Of all the crops you can grow in Tucson, tomatoes are probably the most useful crop. You can use them fresh, jar/can them, make them into sauces, sun dry them, and if you give them away, you won’t get that look. You know, that I Don’t Know What To Do With These look. That is, unless you give them to someone else growing the same sort of tomato. Plus there is just no replacement for fresh tomatoes. Let’s face it: store bought tomatoes suck if you have had the pleasure of garden-grown tomatoes.
The variety is great too. You can grow the copious producing cherry or pear tomatoes, large celebrity tomato (Sorry folks, beefsteak tomatoes are sort of a waste of time and won’t produce too much in our climate unless you start them REALLY early). You can grow roma tomatoes or even some of the heirloom types of which there are endless varieties. One of my favorite sources for tomato seed is Totally Tomatoes which offers a huge variety. Not all varieties will be appropriate for our climate, but most of them will do all right, especially if you plan to start the longer season varieties ahead of time (start planting seeds inside in January). All the varieties offered by Native Seed/SEARCH are appropriate.
Plan out how much space you have and schedule WHEN you will plant WHAT. Some parts of your garden might be ready right away. Other parts are probably ready later when you harvest whatever winter crop might be finishing up. Plan this out. Save the small cherry types and short season tomatoes for later. Plant more of the longer season tomatoes as soon as you have the space (after January).
Plant seed in January inside the house, near a window or under a grow light. There is a grow light source right in downtown Tucson (on 402 N. 4th Ave) called Sea Of Green which I suggest for starting seeds indoors. You can also put together a cold frame. If you are really lucky and have a greenhouse, you probably are pro enough that you don’t need to be told how to start seed on time.
If you plant out your tomato starts in February, be sure you have a plan to protect from the cold. Think about building a small, portable frame of cloth that will cover plants without crushing them. Weigh any sort of frost protection down so that winds don’t render your work pointless.
Also, don’t expect a lot of visible activity. While it is smart to start things early, plants will not necessarily show you visible results. However, they are growing, mostly under the ground. At some point they will EXPLODE.
When you plant tomato plants. they should have a few sets of leaves. Snip off the lower few leaf sets. Plant them a few inches deeper than they were planted in containers. They will send out more roots and this will help them be very prepared for when temperatures get really warm.
Mulch the bases of tomato plants well. This will also help them grow well into the season. Also, provide a means of support for your plants. In general there are determinate plants and indeterminate plants. Determinate plants will need little staking or support, maybe just a simple bamboo stake. Indeterminate plants can grow VERY tall. There are a number of ways to support them when they get tall: A-Frames, tomato cages, and lots of other creative methods. Be sure that whatever you do, it’s a sturdy idea. Just because you purchase what is sold as a “tomato cage” does not mean it’s going to be appropriate. I have had tomato plants grow so massive, they have destroyed smaller tomato cages. I love the large rectangular folding frames. They are usually sturdier than the common cone-shaped most nurseries sell. These frames
can also help you cover crops well from frost by providing a structure that you can drape cloth onto–they prevent younger plants from being crushed by frost cloth.
When you prepare the soil, some bone meal and manure would be great. Make sure the
mix favors phosphorus. Too much nitrogen will yield leafy plants that won’t produce much fruit (in other words, lite on the manure, heavy on the bone meal). To keep plants thriving, feed with occasional fish emulsion and kelp (stay away from the liquid kelp that has sulfur. Sulfur isn’t friendly to microorganisms. Too much fish emulsion will give too much nitrogen, so don’t go crazy. Make sure you have lots of well-made compost.
Give plants a LOT of room. Tomato plants are notorious for overwhelming the whole garden. The indeterminate types (which is most tomatoes, really) get HUGE. You might want to do some pinching to encourage more branching. Pinch and remove suckers that develop in the crotch joint of two branches. They won’t bear fruit and will take energy away from the rest of the plant. But go easy on pruning the rest of the plant. You can also pinch branches to let light in when they get big. They can tend to shade themselves out sometimes. Remove lower leaves. When plants are about 3 feet tall, remove much of the lower third of leaves. Those lower branches don’t produce much fruit and they usually just harbor more disease and assist insects into the plant. Also, for the first 4-6 weeks, pinch off any flowers. They don’t need to be flowering this early.
Plants like full sun. Yes, even in Tucson. You can provide a light filter of sun above, but you don’t NEED to. Yes, plants will sometimes get a little yellow, especially when summer really gets hot. But plants will often stop fruiting during this time anyway. My suggestion is to pull up plants at this point. Compost them, and start a new crop in early august or even late July. They often will produce into the winter right up until they succumb to frost.
Keep an eye on plants. Tomato hornworms are gigantic green caterpillars that can devour a tomato plant. They are easy to pick off and if you are not squeamish, squish underfoot. Green lacewing, Trichogramma parasitic wasps and ladybugs eat the eggs of most moths and can be preventative measures (and are effective against many other pests in the garden as well. You can get these guys from Arbico. There are a few options for caterpillars when they are big, but really just picking them off is best. They can be hard to see because they are green, so be thorough.
Corn beans, dill, fennel, kohlrabi and potato are bad companions that share pest problems and/or release compounds into the soil that tomatoes don’t care for. Basil and marigold are excellent companions and attract beneficial insects. Tomato hornworms dislike the smell of basil.
You might also want to protect fruit from birds with some bird netting. Keeping plants picked clean of ripe fruit not only promotes plants to produce more, they also prevent plants from having overripe and/or damaged fruits from attracting pests that will compete with you for more fruit.
For me, the smell of tomato plants equals happiness. I mean it. When I have had a stressful work day, or had too much to drink the night before, getting out into the garden while tomato plants are growing is always therapeutic. There is something about the olfactory impact they have on me that feels right. I have always regretted seasons where I missed growing at least a few tomato plants.