Even you can grow tomatoes in St. George; growing season is now

Photo courtesy of Flickr user: versageek/ CC-BY-SA-2.0 ©

ST. GEORGE — Imagine yourself biting into a juicy, perfectly ripe tomato plucked from a plant in your own backyard. Tomatoes are one of the easiest plants to grow in your garden, although the St. George region has a few unique factors that any budding tomato cultivator should know how to address, the main one being the summer heat and the secondary one being the blight.

Tomatoes grown by Rex Jensen, Toquerville, Utah, July 29, 2010 | Photo by Rex Jensen, St. George News
Tomatoes grown by Rex Jensen, Toquerville, Utah, July 29, 2010 | Photo by Rex Jensen, St. George News

At mid-April, the likelihood of another frost is fading and the time to start planting tomatoes in St. George is now.

Dixie State University plant physiology and biology professor Erin O’Brien has gardened in climates in a variety of places and has done research on local plants and soils.  The biggest distinction, O’Brien said, between growing tomatoes in St. George and elsewhere is the sizzling summer heat. If you understand how to help your tomato plants deal with the heat, you will get more production from your plants.

The extreme heat in July and August disrupts the plant’s production of ripe tomatoes, O’Brien said. If you plant your tomatoes during the suggested April and May timeframe, you should expect ripe tomatoes before the summer temperatures reach their peak. After that, as temperatures climb above 90 degrees, the chemicals that are responsible for tomato ripening start to break down, often resulting in unripe fruit during that period – or no fruit at all.

Don’t let this stop you, you can still grow great tomatoes in the desert. Although your tomato plants might not be producing ripe fruit during the hottest months, they are, usually, still alive if you’re watering them and may revitalize with more fruit production in the fall.

Before you plant, know that there are two classes of tomatoes, determinates and indeterminates. One-time-producing plants are called “determinates.” Those that produce tomatoes throughout their lifetime are called “indeterminates.” 

Although there are certain varieties of determinates that have seen success in St. George, O’Brien said the indeterminates are better-suited for the region. For the sake of this article, only the indeterminates will be addressed. 

Helping tomatoes survive the heat

To assist your tomatoes through the heat you can try several methods.

Partial shade – The first method is to shade your plants occasionally in the summer. This can be done by planting for morning sun and afternoon shade or by creating artificial shade.

Shade will allow tomato plants to produce more fruit for a while longer before the heat-wave hits, Ray Ballard, co-owner of Ballard Nursery in Hurricane, said.

“Not a lot, but a little bit of shade in the day will help to lengthen that period out,” Ballard said, adding that tomatoes need a lot of sunshine.

Also, providing occasional shade will in most cases help the plants to survive the heat and produce ripe tomatoes again in the fall. In the summer your plants probably won’t be happy, O’Brien said, but your goal is to just help them survive into the next season.

Plant in pots – The second and similar method, suggested by O’Brien for some growers, is to plant in pots and move the tomatoes to the shade for a few hours each day during the summer. When using planters, you’ll need to water the plants more than you will plants in the ground.

Sprinkle the plants – The third method is to sprinkle the plants with water at night – although Ballard said there is a chance this could cause disease in the plants.

Walls-of-water – The fourth method that both Ballard and O’Brien suggested is to encircle them with “walls-of-water,” or “walls-o-water.” These are water-filled structures that encircles the plant to moderate temperature. They can be purchased at local garden supply stores or constructed yourself. Both Ballard and O’Brien said this is a more expensive method but usually pretty successful. 

How to avoid tomato ‘blight’

Curly tomatoes (diseased) from Rex Jensen's garden, Toquerville, Utah, circa 2012 | Photo by Rex Jensen, St. George News
Curly tomatoes (diseased) from Rex Jensen’s garden, Toquerville, Utah, circa 2012 | Photo by Rex Jensen, St. George News

Besides the heat, there is another threat prevalent to tomato growing in southwestern Utah – a disease commonly called “curly top” or “the blight.” An insect known as the beet leafhopper brings this disease, the beet curlytop virus, to gardens. Once the leafhopper interacts with the plant, it’s common for a tomato plant to become infected by the virus in less then a minute. There are other diseases that afflict tomato plants but the the blight is by far the worst, Ballard said. Once infested, the plant never recovers.

The beet leafhoppers are going to start moving into town soon, Ballard said, so now is the time to start protecting your tomatoes. Although he hasn’t seen any finite solutions other than keeping your plants as healthy as you can, there are several things that have worked for some growers.

Repellents – Spray your plants with a repellent about once a week. There are several repellents on the market, Ballard said, but noted one spray called Neem Oil and an insecticide called Fruit Citrus and Vegetable. He said you can also use pepper sprays or even reconstituted powdered milk to keep the insects away. The results of the different repellents vary widely but if you experiment, Ballard said, usually you can find something that works best for your garden.

Periodic shade – Another option that has been known to work is to shade your plants for a few hours every week, Ballard said, because the beet leafhopper, in particular, does not like the shade.

Once infested, it’s not the end of the world. Remove the infested plants immediately. Just because one plant gets infested, doesn’t mean your whole garden will.

Easy and inexpensive

Although Southern Utah tomato gardeners have different techniques and results, tomatoes are one of the easiest plants to learn how to grow. They are relatively cheap – at Ballards you can get a six-pack of small plants for $1-$2 – and a typical plant will produce between one and two dozen tomatoes. If you plant now, Ballard said, you’ll be eating tomatoes in the next two-three months.

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  • Lee April 17, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    Good article. I also like to plant the plants closer together than the instructions say. This helps keep the soil from drying out on those hot days. I plant them about two feet apart and in rows about four feet apart with no cages. They have done great for the last few years. Kind of a jungle at the end of the summer, but no shortage of tomatoes.
    Also… I have to put in a ‘thumbs up’ for Ballard’s Nursery. I get my plants there every year. They have the best selection, prices, and knowledge of all the nursery’s around.

    • KanabCowgirl April 18, 2014 at 1:09 am

      I had a jungle like you mentioned once myself. I also planted Basil by the tomato plants. I got HUGE tomatoes that year. People were surprised by them

  • combat vet and true jedi warrior April 17, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    I’ve had trouble with horn worms in the past. Also I recommend avoiding buying plants from big box stores .

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