Pong ball size fruit, and when they slowed down their production I cut them back to 10-inch stems, just as an experiment. I was surprised when they re-grew into new bushes and bore fruit in July and August - a time of year here when you would not expect tomato plants to even survive (118-120 degree temperatures and 10-15% humidity).

Overall, I was somewhat disappointed with my tall Indeterminate types, but further soil modification should help. I'm adding much more organic matter (compost, steer manure, and peat moss), along with coarse sand. The soil and water here are alkaline, so the peat moss should help reduce the pH to a more neutral level. My sulfur is already on the high side, so I'd rather not add more of that. I did get fruit production, especially from the delicious Pink Girl, but not nearly the sort of heavy neighbor-giving harvest I'm used to. When the high heat season came, I removed all the tall types rather than trying to keep them alive during the summer months. At temperatures over 100, I could see that no new fruit were setting anyway.

So, why did the far-north varieties perform so well here in the desert, while standard types gave up? My theory is that tomatoes that have been bred to tolerate colder conditions in Canada or Russia or Alaska are not just more cold-tolerant, but tougher plants, period. I doubt that many growers in the deep south or desert areas have thought to try plants named "Glacier" or "Siberian"." If I didn't have the seeds, I would have chosen mostly varieties that claim to be heat-tolerant, like Heat Wave.

For those of you in the northern climate zones, I highly recommend getting ground-up leaves or other organic matter worked into the top layers of your garden soil (no need to till deeply) before it freezes solid. Come spring, they will have decomposed into worm-friendly soil nutrients. I've also found that earthworms absolutely love newspapers - especially the society section (joke). The cellulose and soy ink are true happy meals to them. I tear the paper into narrow strips and cover them with a light layer of soil in the garden bed. Add some trace minerals, some mycorrhizal fungi spores, a little dry organic fertilizer and you have the makings of a wonderful root environment.

This, of course, is only the sort of thing that home gardeners can do - not practical for large farms - but keep in mind that a home garden bed is not a farm, and you can do all sorts of "impractical" things to improve your soil conditions, things that farmers only wish they could do.

Whenever I've moved, I've left behind highly-productive garden soils and lush low-input lawns with strong populations of beneficial organisms - mycorrhizal fungi colonies, nutrient-producing bacteria, and scores of earthworms. It's really not that hard to set up a healthy organic soil system, and your tomatoes will appreciate the effort (not to mention the beans, squash, lawn, fruit trees, flowers, shrubs, streams, lakes and underground water supplies).

Good growing, my friends,
Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics

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