How can I grow tomatoes in the desert?
April 8, 2009 10:49 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for advice on container gardening (tomatoes mainly) with limited water resources.

We live in a remote location in the Mojave Desert and have pretty limited water resources. Until recently I've lived in the Northeast where fresh fruits and vegetables were plentiful and I had my pick of CSAs and I am really missing fresh, flavorful vegetables.

I'd love to hear about what tomato varieties have worked best in your container garden. We tend to really like the heirloom varieties (Brandywine, Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple) - do any of these work well in containers? i know tomatoes are pretty water intensive - can anyone give me an estimate of how much water a typical tomato plant needs in a week? Is there anything I can do to decrease the amount of water I need to give the plants without sacrificing quality?

In addition, once I have the tomatoes going, I'd love to grow greens, herbs, onions, etc - any recommendations on varieties that do well in containers with limited water?
posted by a22lamia to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to read up on dry-farming techniques for tomatoes, which don't in fact need constant watering (depending on tomato type, soil type, etc.). Dry-farmed tomatoes are the most delicious I've ever eaten, but I've never tried to grow them in a container.
posted by rtha at 11:02 AM on April 8, 2009

Best answer: I grew some Brandywines on my deck in an Earthbox and got a huge yield last year, and am planning on doing it again this year.

All the water comes from within the container so you only add water as its used up.
posted by wongcorgi at 11:10 AM on April 8, 2009

Best answer: Gardener's Supply sells a self-watering container with a 4-gallon water chamber that works extremely well.

If that's too pricey, you can also make your own version using Rubbermaid tubs.

The self-watering container is really a must in a dry climate, especially because a mature tomato plant can use more than a gallon of water per day and heirlooms are particularly prone to stress and cracking. If you want to try to forgo the self-watering container, I would recommend a very large container, such as a plain Rubbermaid tub with holes in the bottom, or half of a whiskey barrel, with those water-absorbing crystals mixed into the soil.

Also, there's a 'mater called Cherokee Chocolate that is a more stabilized version of Cherokee Purple - you may try that as well. I LOVE the Cherokee Purple - it is my favorite tomato EVER! I am trying the chocolate version for the first time this year.

In general, herbs like dry weather - rosemary, mint, sage, etc. Greens like lettuce and spinach do better in cooler weather. Swiss Chard produced for me all summer long, so I would def. recommend chard for longer harvests. Onions really aren't picky.

There is a forum on dedicated to tomatoes - you will probably get some more ideas browsing through there. Good luck and enjoy those 'maters!
posted by Ostara at 11:10 AM on April 8, 2009

Disregarding the container issue, tomatoes actually AREN'T water hogs, Most people over-water them, in fact. Tomatoes prefer deep, infrequent waterings, as opposed to regular soakings. Plants in containers, of course, dry out more quickly than plants in the ground. But still, in principle, you should be able to water container tomatoes without using too much of the precious resource. Give 'em a good soak when the soil dries out completely, but not more often than that.

To grow tomatoes in containers, you'll need either tomatoes advertised as container-friendly (there are quite a few), or really big containers. I'd say you'd need a soil depth of 18". (That's a figure I pulled out of my head; you might be able to find better advice elsewhere.)

Brandywines will be right out, I think; the plants get really huge. Green zebras would probably work pretty well. Cherokee purple, I've never grown; don't know their growth habits.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:13 AM on April 8, 2009

I bet someone in one of these organizations could help: (1), (2), (3).
posted by ArgentCorvid at 11:23 AM on April 8, 2009

Make sure the soil / growing medium you use retains plenty of moisture -- compost, vermiculite, perlite, peat moss (though this has environmentally unfriendly implications), etc. If the local soil is sandy, don't use it.
posted by jon1270 at 11:32 AM on April 8, 2009

I'm not sure about the container tomatoes because I feel like I spent half my summer watering the Big Boy tomatoes I grew. As far as herbs go, I had success with mint, rosemary, parsley and sage in containers without a lot of water. Chives might be OK too. As much as I hate to say it, I'd stay away from basil as it seems to need a good bit of water to thrive. (I live in a hot and humid summer climate with little to no rain, FWIW.)
posted by geeky at 11:33 AM on April 8, 2009

I've had bad luck with brandywines; they don't seem to like the hot, dry wind we can't get away from. I have had good luck with earthboxes in our high-desert locations, but we get too much direct sun for the full-sun directions to apply.
posted by answergrape at 11:46 AM on April 8, 2009

Given the problem with evaporation, I might try putting some moisture retaining beads (such as these) in the soil.
posted by horsemuth at 11:52 AM on April 8, 2009

Response by poster: answergrape - what varieties have you planted? I'm planning on putting the plants on our partially covered back porch as it gets sun all day, but, midday sun is indirect (slightly blocked by a mountian).

Thanks for all the responses so far!
posted by a22lamia at 12:35 PM on April 8, 2009

Best answer: Another version of the Earthbox is the Earthtainer. It's very similar, and there are plans online to build your own.
posted by O9scar at 1:08 PM on April 8, 2009

Can't help with the water issues as I'm in a different climate, but I've successfully grown Green Zebras in a container, so just popping in to say it's possible. I think we also grew Black Krims successfully that year.
posted by Stacey at 2:15 PM on April 8, 2009

Can you bury the containers? I've grown tomatoes in containers, and they actually did well, even though the larger indeterminate plants weren't really suited to them. The best container was a large rubbermaid box. It held a lot of soil. Still, the biggest problem was that the containers dried out excessively, and they were difficult to mulch well because they were small. I think growing in containers that had been set in the ground, would be far more water conserving than otherwise. Use a lot of top mulch to help conserve moisture.
posted by OmieWise at 5:09 AM on April 9, 2009

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