Tomatoes For the High Desert

Sierra Vista, AZ(Zone 8b)

I'd like to get a thread going to discuss tomato varieties that do well—or not--in the high desert regions of the Southwest. I'm in Zone 8b at 4,760 feet (SE AZ). We're fairly dry, though we had good winter and summer rains last year, but we've had no rain since early-mid September. The coldest its been in our three winters of living here has been 22°F. Summer highs typically in the 90s, rarely over 100°F. It's VERY windy March through May/June. I grow tomatoes in 2 foot diameter cages, five feet high, made from concrete reinforcing mesh (six-inch square mesh) and I use drip irrigation. Other than losing a few plants to early curly top virus in 2009 (the lesson there is to get rid of wild growing London Rocket (a beet leaf hopper host)), I don't have any disease problems to speak of. Even hornworms haven't been an issue. My experiences over the last two summers:

Brandywine, various types—lovely, big plant, zero tomatoes. I want to grow them, but feel it's pointless in my climate. I hope someone can change my mind.
Stupica (2010 only)—Did well. Small tasty tomatoes, advertised as cold tolerant, but seems heat tolerant, too.
Celebrity—Does well. Lots of cracking in 2009. Mine tend to be small.
Early Girl—Does well. Mine tend to be small.
Giant Belgium—Did well in 2009, not in 2010 (2010 probably my fault). Beautiful, very big, tasty 'maters and good production.
Paul Robeson (2010 only)--Very lush plant, the foliage was so dense it looked like a brain (strange sounding but accurate description), zero tomatoes or flowers.
Wapsipinicon Peach—Small yellow, fuzzy tomatoes, very tasty although somewhat soft/mushy. Very productive.
Beam's Yellow Pear—Overly abundant and reliable, not the best tasting but fine in a salad or popped into your mouth right in the garden.
Gold Medal (2009 only)--Great big, tasty, beautiful tomatoes, low yield.
Sweet Pea Currant—Very productive and good tasting tiny tomato (a half inch or less in diameter). Plant sprawls all over; mine were nearly eight feet across. Grew out of the cage rather than up it. Good for popping or salads.
Japanese Black Trifele (2009 only)--Productive, tasty. Mine tended to crack a lot.
Orange Fleshed Purple Smudge (2009 only)—Attractive tomato, reasonably productive, poor taste.
Tommy Toe—Large cherry type. Tasty and productive. One of my favorites.
Cherokee Purple—Great tomato, not very productive.
Black Krim—Not very productive, lots of cracking and deformity.
Burpee Tomande (2010 only)--Good production, big, red, tasty tomatoes
Burpee Red October—Smallish but tasty tomatoes, Good production.
Sun Gold—Small, tasty, very productive cherry type. Another favorite.
Henderson's Pink Ponderosa—Nice big tasty tomatoes, fair production.
Burpee 4th of July—Nice, tasty smallish tomato. Minimal cracking.

What I'm really hoping for is discussion of varieties, escpecially heirlooms, that are reasonably tolerant of high desert growing conditions, as well as recommendations of what's not worth growing. For me, the most promising candidates to date are Giant Belgium, Black Trifele, Pink Ponderosa, and Tomande (a hybrid) I hope we can get a lot of information gathered from folks in similar climates and zero in on the most promising varieties for the high desert. I'm posting this in both here and in the “Tomatoes” forum to attract a (hopefully) wider audience. Thanks for contributing!

Phoenix, AZ

I don't know nuthin about Tomato's. just wanted to say..

Phoenix, AZ(Zone 9b)

Hello Willy, We have some serious tomato growers on this forum. I'm serious but not as successful as I would like to be. I think it's the short growing season......the soil is too cold to plant until Feb or March, then we get triple digits by May............Ugh.

Last year however I had results with some seeds from Jayne (rtl850nomore), they were Mexicana and are a paste type of tomato. A very vigorous grower, I probably got 20#'s or more.

All the cherries do well for me and I especially like Black Cherry.

Here at the McFarm, there was a problem with BER in one bed that had some nice plants and fruit, but BER took all the fruit.

Others will be along with input, although Jayne is traveling through the rest of this month so I wouldn't expect her before early Dec.

Welcome, and thanks for starting the thread. I've not heard of too many of those in your list...........jeez, the varieties are endless it seems. Here's a meager harvest of toms. I have good luck growing lots of different squash and many, many hot chili peppers.

Thumbnail by MaryMcP
Glendale, AZ

I had some fo the same problems you had when we lived on the island. I have several types of seed packages left. Most of my seeds are from Tomato Growers. I would be happy to mail you any or all of them. I do not have the yard/garden here that I used to have so my seeds are stored in the frig.

Crossville, TN

Hi neighbor...and WELCOME!!

You are the only person I know who refers to the small 'maters as Tommy Toe!!

