Friday, November 02, 2012

THE ANSWER MAN: Growing Tomatoes

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (10/7/2012)


          Question:  So what’s the big deal about growing tomatoes in Flagstaff?  Back in New Jersey, it was a cinch.  All I had to do was stick’em in the ground, and they’d grow like crazy.  Last year all I got out here was spindly little vines that don’t grow more than a foot and vines with tomatoes that ripened too late.  Anyhow, what ever happened to my favorite heirloom, the Brandywine?


Answer: Let’s get something straight.  I’m fed up with Easterners with their shiny shoes, pressed trousers, and slicked back hair whining about how hard it is to grow tomatoes in Flagstaff.  If that hot, sticky, icky, humid, sub-tropical climate were so great along with that carcinogenic air, you can always go back.

You come out here and want to change things, like our sense of high fashion.  So, we look like walking mummy bags.  Just try your six inch stilettos in a six foot snow drift.  Anyhow, welcome to the high country.


Question:  Hey cowboy!  Thanks for the welcome.  Now, how about the tomatoes?


Answer:  All right!  Growing tomatoes in Flagstaff may not be a cinch, but it doesn’t take a miracle worker, either.  All it takes is adjusting to different circumstances.  Of all the animals on the earth, human beings have the greatest capacity to adjust to climatic change.  Only weeds adapt better than human beings.     

          First, since our growing season is shorter than many, plant tomatoes that have short growing seasons, such as Canadian and Siberian.  These varieties are available in local commercial nurseries.  If they aren’t, you can start from seed which is often better because they’re disease free.  Sadly, nurseries are like hospitals, no matter how hard they scrub, they harbor diseases.  It’s no big deal to start with seeds, and besides you can watch the miracle of life right on your sunny window sill.

The best time to start seeds is the middle of March, the same time for planting onion sets.  This doesn’t involve a greenhouse or an elaborate setup.  All you need is one of those pellet kits that are really tiny greenhouses.  You’ve got several months to get ready.

After hardening off the young plants, they can be set outside the middle of May well before the last freeze if they’re protected by Walls O’Water which are really small tubular greenhouses.  So much for the short growing season.

          Second, growing them in containers better controls the soil, fertilizer, water, and diseases.  The five gallon, black plastic containers from the nurseries will do.  The tomatoes won’t be offended by such plain housing.  Besides, it’s good for recycling.  If you want to go upscale, you can buy specially designed containers for tomatoes at fancy prices.

          Third, Flagstaff is better for growing tomatoes than humid, hot, sticky places because some diseases that need those climates don’t do well here.  Besides, our air is better.  However, we do have a few of airborne and soil borne diseases which makes container growing all the more important.  Whatever you do, don’t plant them close together because airborne diseases can hop from one plant to the other with ease.  You Easterners live all jam packed like sardines, but out West we think a little space makes for good neighbors and healthy tomatoes.


Question:  Okay, I know how you feel, but what tomatoes would you suggest?


Answer:  Thought you’d never ask!  Several varieties do well up here.  One of my favorites is the “Galina,” a Siberian golden cherry that brings a person to bliss when eaten right off the vine.  Next, I’d recommend the Canadian “Prairie Fire” which produces a delightful 3-5 oz. tomato.  Then there’s the Czech “Stupice,” an early producer with small sweet and tangy fruit.  It was developed by Milan Sodomka in the 1970’s.  Finally, there are two Siberians, “Gregori’s Altai and Sasha’s Altai, both of which produce small to medium, tasty fruit.  These all produce within sixty days.  Have at it “Jersey Boy.”  Be sure to buy your seeds early.


Question:  Do you have to be a grump to grow tomatoes in Flagstaff?


Answer:  No, but it helps.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2012

Dana Prom Smith along with Freddi Steele edits Gardening Etcetera.  His blog is, and his email address is





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