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June 03, 2014
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DESERT BLOOM: Hot Weather Plants

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Angela

Tomato PlantsOnce it starts getting warm here in the beautiful Mojave Desert, some gardeners throw their hands up in acute despair.  After all, the temperatures will rise well above 100° and we probably won’t be seeing much rain until October. Summer always looks like a terribly tough time for Southern Nevada horticulturists and their plants. Few edible plants will really thrive under these conditions, but that’s not to say there aren’t any. Some fruits and vegetables will brave the heat, as long as the intrepid gardener gets water to the growing plants.

Sadly, the list doesn’t include tomatoes. Or, not usually. Tomatoes aren’t generally their best when temperatures get much over 85°, if they produce at all.

No, I’m talking about different fruits altogether. Think about delicious cantaloupe.

Melons and their cousins like warm, even hot, weather. You can seed these vines in the ground as soon as the soil’s consistently above 60°. When it’s any cooler than that, the little seedlings won’t take up water. As a rough guide, look at nighttime temperatures. That’s as low as the soil temperature can get. When the melons are fully ripe, they’ll almost slip off the vine into your hand. Even if they’re a little overripe, who’s going to complain? They’re amazingly sweet, and it’s not like you’re shipping them across the country.

Hard-shelled squash, like pumpkins, are related to melons. If you get them started when the soil warms up, you should have pumpkins by Halloween – how’s that for convenient! You probably shouldn’t try growing the world’s largest pumpkin unless you have a lot of land; the vines become gigantic.

All the members of this family suffer when they get dry, so irrigation’s critical. And they’re all a little gluttonous when it comes to soil fertility, but if you amend the soil with compost or a slow release fertilizer, they should be fine.

When I think of hot weather, I think of okra. As far as heat and drought tolerant plants go, okra’s one of the best. You don’t need to put in a lot of them; a single plant produces enough for a lot of gumbo. It’s not that I’m so enamored with the taste and texture, but the flowers are really attractive, like hibiscus. They’re related, also to cotton! By the way, although you don’t eat cotton, the flowers are pretty, and it’s got an interesting seed package – a boll of cotton!    

Sweet potatoes, which some people insist on calling yams, but they’re not, are another great vegetable for high temperatures. If you have one with some sprouts popping out, put it in the ground when the soil’s warmed up. They have lovely foliage, so you can use it as a groundcover, or even let it grow up on a trellis! Through summer and fall, you’ll have a sweet potato vine. Come Thanksgiving, you should have your own little crop of sweets, which is perfect since the leaves die back in the winter. You’ll be digging up the whole plant, though, so don’t put them around anything that shouldn’t be disturbed.

Peppers, especially hotter peppers, appear to tolerate higher temperatures than their cousins, tomatoes, but even tomatoes aren’t hopeless. As I said before, in the dead of summer, it’s likely they won’t be as terrific as they were back when temperatures were under 90°. You can keep them growing through July and August if you provide some shade and never let them get dry. If you’d rather use the summer for melons and okra, then try this.

Around the end of June, cut your tomato plants down to about five or six inches, water them, and cover the soil with a good layer of mulch. They’ll start growing again, and by the end of September you should have a new crop of tomatoes that’ll go until the first frost. They won’t be the fabulous fruits you had before, but they’ll still be more flavorful than what you usually see in the supermarket.

Remember, when you’re outside in the summer garden, drink fluids and use sunscreen. For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension

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