LynnAnnRose and I have a plot at our neighborhood community garden. After removing the drip irrigation tubing and raking back last year’s straw mulch, we prepared the soil and planted some pre-sprouted sugar snap peas and radishes so far. The soil is sandy, in contrast to the compacted, silty soil in Flagstaff; it required very little loosening. We had to buy some compost to spread on top since we don’t have our own compost bin yet. Compost works to improve all types of soil. We added plenty of new straw mulch on top to prevent soil water evaporation. The tomato cages on top are preventing the mulch from blowing away.
We bought the pea and radish seeds and other heirloom seeds from Native Seed/SEARCH, including one of LynnAnnRose’s favorite foods, Chimayo chiles. Chimayo is a small village not far from Santa Fe. The chiles have been grown for centuries by Hispanic farmers in the region. We also have some purchased seedlings of vegetables and herbs that will be planted mostly in out back and front yards. We plan to save the seeds from the open-pollinated varieties.
Native Seed/SEARCH is a regional seed bank for Native American and Southwest Hispanic seed varieties. Limited quantities of these seeds are available for purchase.
I planted my one tomato seedling, a short season Big Boy indeterminate vining variety (78 days to maturity) that can grow up to eight feet high. As part of my vegetable crop rotations, I planted it in the trellis planter on my back balcony where I grew sugar peas last year.
The extra nitrogen produced by the peas fertilized a crop of self-seeding lamb’s quarters, a common garden “weed” around here. Lamb’s quarters are related to spinach and chard, but are even more nutritious. Many common garden weeds are nutritious edible. Lamb’s quarters have a mild flavor and make excellent salad and stir fry greens. If you have too many to eat, they also make great nitrogen-rich mulch or additions to a compost pile. I used the woody bottoms and roots as mulch around the tomato plant. Tomatoes don’t need too much nitrogen, so the lamb’s quarters won’t hurt the seedling’s growth; too much nitrogen causes tomatoes to focus on growing leaves rather than fruit.
It will probably take more than 78 days to produce ripe tomatoes in my climate, as the days to maturity is relative and commercial seeds are grown in warmer areas. Nighttime temperatures are now in the low 40s, still quite cold for tropical tomatoes, so I expect the plant will grow fairly slowly for a while.
Yesterday was mild and sunny after three days of snow and cold. I and went to a local plant nursery to buy my warm season herb and vegetable seedlings: an heirloom tomato, a zucchini, a bush green bean, stevia, and rosemary. I’ve started hardening them off to my climate’s strong sunlight, dry air and wind so that when all chance of frost is over I can plant them in my balcony containers. Hardening off seedlings makes them sturdier, more compact, and more cold and wind resistant. The nursery’s warning not to plant greenhouse-grown seedlings and all warm season crops outdoors at 7,000 feet elevation until June 15 or the possibility of frost is over highlights the hazards of spring gardening at high altitude.
It has been a typical tomato year in Flagstaff, Arizona at 7,000 feet elevation. The heirloom tomato plant is now taller than me (it’s a little under six feet tall). It’s still a month or more away from our first frost in northern Arizona. Yet I think the tomato plants have reached their full height. There is no more flowering. I am simply picking tomatoes as they ripen; actually, I am picking tomatoes a little before they are fully ripe, as the heavy monsoon showers are causing the tomatoes to split if they are left on the plants too long. As you can see from the later photos, it has been a mostly cool, wet summer, which is not to tomato plants’ liking because tomatoes are a tropical species and prefer higher temperatures. Luckily, the front of my house is a warm microclimate.
I transplanted the seedlings May 16, after what I felt was likely to be the last spring frost. The first two tomatoes, growing on the hybrid container variety, were ripe June 29, just before the first monsoon rain storm began the very next day. Ripe heirloom cherry tomatoes soon followed. I am hoping, as usual, that all the tomatoes have a chance to ripen on the plants before the first frost occurs in four to six weeks; I might end up with some green tomatoes, though, which can be cooked green or ripened indoors. I have been eating delicious tomato salads for two months. It’s been fun.