I'm from WV and VA...and I can't grow tomatoes...among MANY more everyone here can tell you...but I sure am a friendly sort of old lady. Jo

Murfreesboro, TN(Zone 7a)

Greetings ~

Hi, Jo - Been YEARS, it seems, but I'm back. Good to "see" you again!

Here are some threads that might be helpful for that desert tom thing...

Been a few years since I tried to challenge the desert for tomatoes. Now that the hens have been making me good compost for a few years and I've been importing dirt here and ther, my garden area is no longer pure sand. So I'm going to give it a go again this year. After reading several threads here, I've decided to try a two front aproach - plant early (and risk hail, frost and snow), and go small - cherry/grape (small and closer to "wild"?). I'm also going to try the afternoon shade thing and plant most of them west of my sunflowers and corn.

In the past I've been moderately successful with

Yellow Pear

This year I am going to "run trials" and try a whole bunch. At the least, they make nice green bushes :-)

Yellow Pear
Broad Ripple Yellow Current
Clint Eastwood's Rowdy Red (Couldn't resist the name!) - small slicing
Hawaiian Current
Texas wild - small fruited - figured with a name like that, maybe it would like our temps, too?
Red Pear
Red Cherry
Sweet 100 VF, F1
Roma VF
Pomodra Roma Nano
Galcier - early maturing type similar to Alaska
Early Girl

To get early toms, I always seem to plant out at least one or two too early - even if I wait until June some years! So I always figure the first few in the ground will get sacrificed to the Weather Gods ;-)

Sierra Vista, AZ(Zone 8b)

Hi Roadrunner. Yes, we must be pretty close neighbors! Pardon my denseness, but what do you mean by "only person I know that refers to the small 'maters as Tommy Toe"? The seed catalog I ordered them from (Seed Savers Exchange, I think) labeled the variety as "Tommy Toe". Enjoy the chill and wind tonight and tomorrow! No more 'maters this year!

kmom246--You should have yellow pears coming out your ears. They are a really heavy producer, for me, anyway, and they never quit once they start. Even the heat doesn't seem to bother them.

Crossville, TN

Hi KMom...when ya coming down this way to visit me??

Willy, when I was a the dark ages and in grandpa planted Tommy Toes...right next to the path we kids took to play in the orchard...we kept a salt shaker in a little tin box so we could eat to our hearts content...with grandpa's blessing. Maybe that was the only kind we had, but I've never heard anyone use that name before.....

Are you in the Army? If you go to the Farmer's Market on Thursday's you can meet one of DG members, Sue...they have a booth in the corner next to The Palms and Wilcox....Grammysgardenaz.


Sierra Vista, AZ(Zone 8b)

Roadrunner--I do go to the FM in SV and I do sometimes buy from Grammy's Garden. They sold me the first Cherokee Purple I ever ate, so it's clearly their fault that I am hooked on/obsessed with growing my own stupendous 'maters. :«)

Tommy Toes are really a great tomato--large for a cherry (perfect for skewering on a kabob), tasty and prolific. My goal, though, is to find something equivalent to a Cherokee Purple, which does OK here, but hasn't been a heavy yielder. I may just need to settle for lesser yields and compensate by planting more CPs.

Crossville, TN

Thanks, Willy....the next time you see Sue tell her you just joined DG!! We are like a secret society...but no secret handshake....LOL Jo

Murfreesboro, TN(Zone 7a)

Hi, Jo ~ Good to be back at Dave's Garden. My husband joined the National Guard in Dec 2008 after being out of the Marines for nearly 20 years. He spent a year in Afghanistan and came home this past Spring. We are so blessed - the whole unit of over 700 all came back safe (some minor injuries, but nothing near life-threatening). Some guys buy little red sports cars for their mid-life crisis - mine joined the Army :-)

Crossville, TN

Tell him to transfer to Ft. Huachuca///you'll love it. Jo

Sierra Vista, AZ(Zone 8b)

One variety that I've had recommended a couple of times is Purple Calabash. Have any of you had any experience with it in hot, dry climates?

Mesa, AZ

I have enjoyed great success with Juliet and Sweet 100 for several years. Last year I tried Nichols, a pink cherry heirloom from southern AZ. It did great and is still out there, chugging along. I kept some seeds and have 4 more growing in the front flower garden- get enough sun this time of year, while the veggie garden is iffy from a sun point of view. Though the original Nichols is still there and doing well. I also had a yellow tomato- but don't recall the name.
I saw an ad for Florida Swamp tomatoes, which sounded very interesting. So I ordered a packet and now have 4 little pots growing in the kitchen window. Said they can take the dry heat without kicking over or splitting, so what the heck, I'll give them a try.
(I only grow tomatoes, I don't like to eat them. :) I have 2 grandsons who are tomato freaks, so they get eaten quickly. The grandsons voted Juliet as the best tomato they have ever eaten, but then they are only 6 and 11 and before only got store bought tomatoes....
I think I will try the Sweet Pea Currants- that sounds interesting.
Thanks for all the info


Sierra Vista, AZ(Zone 8b)

Birdlady_Susie--I think you will have good luck with Sweet Pea Currant--just give them plenty of space and remember they are tiny (but tasty). They might be a good way to start liking tomatoes since they are small. BTW, we moved to Sierra Vista from Mesa in 2008; we lived near Power and McDowell. Glad to be out of the heat, but miss family that remains behind. Also miss the Valley restaurants and such.

