Dry farming tomatoes in summer dry climates

It’s my favorite time of year — summer vegetable planting time. Every year I try some new things out. Some are intentional and others are by accident, and last year there was a fabulous dry farming event that I intend to duplicate. My mom first told me about dry farming several years ago. She had read an article about a guy who grew his tomatoes that way and he said that they were the best tasting tomatoes ever. He said that all the sugars get concentrated and the plant is stressed a little so it puts a great amount of effort into reproduction (fruit production).  I thought it was a great idea and now I know it’s one.  Last year when I was out getting my beds ready in February, I noticed there was a tomato seedling that came up near my compost pile in part of my garden where I don’t have irrigation. I let it go thinking that it would get hit with a frost, but it had a different plan.  April came and then May and June. The plant was huge and extremely healthy. It was also loaded with tomatoes. In late July they began to ripen and they were out of this world tasty. Incredibly sweet.  It was a Juliet tomato.  Juliet is an early producing indeterminate plant, so it should have produced all season, but this one really seemed to have one massive flush of tomatoes, I’m guessing around 200-250, but that’s not bad considering I never watered it. Not once. I also wasn’t very thorough about picking the tomatoes because a lot of them were in a tangle on the ground and my son rode over the plant a few times while on route a top his big wheel.  It was a bit of a mess, but the fruit quality was incomparable. It was left to scramble on the ground, it never asked for anything… it just gave. I am assuming that getting the early seed start that it did, and the fact that it had a compost pile (also unwatered) nearby really helped it root deeply and retain moisture.

This year I am trying it on purpose.  My plan: plant a seed grown tomato, one that is an early producer, right after the heavy spring rains (when the soil is thoroughly soaked). Tomatoes can reportedly send roots down 8 feet.  I’m going to let the seedling get a little leggy (withhold a little light) and plant it as deep as possible (all the way up to the last set of leaves).  I’m going to put it on the west side of my house where the ground is shady for part of the day but the leaves and upper part of the plant will be in full sun. I’m also going to mulch it like crazy.  Not inches — feet. Every time I get tempted to water it, I’m going to add more mulch instead.  I’ve got a few seedlings of the same variety so I’m going to grow one as I normally would for a control.  I realize 1 test and 1 control doesn’t make much of an experiment, but hey….I’m a gardener now, I’ll leave the hardcore science to the hardcore scientists.


Quick update: I planted this little guy today. I watered him after doing so, about a gallon. But that’s all he gets. He has a mulch volcano all around him of lawn clippings leaves and pine needles that’s about 8 inches tall and as wide (I plan on adding to it as soon as possible). A little worm came out as I drenched the soil… I’ll take that as good luck. It should probably be noted that I didn’t do much hardening off because the weather is going to be super warm and this might be the last of the rain this year. He’s planted up to his neck and yep, I left the seed leaves on as this guy wasn’t as leggy as I was aiming for.


A 2 week old Favorita seedling planted in a heavy clay soil amended with compost and oak leaf mold.


October 24, 2016: I realize that it is very late to be posting this update. But as planned, I did not water this plant once all year. I ended up mulching it with about 18″ of leaves and grass clippings and random bits of yard waste. Here’s what it looks like now.



So did it work? I’d say so. It did have a couple weeks in the early part of the dry season where it got a little ragged looking, but then it found what it needed and took off. It made a lot of tomatoes and the ones that ripened were awesome,  but…. I grew it in too much shade and they never ripened well. : (  I will be doing this again next year in full sun. Clearly tomatoes don’t need as much as much water as we think they do.  Just for reference and scale, the wheelbarrow in the background of this picture is my son’s (child size). The plant is 6′ in diameter and about 3′ tall.

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