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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Cutting Back Tomatoes for Fall Harvest in the Warm Desert

Q. In late February I planted in containers three Hawaiian tomato plants which grew to three feet, produced an abundance medium-sized sweet tomatoes.  By the end of July plants showed signs of dying.  Being from New England I assumed it was the end of the plants life and removed from pots. 

            A friend told me I should have slightly cut back the plants and continued watering. These plants would have made a comeback and produce new flowers and fruit during our fall season.  Would you elaborate on this subject?  I have never heard about tomato plants producing 2 crops.

A. Tomatoes stop setting new fruit as soon as temperatures get into the upper 90’s and so you will harvest these early fruits until usually in July and then it produces no more new fruit until fall again when the temperatures drop back into the lower 90’s.

            I often recommend cutting tomatoes back in late summer when it is no longer producing if you have a warm microclimate in your yard. If you do not have a warm location free from strong winds you probably shouldn’t bother.

            It is very touch-and-go when we do this at the orchard since we are fully exposed to cold northwest winds. Just depends on whether we have a warm fall or not. Late summer is when we begin some of our fall crops and is a good time to plant corn (bet you didn’t do this either in New England).

            So here we can have two springs, one before summer and one after summer (actually fall but acts like spring sometimes). I frequently call our summer “Las Vegas winter” since this is the time of year so many things struggle due to heat and lack of humidity.

            Winter can be a fabulous time for growing fall and spring crops again if you have a protected location or provide some protection if it is exposed.

            Cutting tomatoes back for fall production usually begins in late July or early August. The plants are trimmed back to invigorate new growth and reign them in if getting too large. A small amount of fertilizer is applied at this time to invigorate new growth.

            Foliar sprays are usually best since they don’t last very long but a small amount of quick release fertilizer (straight nitrogen) will work. Let them grow and begin flowering again and set fruit when temperatures drop.

            Be careful not to overfertilize. You should get a nice fall crop of tomatoes. If there is a threat of a freeze in mid December (usually) then cover the tomatoes at night if it is to be a light freeze with a light covering like a row crop cover or old sheet. Remove it in the morning when danger of frost has passed.

            If it is projected to be a hard frost pull the entire plant and hang the plant in the garage or sheltered area and let the tomatoes ripen on the vine in the garage. They will ripen more slowly if not removed from the vine allowing a more sequential ripening than if  you removed them all. Or use green tomatoes.


  1. I planted Black Krim and Beefsteaks in the Spring and they lived all summer. I didn't know to cut them back. The little yellow flowers burn when it is over 100, so there were no tomatoes in July and August. Right now I have baseball sized green tomatoes...I'm hoping they ripen before it gets any colder. Next season I will grow smaller tomatoes in the Fall that have a shorter harvest time.