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Thu, Dec. 05

How to grow the best tasting tomatoes ever

Courtey/Metro Graphics

Courtey/Metro Graphics

This weekend is the Home & Garden Show at Tim's Toyota Center. I am scheduled to share garden tips between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Sunday, but I plan to stay as long as folks are stopping by to chat. So come visit with me, ask all the gardening questions you like, and then check out all the latest home and garden stuff that will be on display. There will be lots of gadgets and supplies to help make homes beautiful all over Yavapai County. Hope to see you there.

My wife and I love fresh salsa, not that stuff from New York City. I'm talking freshly picked from the garden, chop it, and put it on a chip, salsa. Consequently, our vegetable garden is dedicated to growing the makings of good salsas. All summer we have tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, parsley and onions ready for the picking. Tomatoes are the most important salsa ingredient so I this week I'm sharing my experience for growing the very best local tomatoes.

Regardless of where you garden, if you want great tomatoes, you must pick the best variety for your area. In Yavapai County, I've had the best luck with any vines that produce small- to medium-sized fruits. Cherry, Sweet 100 and yellow pear are small tomatoes that ripen early and yield heavy crops.

Medium-sized varieties ripen in mid season and also produce abundant yields. My favorite for salsa is Early Girl. For good eating, slicing tomatoes, I like Champion, Patio, Better Boy and Celebrity, but there are others that do just as well.

Tomatoes are one of those rare plants that will root from the vine; so plant them deep in the ground. I select tall plants that have nice foliage at the top, then pick off all the lower stems and leaves. As a result, a two-foot tall plant might have only 6 inches showing above ground and 18 inches planted below the soil's surface. I've found that vines planted like this and watered consistently develop large root masses, and we all know that more roots equal more fruits.

Consistent moisture is essential for outstanding tomatoes. I use soil polymers, white crystals that absorb 200 times their weight in water. They're like tiny sponges. I sprinkle a couple of tablespoons at the bottom of each planting hole. At your garden center, ask for soil polymers or soil moist granules. These water-absorbing crystals also work really well for all container grown plants.

Phosphate promotes more and larger tomatoes. I use Super Phosphate. This granular powder is not water-soluble so it needs to be worked into the soil where roots will be growing. I work it into the bottom of each hole. I've found that "phosphated" tomatoes are larger and better tasting. This additive has the same effect on peppers, too.

I water in each plant with Root Stimulator to encourage the rooting process and to stimulate new growth.. I also give each plant a palmful of ferilome's Start-N-Grow plant food. Just this small amount easily feeds the plant until mid summer.

Finally, I top-dress each vine with a 2-3 inch layer of shredded bark to reduce the effect of summer heat, discourage weeds, and to increase water retention around each plant. Then I stand back out of the way and watch these vines take off with accelerated growth that will produce many pounds of tomatoes.

Over a week ago, I planted some large one-gallon tomato plants and already see tomatoes forming on the vines. This is a welcome sight to salsa lovers facing the rising cost of tomatoes!

I like to have some fun in my vegetable garden, so I planted some rambling petunias and irises at the front of my vegetable bed. They add a wonderful fragrance to the garden and also attract bees which increase pollination. I also will add some marigolds because they repel many of the insects that are known to munch on vegetable plants. I like the fun of adding color to my vegetable garden, especially when those flowers will benefit my veggie plants.

I have to mention a plant that garden center customers are commenting on these days. It's the Red Yucca, hesperaloe parviflora, which is exceptional this spring. This thin-leafed yucca has deep red 4-foot tall flower spikes that bloom the entire growing season. This is our most popular yucca for rock gardens, courtyards, landscape accents and containers. It is an evergreen perennial best used with other desert plants like Russian sage, salvias and Spanish broom. Like other yuccas, it requires infrequent watering and does well on a drip irrigation system. This year's crop at the garden center is one of the best I've seen in years, and like yuccas throughout Yavapai County, is blooming right now.

Until next week, I'll see you at the Home & Garden Show or in the veggie aisle at the garden center.

Ken Lain, owner of Watters Garden Center in Prescott, is a master gardener and certified nursery professional who has gardened extensively throughout Yavapai County.

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