A quick guide to raising tomatoes in West Texas
I haven’t done an official poll, but if pressed, I would say that the favorite vegetable that home gardeners want to grow is tomatoes. Everyone has questions about tomatoes. Other than my son, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love a fresh-picked home-grown tomato.
Let’s talk about tomatoes in West Texas. It is possible to grow delicious tomatoes in the semi-arid heat of West Texas, but you need to understand tomatoes and the conditions in this area.
Fruit or Vegetable?
Technically, tomatoes are not a vegetable. Tomatoes scientifically are a fruit. However, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that tomatoes are vegetables.
Notwithstanding the legalities, we use tomatoes as both vegetables and fruits. Who cares anyway. The important thing is that we grow beautiful, fresh, delicious tomatoes.
Tomatoes are native to the Andes in South America. Areas of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile were visited by the Portuguese and Spanish explorers who brought the plants back to the Mediterranean, where they flourished and were quickly adopted as ornamentals. An interesting note is that the fruits of native tomatoes that grow high in the Andes don’t turn red. It was only when the plants were cultivated in the sunny Mediterranean climate and got more direct and intensive sunlight, that the fruits developed the high lycopene content that makes them red.
Coming Back Home
Tomatoes followed Europeans to North America but weren’t cultivated for their fruit as a food source until the early 1800s. They were considered an ornamental, and many people believed that tomatoes were a deadly poison. The true value of tomatoes was recognized in the early to mid-1800s and has become a staple in diets around the world.
Tomatoes don’t just come in your standard red. Tomatoes can be found in almost every color you can imagine, and some are multi-colored. Tomatoes are often classified by the shape of the fruit (cherry, Roma, beefsteak, etc.), by maturity date (early and late) and their growth habits (determinate or indeterminate).
The last is important for home gardeners as it will be a major factor in your garden planning. Determinate tomatoes tend to be compact plants that grow foliage, set fruit, and are then through for the season. Indeterminate tomatoes continue to grow all season, blossom and set fruit as long as growing conditions are favorable.
Art or Science?
Growing tomatoes in West Texas is not an art, as some people would have you believe. If you prepare your soil correctly, chose your variety for your space and conditions, and tend to your tomatoes properly, anyone can grow beautiful, delicious tomatoes.
Whether you sow seeds or are planting established seedlings, there are a few things to consider. Tomatoes love the sun and need 8 to 10 hours of direct sunlight a day. Choose your location carefully because, without adequate sunlight, tomatoes will not produce as expected.
If you are planting seeds, start indoors with a high-quality potting mix. The potted seeds need temperatures in the 70 to 75-degree range and should germinate in 6 to 10 days. When the seedlings have begun to put on their second set of leaves, it is advisable to start moving them to a location during the day where they can get direct sunlight without being exposed to wind. At least 6 hours of direct sunlight will help prevent the young plants from getting “leggy.” Plants will “reach” if there is inadequate light and grow long, thin stems. You want to avoid this if possible.
Depending on the size of the pots or trays in which you started your tomato seeds, you may need to repot at least once. You want your plants to be between 8 and 10 inches tall before you put them in your garden space. Bigger is not a problem, but space can be an issue.
You shouldn’t plan on moving your tomato plants outdoors into your garden until the night time temperature stays consistently above 50 degrees. You can replant earlier if you can protect the young plants with frost cloth, plastic, or some other kind of cover.
Trenching is a method of planting tomatoes that helps ensure a strong root structure and healthy plants. Instead of putting the plants in a hole the size of the pot, dig a trench deep enough to allow the root ball to be completely below ground. Pinch off the lower leaves of the tomato plant and lay it in the trench with the top cluster of leaves exposed and cover the rest of the plant and root ball. The tomato plant will establish roots from the leaf buds that you pinched off.
Soil is the Key
If you are unsure about the fertility of your soil (we suggest getting a soil sample tested, so you know exactly what is in your soil), apply a high-quality organic fertilizer as you plant. Be careful with the fertilizer. Too much nitrogen will result in your plants putting on vegetation and little fruit. In Lubbock, the soil is largely deficient in magnesium as well. We always give our tomato beds a dose of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) before planting each year and water it in well.
Once your tomato plants are established, they will need about 1 inch of water per week (more during extremely hot periods). We much prefer drip irrigation that applies the water slowly over a long period giving it a chance to soak into the soil rather than flooding the beds quickly.
We also suggest that once your tomato plants are well established that you mulch the beds heavily. Mulching helps retain moisture, control ground temperature, and control weeds.
You Plants will Tell you what they Need
Your plants will be the best gauge of when and if you need to add more fertilizer. Adding too much will cause your plants to produce lush green large foliage and not much fruit. If you follow our soil-based organics program, you will find that the plants have more than adequate available nutrients and that, left to on their own; they will maintain the best balance.
As the days in Lubbock get longer and hotter and the night’s stay warmer, you may notice that your tomatoes stop setting fruit. When daytime temperatures go over 90 degrees consistently or when nighttime temperatures are consistently over 75 degrees F, tomato plants will almost always refuse to set fruit. Don’t despair. Keep tending your tomatoes, and when the temperature ranges are again to the plant’s liking, they will again start to set fruit and will continue right into the fall, giving you a blessing of late-season fruit to enjoy.
Tomatoes in West Texas can be a challenge, but with a little perseverance and some good gardening practices you can grow an abundance of tomatoes in a wide range of varieties, shapes, and colors.
See our current year plant selection guide for suggesting varieties.
Links and Resources
For more information on gardening in West Texas, vegetables, or our organic system, visit our website at West Texas Organic Gardening.
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