Summer's finally here, and daytime temps are reaching up towards the 90's. But high desert nights cool off down in the 40's in June, and the 50's all summer long. Add to that a frost-free season averaging only a little over 100 days, and crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and okra can be a bit difficult to grow here.
Forget vine-ripened Brandywine tomatoes - they'll still be green when the nights turn frosty in mid-September. I grow Early Girl for salads and sandwiches, and Sweet 100 for snacking, usually grazing on them right there in the garden. Both are hybrids, so no saving seeds, but I like the taste of each of them so buy a packet of seeds every few years. I also plant at least six paste tomato plants - my main crop for canning in many different guises. I started with an Amish Paste tomato, and about 20 years ago started saving seeds from the biggest, earliest fruit each summer. I consider it my own personal heirloom now - I call it CC (for Carson City) Paste. Many of my pepper plants are also grown from saved seeds - I just smash open one of the peppers hung to dry in various ristras. I haven't yet been able to save viable seeds from my eggplants or okra, so I buy seeds for them. Black Beauty eggplant and Clemson Spineless okra do well here.
I start all my fruiting plants from seed in late March to early April. The tomatoes get transplanted once, into deeper pots burying part of the stem, in early May. The plants are still quite small by the end of May, but I think that lessens the transplant shock and once into the garden they'll settle in quicker. I start hardening them off just before Memorial Day - setting them outside for longer periods each day, bringing them back in at night.
I rotate the type of plants - early, fruiting, vining, roots & brassicas, corn & beans - around through my five garden beds so that the type of bed will be the same every sixth year. Tomatoes, in the fruiting bed, and potatoes, in the roots bed, are in the same family however, so I try to put the tomatoes in a different part of the bed than where the potatoes were only a couple of years ago. In early June, it's time to get everything into the ground. Each of my 50' planting beds get an inch of compost and a light dusting of my all-purpose fertilizer mix (equal parts bone meal, blood meal, and greensand) every Spring, so I level the surface and lay out a soaker hose.
Into each planting hole, I also add some crushed eggshells (for calcium), some Epsom Salts (for magnesium), and a bit extra of the fertilizer mix. Then I get the hose, fill each hole with water, and start setting in each plant. Most of the plants are set in as deep as they were in their starting pots, but tomatoes will form roots on any part of their stem if it's buried. So I pinch off some of the lower leaves and set them in even deeper, leaving only the top couple of leaves above ground. More and deeper roots on the tomatoes help alleviate problems that our temperature swings and dry climate can cause.
Next come the cages. The little cone-shaped tomato cages really aren't big enough to support my tomatoes, but they work great for the peppers and eggplants. For the tomatoes, I've made cages out of welded hog wire fencing. For extra support (we do get some pretty good winds out of the west), each of the tomatoes gets a metal stake (2.5' for the determinate paste tomatoes, 6' for the indeterminate Early Girl and Sweet 100) pounded into the ground, and then a cage, the same diameter as a plastic five-gallon bucket, goes over the post and is secured with a twist-tie. And then, the secret for getting a decent harvest from these long-season plants: a Wall-o-Water (WoW) is placed over each cage.
The Wall-o-Waters are stored through the winter in a five-gallon bucket in the shed. Once they're in place over each caged plant, I sit on the up-ended bucket and start filling each little tube. It's tedious business, but a pistol-grip nozzle on the hose makes it easier. It's tricky to get the WoW's to stand up when you first start filling one. If you have new ones without leaks and no cages, put a five-gallon bucket upside down over the plant, the WoW around the bucket, fill tubes on alternating sides until all are full, and then pull the bucket out. Okra doesn't need the support of a cage when growing, so if I don't have enough cages I'll make sure the WoW's over the okra are ones without leaks (I clip on old clothespins to mark which ones have leaks - one pin means only a leak or two, two pins means they'll work best over the big tomato cages). I have a piece of smooth wire fencing in a perfectly-sized circle I can use to support the WoW when filling. It's even easier than using a bucket, but make sure all the wire ends are bent to inside the circle. Once filled, the WoW is self-supporting. But I've found having cages inside each one make things easier, keeps the ones that have leaks from falling over, and provides extra support in our winds.
The WoW's, even the ones with leaks, provide wind protection and a warm little micro-climate inside to get my little plants off to a good start. Around the Fourth of July, our nights are warmed up enough to get the WoW's off the plants. It takes two of us to lift them up and over, off the cages. The water inside is dumped onto the plants, and the WoW's hung up on the clothesline to drip-dry, then stacked up, rolled up, and stored away in their bucket.