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Tomatos in NV?

By on December 15, 2008

Some years back I was in charge of a community Garden for a ministry that resided at 5400 ft. directly at the base of a 10,000 ft. Mt. Segal which has snow on it most of the summer in the Pinenut mountains outside of Gardnerville, NV.  With 6 weeks between frost dates and 5 percent ambient moisture, (Snow doesn’t melt it evaporates and the rain rarely makes it to the ground)  these were the harshest conditions I’d ever tried to grow things in, even worse than Minnesota.  Many well meaning folks tried to encourage me to stick with root veggies and zucchini.  If your land has the 10 ft. Giant Sage it’s the perfect conditions for root crops.

(You know why you can’t leave your car unlocked in Gardnerville in the summer?  Because if you do it will be full of zucchini when you get back!)

So here are some of the things I learned that may help anyone with a gardening addiction like mine and a spot like that to grow things in.

Find similarly addicted successful gardeners and talk to the old timers especially who can tell you what people did before all of this galdern fancy stuff showed up.  Then adapt their advice to all our fancy stuff to make it easier.  I discovered that in the 1800’s when the area was being settled, that the Bask shepherds grew tomatoes quite successfully by starting seed indoors and setting them out in mid April/early May down in a hole that was about 2 ft. deep and set a window pane over it and covered the whole thing at night with straw and uncovered it during the day.  Then they would fill the hole in with good soil as the plant grew upward reaching for the sun so that by mid June the tomato plants had this massive root system that could survive a bomb blast if need be which pretty much describes the scorching sun and cold nights they must endure.  I’m sure the sheep manure played a big part in their success as well.

So armed with this folklore I set out to find a way to do this thing.  Her are some of the things I found:

  • BUILD A FENCE with rock along the border.
  • I can have totally different conditions than you do however our soils may be similar.  Alkaline, poor in organic matter, and drys out quickly.
  • Have you gotten a soil test done yet?  If not I would start there to see what you’re working with (or without) and amend accordingly.  I use lots of compost, and mulch to keep the moisture levels up.  If you live in the Carson Valley May I recommend Full Circle compost.  They blend Your compost according to the soil conditions of the valley or they will blend it special for your soil test results.  Otherwise buy bags of ours and amend just your planting site.
  • Use raised beds with gopher wire bottoms and chicken wire tops to keep out ground squirrels, quail, rabbits, etc…. and only amend that soil.  Why pay to amend the dirt you’re going to trample?
  • A common problem with blossom drop is a lack of Magnesium which is easily corrected with a sprinkle of Epsom salts in the planting hole.  Any nightshade will respond to this.  A tablespoon is about right.  NV soils are mineral rich but often lack the Mag. that releases them to your plants.
  • Believe it or not tomatoes don’t appreciate extreme heat and will not produce fruit in super hot weather. Choose a cooler spot, light shade cloth, and mulch to keep the roots cooler in the heat and warmer in the cold.  I found my micro-climates by planting daffodils.  The colder the spot the longer it takes for them to bloom and the reading is accurate because those wretched gophers and ground squirrels won’t touch them.
  • Hot wind can be hard on them so planting against a wind barrier like a fence line helps. Create a wind break with some rows of corn or pole beans.
  • Sufficient water when the plant is first developing is very important so that the main trunk of the mature plant reaches a good diameter.  This allows good uptake of water while the plant is producing fruit.  Think of a fat straw vs. a skinny one and how freely you can suck liquid through it.  I overhead water at 5am to keep the ambient moisture levels up while the plants are putting on growth and leaves.
  • Don’t touch your plants in the heat of the day.  Many plants stop exchanging water at somewhere around 95 degrees and can be permanently damaged.  Early morning is the best time to tend them or pick fruit unless you have cooler evenings.
  • Choose early producing varieties (70 days or less) so you can take advantage of the best part of your season.  We have some varieties in seed that produce in 56 days.  Start your tomatoes in Feb indoors and set them out in Walls O Water.  They allow your plants to put down roots in the cold weather so they are ready to set fruit the minute the weather turns warm.
  • Cover therm at night if you have extreme temp fluctuation.  My days and nights can vary 35 or more degrees during the growing season - ie 100+ degree days, 65- degree nights.  When it starts doing that I put a light frost blanket on them to lessen the severity of the change even though they don’t mind 65 degrees they hate all the up and down.
  • Cover them with heavier frost blankets or sheet plastic at night when your weather turns cold to extend your season.  Our catalog has a plethera of season extenders that are NOT OPTIONAL under these conditions.
  • USE A WATERING SYSTEM so that your plants get enough water.  No matter how long you stand and hand water you will not give them what they need.  I use a combination of overhead and drip to insure sufficient water.

These are all general things that can be done to improve all your veggies or any annuals in desert conditions in general and in the Pinenut Mountains of NV in particular.  Your local Ag extension office will be very helpful in more specific problem solving.

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