Has anyone got any experience with Kellogg's Breakfast Tomato; I'm seeing lots of positive references to them.

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

Susie ~ I have tried the Florida Everglades tomato and still have a pot of it in the GH. I actually was not impressed with the taste and the fruit is the tiniest I've ever seen. I will be curious to hear what your grandboys think. LOL

Phoenix, AZ(Zone 9a)

Willy, Kellogg's Breakfast is on my try list for this year. I have heard good reports so it made the list for 2011 - lol.

Sierra Vista, AZ(Zone 8b)

Locakelly--I'm with you, I received my packet of Kellogg's, along with Giant Belgium, a few days ago. Some are still to be ordered: Black Krim, Opalka, Omar's Lebanese, Arkansas Traveler (just Traveler per Farmerdill), Cowlick's Brandywine (thanks, Amideutch--from the Tomatoes forum). Thanks to all of you who have commented and let's hear from those who haven't. Can't have too much of a good thing!

Phoenix, AZ(Zone 9a)

Oooooooooohhhhh - thanks for reminding me about the Giant Belgium... A DG friend from Louisiana sent me some seeds to try.

Crossville, TN

For Christmas my DD bought me two of those "up-side-down" tomatoe things...since all of you know of my reputation for NOT growing things...what TWO will grow best up side down?? I would like one of the "Tommy Toe" types for one of them. Please help. Jo

Phoenix, AZ(Zone 9a)

Jo - I found this on a site one time when I was looking at those planters or good varieties for hanging baskets...

Smaller vined, determinate tomato varieties work well. Celebrities and Roma tomatoes work well, and Patio tomatoes have been favorites for years for growing in containers. Some folks have reported success with Tomato Tumbler, Tomato Garden Pearl, and Tomato Yellow Pigmy.

Recently there are a few new hybrids that are being marketed for growing specifically in hanging tomato baskets. These include Window Box Roma, Micro Tom, Basket Boy Yellow, Basket Boy Red.

Here in Phoenix though I don't know too many people real lucky growing in them. I think they dry out too quickly.

Phoenix, AZ(Zone 9b)

Black Cherry - yum's my upside down (Down Under) planter. Pic was taken just the other day. It was planted around Halloween (I think) and brought inside during the cold snaps. It seems very happy. But Kelly is right, you gotta keep it watered.

Another tip: I found the plants do better if you let the roots get well developed before up-ending it.

Thumbnail by MaryMcP
Crossville, TN

Thanks for the advice....It will be a while before I will be able to start any, then I guess the order of the day is to keep the water hose nearby...and have a quick trigger on it. LOL Jo

Mesa, AZ

Maybe one of those aqua bottle things or something similar that will water every day when it gets low? Knowing how quickly it gets hot and how pots can dry out every day, a gallon milk jug with a very small hole in the bottom, set on the top of the planter and refilled everyday may be a cheap and better alternative... :)

(edited for spelling/context, because some of my fingers, along with portions of my brain, were not at full conscious mode when I typed the above)

This message was edited Jan 14, 2011 8:54 AM

Crossville, TN

Susie...What a great idea! Thanks.. Lazy Jo

Gilbert, AZ(Zone 9b)

I know very little about tomatoes in the SW but I used to work at Motorola with a bunch of engineers that were so serious about growing them that you would think it was their religion. I happen to be a major snob when it comes to tomatoes after growing up with a massive garden in the rich soil of New Jersey. We always had the most amazing tomatoes (I remember them to be Manalucia) that I have yet to taste an equal. Each morning in the summer involved walking out to the garden, grabbing a nice large tomato, and slicing it on white bread with S&P, Mayo, and lettuce. What a treat!

The parts I picked up at MOT was that Early Girl worked best in the PHX area (9b) if you started them indoors then planted them once about 8 inches tall. They said you had to bury half of the stem which made sure that the roots would be very deep in the ground. The soil had to be amended and tilled with organic matter to unpack the clay. Raised beds work well. This would protect them from the heat and because Early Girl produced very quickly, you would have nice output before the major heat came.

Figured I would throw in my $0.02 in case it helps anyone. Good luck, I will stick to cacti until I retire :)

Gilbert, AZ(Zone 9b)

Oh and I forgot the most important part - Thanks WillyFromAZ for sharing your knowledge. I saved your info in a file in case I decide to try my hand at this. Great Summary!

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