Tomatoes in Texas Heat
The sky is big and bright here in central Texas, but it’s also really hot and dry. Tomatoes and peppers love the Austin sun and are known to grow to epic proportions, but they can’t actually take the heat. Unlike some climates with long Summer growing seasons, we in Austin have 3 shorter seasons: Spring, Fall, and Winter. Summer is best left to the troopers of the garden like Copper Canyon Daisy and Lantana, or some hardier veggies like habaneros and eggplant. Tomatoes need a lot of babying to get them through the Summer months, or a totally different approach.
- Fall is often the best growing season here in Austin. These 50 pounds of tomatoes were harvested from just 3 plants!
Check out this other great resource for tips and information on tomato gardening in Texas. There are generally two options for growing tomatoes that can deal with our brutal Summers, and both call for starting EARLY! Getting an early start is the real key for most vegetable gardening in Austin….. 97 degrees in April are impossible to plan ahead for though- so be prepared for flukey years and just learn what you can from them. Tomatoes won’t set fruits during the super hot days, so you should either 1. rip out your tomatoes after harvesting in July and plant again in August or 2. hack them back by 75% in July and let them grow back. I used the second method last year, but the first method works very well as well and gives you a chance to add compost to the soil and re-evaluate your garden plans. It’s also important to choose varieties that will do well here. I’ve had great success with Early Girl, Celebrity, Sun Gold and Porter Improved. Cherries and the smaller fruited varieties do best as a general rule and will pop out little sweet nuggets of sunshine all season long – often even during the hot months. Avoid those really big ‘beefsteak’ varieties: they just take too long to mature. The goal is to get roots established early, fruits set before it gets too hot and to mature before the pests and blights of mid Summer descend. You can often get away with choosing more interesting and larger fruits for your fall planting, especially if we have another year like last year with such mild temperatures.
- My Porter Improved plant put on fruits through the entire season, to the point of excess!
It’s fun to plant only heirloom varieties: you’re growing the same tomato that your great grandfather could have grown! But it’s sometimes more practical to choose varieties that have been developed specifically for the trials of our location. Choose varieties with as many initials in front of their name as possible: ie VFN which indicates that they’re resistant to wilt and other soil born calamities. Choose varieties that mature quickly. There are even some varieties that can supposedly take more heat than others – i’ve had mixed results with these (Arkansas Traveler, Sun Master, etc).
On top of choosing the right variety, there are a few tips and tricks you can use to get the most out of your tomato harvest:
- Pick at ‘blush.’ You don’t have to wait for the tomatoes to ripen to dark red (or black or purple or orange) while out on the vine. Ripening tomatoes are tantalizing bait for raccoons, squirrels, grackels and stink bugs. Once the fruit starts to show a hint of color, the plant is done with it and is no longer putting nutrients into the fruit. Hot sun may make the fruits more flavorful, but i’ve tested many times and believe that there is no flavor difference between a fruit that has ripened fully on the vine to fruits that have been picked at blushed and brought into the safety of my sunny kitchen.
- Mulch! Mulching conserves water and keeps the roots cooler. Living mulches like vetch are a great option and give back nitrogen to the soil.
- Bird Netting. Those pesky birds and squirrels won’t always wait for the tomatoes to ripen. Surrounding your tomato patch with bird netting can be a real harvest saver.
- Last year, grackels stole the majority of my Spring harvest of a delicious heirloom: Japanese Black Trifele. Tomatoes falling from the sky to be consumed by ants and pill bugs does NOT make me happy. Use bird netting.
- Feed your plants. Tomatoes are hungry beasts. Fertilize with compost and nitrogen based fertilizer a few times after planting, then follow up with a bloom promoting fertilizer every 3 or 4 weeks. Consider adding liquid fertilizers to your regiment: John’s Recipe, Liquid Seaweed and Fish Emulsion are all great as soil drenches and foliar feeders. Just be sure to foliar feed early or late when the sun won’t hit hard on those leaves.
- Fruit set. There is a product on the market by Green Light that is a powerful punch of the nutrients blooms want in a spray bottle. Spray the blooms of all the nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes) and cucurbits to encourage those blooms to stick.
- Shade cloth. When it comes down to it, the only way your tomatoes will truly stick their blooms during the heat of Summer (or April in our unfortunate case this year) is to have a little protection. Shade cloth comes in a variety of degrees (like spf for sunblock lotion) and allows the sunshine to come in at a lower intensity. Check out The Natural Gardener for bulk shade cloth cut to your desired length.
Good luck with your tomatoes. It’s looking to be a hot, dry year and your crops may have a hard time. Never fear – there’s always Autumn or next year. Gardening is a learning process of trial and error. Never give up, and remember to have fun!
Miranda can also be found over at An Austin Homestead, where she sadly planted no tomatoes this year.
This post is part of the Simple Lives Thursday blog hop!