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This might be the year that you start growing your own – vegetables.

Getting your spring garden ready can be as simple or as complex as you want. You are the master of your garden; it’s your own little piece of paradise.

When people talk about putting in a garden, I’ve found they’re mostly thinking about growing something tasty. Yes, flowers are fine, and we love to see them, but aren’t we all really looking for the perfect tomato? You know, one that’s juicy, lipstick red and tastes like heaven? I’m sure some folks, especially kids, have never tasted a perfect tomato, or can hardly remember how the flavor would explode in your mouth. Maybe this is the year.

If you’ve looked through a seed catalog lately, you probably noticed all the pages and pages of different tomato cultivars. Huge, tiny, smooth, puckered, round or pear formed, even the shapes are diverse. Now you can get many that do become a brilliant red, but look at the yellows, pinks, even striped ones, especially since heirloom varieties are becoming more popular.

You must remember, in the Mojave Desert we have a peculiar set of growing conditions. In New York and other cold places, we used to plant tomatoes in June. Don’t try that here.

Tomatoes are warm season crops, not hot season. When it’s too hot or too cold, the plants’ll suffer. The plants (not seeds) should go in the ground by the end of March, beginning of April. As long as nighttime temperatures are between about 50 and 65° they should do well.

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Because the seasons here go from extreme to extreme, the best tomato choices are usually ones with smaller fruits. They don’t have to be cherry or grape tomatoes; but look for ones that don’t get bigger than about two inches in diameter, with shorter growing times.

You notice I call them fruits. In botany, the plant creates something that holds and protects or nourishes the seeds; that’s the fruit. Yes, tomatoes are fruits and vegetables.

Often the very biggest of the beefsteak types will get large, but won’t ripen properly. When it’s 90° or more, and the sun is blindingly bright, you can wind up with sad, poached, blistered fruits.  They might even be bleached to a pathetic, greenish, white.

Another problem you might see happens when the fruits look perfectly ripe, except for a hard black patch on the bottom. This is “blossom end rot” and it’s not a disease. It can occur if the variety isn’t well suited for this environment, or if it didn’t get quite enough water soon after pollination. Those first few cells didn’t develop properly, but the rest of them are fine. The tomato is ok; just cut off the damaged part. Likewise if you see cracks. Simply remove that part – it’s sun damage.

The smaller types generally ripen before temperatures reach triple digits.

Now, it’s not just time and temperature that makes the difference with tomatoes. Every year, we get calls at the Master Gardener help line from people who tell us about their large, bushy tomato plants. Sounds good at first, but those large, bushy tomato plants only have leaves, no fruit. Nobody grows tomatoes for their leaves. So how can this happen?

By being too kind and generous – overfertilizing.

Giving the plant high doses of nitrogen induces leaf production and interferes with flowering. No flowers, no tomatoes.

This doesn’t mean you don’t fertilize. Just don’t apply excess nitrogen. That’s the first number on any fertilizer container. Once flowers begin to appear, try increasing the second and third numbers. The second is phosphorus, which is so important for flowers and roots. We always forget about roots, and we shouldn’t.

The third number’s potassium. Potassium is essential for water movement within the plant. It’s also a major player in the ripening process.

In general, look for smaller varieties with shorter growing periods. You can even give them some shade; that’ll extend your season.

Tomatoes can be frustrating, certainly, but so delicious. Definitely worth the effort.

For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

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