Aug 18, 2022 - News

Utah's heat wave is scorching veggie gardens as food prices soar

Tomato plants under shade structures in a field grow more lush than plants without shade.
Tomatoes at Utah State University get a layer of shade. Now they just need a fan and some frozen cocktails with little umbrellas in them. Photo: Courtesy Dan Drost/Utah State University

Utah's record-breaking heat means home gardeners and other growers are seeing shockingly feeble — and late — crops this year.

Why it matters: With temperatures trending higher over time, Utahns will probably have to permanently change how they grow their food.

Driving the news: In place of the usual August glut of veggies, growers are finding green tomatoes, misshapen peppers and zucchini plants dangling one lonely fruit.

  • Even plants that appear healthy are yielding too little, too late, said Dan Drost, the state vegetable specialist for Utah State University.

State of play: Vegetable plants "do well when temperatures are around 90 degrees, but when it starts getting up to 100, the plants look OK, but the flowers really don't like it, and then the fruit set is compromised," Drost said.

  • Salt Lake City has set a new record for the number of summer days over 100 degrees after Monday hit triple digits.
  • Meanwhile, veggies already got off to a late start after a cool spring. It's also been a bad year for a couple of viruses that infect some plants, Drost added.

The big picture: With food prices still sky-high, garden vegetables are an increasingly important affordable food source — whether from backyards, community gardens or nonprofits.

  • Vegetable gardening and canning also have deep cultural roots in Utah as a mainstay of household frugality.

What's next: There's still enough time for summer squashes and tomatoes to rebound as temperatures (hopefully) cool in August, Drost said.

  • But winter squash — including pumpkins — need more time to ripen. If you don't have fruit growing now, it may be too late.

Tips and tricks: Shade structures have made a major difference in gardens at USU and likely will become a gardening necessity for Utahns, Drost said.

  • Consistent watering is important, but without heat protection, you'll still end up with healthy plants that can't set fruit.
  • USU Extension has instructions for shade structures here.

The bottom line: Start preparing for shade structures because "it's not getting any cooler," Drost said. "It's one of those things that we're just going to have to think about as we're gardening in the future, and we know our climate is changing."

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