by Jim Longstreet, Master Gardener, Vegetable Specialist
Are you still trying to grow tomatoes in the Permian Basin? Many growers just give up because of poor yield, disease, pests, lousy soil and water, late frost, hail and death. Fortunately in West Texas it is still legal to kill a plant, though it is usually the case of negligent homicide (vegyside).
We do have significant challenges and problems in growing tomatoes here -- like our climate. The last frost is usually in mid-April and people usually wait until after that date to safely plant. But if you wait until mid-April, then you have only two months to mid-June when the average low temperature rises above 70 degrees resulting in the prevention of any more fruit setting. Few tomato plants (except small ones) will set fruit after mid-June. Therefore your tomato plants only have 2 months to grow, flower, pollinate, and set fruit before it all stops. Last summer was especially hot, so few tomato plants survived for a fall crop.
Another challenge is our soil which is very high in alkalinity. My soil registered at 8.3 on the pH scale which is very poor for growing tomatoes. So many of the nutrients remain tied up in the alkaline soil and cannot be accessed and assimilated by plants. If left untreated and without amendment, our local soil will not be productive for aspiring gardeners and will simply contribute to an exercise in futility unless you like growing cabbage. I prefer tomatoes.
A common challenge for here and for most places I have lived is the quality of water. Midland water is quite alkaline, which contributes to the soil alkalinity and salinity. If local utility water is used exclusively, then after a few years white deposits (crystals) can form in patches on the top of the soil revealing salt which is difficult if not impossible to flush away. It is there to stay unless you trash your soil and somehow import replacement soil. This is a serious problem for us in West Texas.
Another problem for growing tomatoes is hail. Three years in a row I had devastating damage due to hail storms. The damaged tomatoes began to rot on the vine and when some ripened I had very few that were salvageable.
These frustrations and challenges as well as other problems (diseases, rot, scorching afternoon sun, insect infestation, pesky squirrels and birds, weed encroachment, etc.) drive many West Texas aspiring gardeners to extinction. Some experts even suggest that people not even try growing tomatoes here. However, there are some simple techniques and resources that can overcome the difficulties and bring about success. I am not just talking about five or six tomatoes per plant but 20 to 30 pounds of tomatoes per plant even here in West Texas. I average over 20 pounds per plant in the spring and ten more per surviving plant in the fall.
The answer lies in going the extra mile. Success in anything usually does. Working out a system to plant early and protect your plants from frost and freeze is one ingredient for success as you enlarge the time period for harvest. Composting and significantly amending your soil is another. Harvesting rainwater and developing a simple system to distribute this great resource on your tomatoes will be one more insuring factor for success. There are numerous ways using common resources that can help you harvest enough tomatoes for you and your family and even your whole neighborhood.