RIO RANCHO, N.M. — We can’t wait to harvest that first gorgeous ripe tomato of the season. Just picture the beautiful rich red tomato in your hand as you head for the kitchen to slice it up. OK, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Let’s go through a few things that will help make that mental image a reality.
Selecting — There are thousands of tomato varieties. Cooking tomatoes are dense while fresh-eating tomatoes have lots of liquid. You can save the seeds from an open pollinating tomato but not from a hybrid one. There are numerous disease-resistant hybrid tomato varieties. Indeterminate tomatoes have a growth habit that is best described as a wild child (concrete reinforcing wire makes a strong cage for containing indeterminate varieties) while determinate tomatoes tend to be manageable bushes (though for some, the tomatoes tend to all come ripe at one time). Tomatoes come in a large range of sizes. If you want large beefsteak tomatoes, consider that they are a late-season variety (typically September). If you want fresh tomatoes in July and August, plant some smaller varieties as well. Local nurseries, such as Alameda Greenhouse, Jericho and others, carry both heirlooms and hybrid plants and seeds.
Growing — Tomatoes need sun, good draining soil and nitrogen. If you have sandy soil, simply add compost. If you have heavy clay, you might want to consider using raised beds or containers. While most tomato plant instructions tell us that tomatoes need full sun, those instructions are not talking about 5,000 feet in elevation and triple digits. Providing a bit of shade can help your tomatoes to set fruit throughout the summer. A simple structure over the plant with shade cloth can provide much needed relief.
Watering — Tomatoes need a consistent watering schedule. Blossom end rot (those black spots on the bottom of tomatoes) is attributed to a calcium deficiency that typically occurs when the plant is inconsistently watered. Drip or t-tape watering is an effective and efficient method. However you choose to water your plants, use mulch to maximize the benefits of watering. Overhead watering of plants is discouraged because it wastes water and can lead to diseases such as powdery mildew.
Protecting — If you plant before mid-May, be prepared to protect your tomatoes from a late frost. If you have put cages around your plants, you could simply drape a sheet over the plants to protect them from cold temperatures. One bite from the beet leafhopper can lead to the death of the plant. You can protect your plants with row cover, a lightweight material that will keep the leafhopper off your tomato. When you plant your tomatoes, wrap row cover around the cage (be sure to put your water system down first) and secure the top (you can use clothes pins) and put soil around the row cover at the bottom. Completely covering your tomato plants will keep the leafhopper at bay (tomatoes are wind-pollinated so the bees are not necessary). Once the plant grows out of the row cover, the leafhoppers are not in the great abundance they are earlier in the growing season.
The Sandoval County Master Gardeners have established a seed library at the Esther Bone Library (learn more at sandovalcountyseedlibrary.org) that contains seeds for plants that grow well in our conditions. You are welcome to select seeds (all are open pollinators), grow the plant and harvest seeds to return to the library. Check the Sandoval County Master Gardeners website (aces.nmsu.edu/county/Sandoval/mastergardener) for more information about coming classes. We also have a hotline to handle your gardening questions. Call 867-2582.