People new to gardening or to gardening in the desert are often surprised to learn there are actually two opportunities to grow tomatoes in this climate. The main season, early spring, is when most tomato planting takes place. The lengthening of days and a long spring season are ideal growing conditions. But, the second season can be a boon to tomato lovers as well.
In mid-August there is a short window for planting tomatoes that will grow through fall, ripen (with weather permitting), and go into the spring season. The trick is to choose varieties that set fruit and ripen quickly and to cross your fingers for a mild, frost-free winter. It can sometimes be very challenging to get tomatoes to ripen before March when they are planted in the fall. You should have good luck with “Russian” varieties, and “Cold” varieties that set and ripen quickly, even in cold weather. You should also consider planting varieties with medium and small size fruit.
Like every other tomato, these varieties are not frost tolerant, but they will set and produce under cold weather conditions. You should also aim to plant seedlings that have been started locally and have been grown outside in all-day sun exposed to heat, monsoon moisture and high winds. These will be ready to take off when planted.
If a frost warning hits, make sure to cover these plants well with frost cloth.
We’ve heard lots of gardeners talk about the tricks they use to get fall season tomatoes to ripen. Some cut the tomato vines from the plant before a cold spell and hang them in a dark place, like a garage. Other say they’ve picked the fruit, put it in a box inside the house and the ripening happens over time. Other gardeners have had success just leaving the fruit on the plant. We’d love to hear your tips, too. Please feel free to comment!
Southwest Gardener will have its Fall Tomato Plant Sale on Sunday, August 20. Click for more information.