This time of year makes even the worst gardeners feel like horticultural magicians. You can grow almost anything right now. The cool season crops are still going strong and the warm season crops are starting to grow and produce. As temperatures warm up, you will want to increase watering frequency, especially on those windy, balmy days in April. For most crops, feeding with kelp meal is ideal. Get the water-soluble kind, which is much easier to get into the ground and, thus, to the root zone of your plants. As temperatures increase, aphids become a problem on some greens. Spray them off with water, or just pull them up. Sometimes a plant is telling you that it is done when it becomes susceptible to problems. Move on and plant some tomatoes.
For the backyard gardener, the king of all crops is the tomato. Tomatoes are very rewarding, provided you have acquired the appropriate variety for your purposes. They produce copiously—often the biggest challenge is in managing your yields and preventing waste. Few people would frown at the sight of an abundance of fresh tomatoes, but they also lend themselves to storage. You can dry them, make soups and freeze them, assemble salsas and sauces and can them, or even ferment them. Tomatoes don’t get boring with their countless variety. What is more, those tasteless store-bought tomatoes that were picked green and ripened with ethylene gas pale in comparison to even the most pedestrian variety of vine-ripened garden tomatoes.
First of all, if you get the timing down, you can grow any type of tomato in Baja Arizona. What you have to keep in mind is the timing of the variety. For example, most of the large-fruited varieties need to be planted out as soon as possible to take advantage of the fruiting window before the temperatures get too hot. When the highs get into the triple-digits, tomato flowers stop producing fruit. So if you have a variety that needs 80 days to mature, you should start them indoors in December or January and plant them out as soon as frost is no longer a threat (or if you plant them outside before then, protect young plants from frost).
If you are looking for varieties that are time-tested, go to your nearest plant nursery, where you’ll find Early Girl, Celebrity, Super Sweet 100, Yellow Pear, Husky Red, Roma, Golden Jubilee. These all produce well, without you having to set them out too early. But once you have played around with the standards, experiment with the many other amazing varieties out there. Be aware that some chains sell varieties not always appropriate for our seasons or climate (many are sourced from California). For example if you see Beefsteak tomatoes available in April, there probably isn’t enough time for that plant to produce fruits before the heat sets in—yet another reason to shop locally!
There isn’t enough space to discuss the variety of tomatoes in these pages—I could fill a book with tomato tidbits. But some varieties are better for slicing, some for drying, some for sauces; you will have to sleuth for yourself what works best for what you need—which is part of the fun of growing for yourself. Tomato varieties differ by color (yellow, pink, red, purple, almost black, striped) and shape (round, almost square, pear-shaped, oval, even warty). Indeterminate tomatoes, also called vining tomatoes, sprawl all over the place and need to be caged (see below) while determinate tomatoes are bushy, stout, need no staking, and are more suited for pots.
If you start from seed, it is best to start in pots, but be sure to keep them well watered. When the plants have grown three to five sets of leaves, you can transplant to your garden. Starting from seed allows you the widest array of choices. You are also certain of the history of your plant; that is, you know if it was sprayed with pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. If you don’t have the time to get things going from seed, purchasing plants from a local nursery suffices. There will be fewer varieties to choose from, but the choices are usually more time-tested and easy to grow. While you can grow almost any variety in Arizona, many varieties, like the nationally popular Beefsteak tomato, need more time and must be planted early.
When you are ready to plant in the ground, consider trying an old trick that will eventually help the plants be more sturdy and fruit more copiously (a trick that would kill many other garden plants). Snip off the lower leaves of your seedling, and plant it deeper. Seedlings will send out new roots from their stems. Most tomatoes are indeterminate and need stakes, cages, or some sort of support that doesn’t block the sun. I prefer the rectangular cages over the more common conical cages. Though more pricey, they are sturdier and last longer. Conical cages tend to collapse as the plants get big and loaded down with fruit.
Tomatoes prefer moderately rich garden soil, and benefit from a nice layer of mulch at the base. Plants do best when planted in full sun. As the heat of summer arrives, you can cast a bit of shade on them. But a smarter move is to pull up older plants and start new ones. Those newly planted plants will grow and start to fruit when the monsoon comes. Often, the smaller-fruiting plants, like cherry tomatoes and pear tomatoes, can produce even in the heat, especially if you give them a good layer of mulch and keep them watered.
Tomatoes can keep producing until the first frost, and plants that have been through a hot summer can sometimes find a second wind when the cooler temperatures of fall arrive. If they don’t, pull them up and plant something new.
If you haven’t planted your tomatoes yet, stop reading this. Go to your local plant nursery and pick up some plants. In just about a month, you will be making salsa or spaghetti sauce from scratch—or maybe you will just be popping yellow pear tomatoes into your mouth in the garden. Many tomatoes don’t make it to the kitchen!
Cool Season Crops: You can almost plant anything right now. Keep planting new successions of your favorite leafy greens, root crops, and cool season herbs, but select shorter season varieties—pay attention to how many days each variety needs to mature. Make sure you have enough time for your variety to mature and produce before temperatures stay in the triple digits. Look also for slow bolting or heat-resistant varieties, which are less likely to go to flower as the days get warmer. Some of those crops may tend to bolt (go to flower) when the temperatures get warm.
Warm Season Crops: Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, okra, tomatillo, corn, beans, basil, sunflower, potatoes, artichoke, Jerusalem artichoke, squash, melons, pumpkin, amaranth, cucumbers, gourd, horseradish, epazote, burdock, Malabar spinach, New Zealand spinach, roselle, sweet potato.
You can plant any perennial plants throughout the warm season. Just beware that the later you plant them, the more carefully you should monitor watering. Plant herbs like oregano, thyme, tarragon or lemongrass, fruit trees, artichoke, asparagus. ✜
Jared R. McKinley is the associate publisher of Edible Baja Arizona.