I am slowly acclimating my six seedlings purchased at a local plant nursery to outdoor weather conditions in Flagstaff (lavender, lemon balm, sugar pea, rosemary, stevia, and an heirloom tomato). I am placing them on my balconies when it is warm enough for them and bringing them back inside when necessary to provide the most sunlight or to protect them from too much cold or wind.
The “hardening off” process is necessary in all climates when you want to transplant indoor-grown seedlings outdoors, but is especially important in climates that are especially sunny, windy, hot, cold, arid, etc. Seedlings started indoors are delicate. Their stems have not needed to withstand high winds, and their leaves are not accustomed to high doses of ultraviolet radiation, for example. Seedlings must be gradually acclimated to your outdoor conditions.
Begin the process by placing trays of nearly-mature seedlings outdoors in a relatively-protected location (partial shade, wind-sheltered) for only a couple of hours each day. If necessary, create temporary protection by placing them in a deep cardboard, wood or plastic box or ventilated cold frame. Over a week or two, gradually increase the amount of time you leave them outdoors. Because the small containers dry out quickly, keep them well-watered. The stems will thicken and the seedlings will become overall more compact and sturdy.
Some seedlings, like tomatoes, might need to be transplanted one or two times before they are planted in your outdoor garden.
Despite the fact that I emphasize repeatedly that leafy greens and root crops are the easiest-to-grow vegetables in the high altitude Southwest because they are cool season crops, the question I get most often is about how to grow tomatoes, a heat- and humidity-loving species of tropical origin. I like tomatoes as much as anyone else and I do grow them successfully.
It is easier to grow tomatoes in Alaska than in Flagstaff, Arizona, but hundreds of gardeners do so despite the less-then-perfect growing conditions. A minimum requirement to grow tomatoes outdoors is a growing season of at least 90 days—-the total length of Flagstaff’s historical growing season (the time between the last spring frost and the first fall frost, pre-climate change). Tomatoes also like warm nighttime temperatures; Flagstaff summer nights dip down to 45°F to 60°F, which greatly slows down the plants’ growth and fruit maturation time. My growing season doesn’t start until early June. My neighborhood is in USDA Zone 4. In even colder climates / microclimates than mine, you’ll need to grow tomatoes in a hoop house or greenhouse.
I grow only short-season tomatoes like heirloom varieties from Siberia and cold climate hybrids. I transplant seedlings that I purchase at local nurseries that sell appropriate varieties rather than grow them from seed. I only grow a couple of tomato plants most years, so starting from seed and seed saving is not worth the effort for me. Even in good years, I always end up with some green tomatoes. Flagstaff tomato gardeners always have a good supply of green tomato recipes on hand. It is also easy to store tomatoes indoors and allow them to ripen before eating them.
My two front garden plots are surrounded by heat-holding concrete and each has a large basalt boulder, too, both of which act as thermal masses. One plot also has an electric transformer box; the electrical box actually produces heat, which is especially useful at night.
More than three inches of snow fell in Flagstaff this past Saturday, April 26. This is not the image most people have of Arizona. A hot, saguaro cactus-dotted desert is the typical image of the state. Of course, many people are not aware that Flagstaff is at 7,000 feet elevation and that the San Francisco Peaks rise to nearly 13,000 feet elevation, either. A few years ago during a severe El Niño winter, our last major snowstorm was in the month of May.
Luckily, I know this type of event can happen at this time of year and I have not planted anything outside that cannot handle this sort of weather. The nettles (in the large pot in the middle photo) are fine. So is the sorrel, catnip and chives on the front balcony (lowest photo) and the arugula, dandelions, kale, and rhubarb on the side of the side. The lovage is OK as well.
I just bought six herb and vegetable seedlings for some instant gratification from a local plant nursery last Thursday (grouped on the left in the lowest photo: lavender, lemon balm, sugar pea, rosemary, stevia, and an heirloom tomato). It was a warm, sunny 70°F on Thursday. The nursery has warning signs above its herb and vegetable seedlings telling people not to plant anything outside until June. This is going a little overboard. Peas can handle snow; I plan to plant the pea plant by next weekend and plant some pea seeds as well. All cool season crops and a few warm season ones can be planted by the middle of May.
The snow has already melted. High temperatures this week will be close to 60°F. It is supposed to once again reach 70°F this coming Saturday.