Growing the Desert Garden

Welcome to the Desert Garden, with garden coach Tyler Storey, where we talk about everything having to do with gardening and landscaping in the Desert Southwest. From composting to Cercidium and agaves to arugula — we'll cover everything you want to know to grow your own beautiful Desert Garden.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Winter Tomato Protection

The following note from a Phoenix, Arizona, correspondent was signed "The Duchess of Windsor." I have my doubts, but then you don't mess with anyone crazy enough to grow tomatoes in the middle of Winter:

Although I have never grown tomatoes before as a fall crop, something came over me in September and I bought 2 large tomato plants (Early Girl & Champion). They had a blooming frenzy in October and between them are now loaded with at least 100 tomatoes that are trying to ripen. They are very low, compact, partially hang only inches above a brick patio and have had frost cloth every night since the late December chill (on advice from Baker Nursery). Is there anything else I can do to nurse them along?
Your Grace,
As you're discovering, it's a challenge bordering on impossibility to grow and ripen tomatoes in the deep cold of the Desert winter. Tomatoes are firmly tropical plants, and of the closely related eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes, tomatoes are the least hardy. That having been said, I always applaud experimentation in the garden, and we don't ever know if we don't at least try.

You can keep them alive with some effort, but we simply don't have the heat and sunlight to ripen the fruit. Frost cloth over compact plants next to a brick patio sounds like the ideal micro-climate, though you want to be certain to remove the cloth during the warm and sunny days, replacing it again at night. The more heat and sunlight the plants get, the more likely the fruit is to ripen.

For a little added protection, you might consider placing one or two light bulbs under the frost cloth, for added heat on cold nights. Be certain to use outdoor-rated cords and fixtures, and don't get the bulbs so close to the plants that they might burn them.

Your second option is to find a good recipe for fried green tomatoes; I used to make those a lot when I lived in Washington, D.C., they go particularly well with catfish and cornbread, and it's an excellent way to use up all the bacon grease in that little container on the back of your stove.

I hope this helps,


Anonymous said...

stshoWe garden in Bullhead City, AZ and have wonderful tomatoes. However, we built a "cold frame" to protect them in the coldest part of the winter. Our tomatoes did beautifully.

Anonymous said...

I am in central Phoenix and have quite a nice crop of tomatoes that I started October/November. They did die back in December (while I was gone)but with a sheet thrown over them at night with some Christmas lights underneath, they grew right back and I have eaten some already. They are now loaded with flowers and the bees are humming around. I chose Stupice and Hawaiian Tropic both indeterminate.

Tyler Storey said...

This last comment is from my friend Inese, who also sent along pictures of her thriving tomato plants. A cold frame, or more-makeshift covers and lights, can work very well for overwintering tomatoes in the desert, and give you a head start on the Spring crop.

Tyler Storey said...
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