Growing your best tomato

Now that warm weather is (supposedly) here to stay, it’s time to turn our attention to the more fair-weather members of the vegetable garden team. I would say that it is finally safe to plant peppers, beans, corn, cucumbers, squash and the like.

But the one thing most people are really excited about planting is tomatoes.

I’m not sure why planting tomatoes creates so much excitement. Could it be that it signals the true beginning of summer? Or is there some truth to the Guy Clark song that says the only two things money can’t buy are true love and homegrown tomatoes.

Now here’s my confession:

Maybe I don’t get the fascination because I’m not the biggest fan of raw tomatoes.

I know, I know. You probably think I’m crazy. I don’t hate them, but I think an undiagnosed case of reflux throughout my childhood made me stay away from tomatoes, and I never developed a full appreciation for them.

I can eat them on a sandwich and in a salad, but don’t get that same warm, tingly feeling people describe when eating a warm tomato out of the garden.

Cooked tomatoes are not a problem, just the raw ones.

Nevertheless, I can tell you how to grow great tomatoes. And I do grow them myself. I do grow a few for salads and sandwiches, and then several for canning.

Start with a good selection

There are several different characteristics that give tomatoes their flavor. People tend to pick and choose their favorite varieties based on a few different characteristics. Since these characteristics are so varied, the choice of a “best” or “favorite” tomato is a very subjective one.

There are over 400 volatile compounds in tomatoes that give them their flavor, including glutamate, which we discussed as a major flavor component of asparagus a few weeks back. But what drives most flavor selections in tomatoes are acid and sugar. High-acid and low-sugar tomatoes are very tart, almost sour.

Believe it or not, most of the Brandywine tomatoes are very high acid, as are Stupice and Zebra.

Tomatoes that have a balance of sugar and acid in them are varieties like Mortgage Lifter, Black Krim, and Mr. Stripey, Celebrity and Big Boy, all of which are very popular for their balanced flavor.

Low-acid varieties can be an answer for people who do have an issue with acid. Unfortunately, they also sometimes can be bland, especially if they are low-sugar. Varieties such as Ace, Amish Paste, Big Girl, Fireball and San Marzano are low-acid selections.

When you select tomatoes to grow, you should also keep their intended use in mind. Slicing tomatoes are best used for, of course, slicing and using on sandwiches (or slicing and frying when green — I do like fried green tomatoes).

Cherry and grape tomatoes are great for salads, because you usually don’t have to cut them for salads.

If you want to can some tomatoes, I would suggest a variety such as Roma or San Marzano. These paste-type tomatoes are meatier and have less water, which results in a better canned product.

Just remember that since tomato acid levels are variable, the recommended canning procedure now includes adding acid in the form of lemon juice or vinegar to make sure bacteria don’t grow in the canned product.

Treat your tomatoes right

After picking a tomato variety for use and flavor profile, the next step in growing great tomatoes is all in treating them right. Believe it or not, growing conditions can have a big impact on the flavor and quality of your tomato fruits (and yes, they are fruit).

First off is planting them in soil that has nice, rich, organic matter. This organic matter helps balance moisture, hold on to and release nutrients, and encourage healthy root growth.

It is also important to make sure that the soil has enough but not too many nutrients. This is where a soil test comes in handy (yes, I will always talk about soil tests because they are always important).

If you don’t have enough nutrients to feed the tomato, then you end up with weaker plants and fewer tomatoes. Weak plants are also a beacon for diseases and insects.

You also want to avoid having too many nutrients, especially nitrogen. When you have too much nitrogen, you get lots of green growth but very little flowering or fruiting.

This is why we always recommend fertilizing with a low-nitrogen fertilizer (like 5-10-10) in the beginning but then side dressing with a little bit of nitrogen fertilizer after tomatoes begin to bloom — if you don’t add some extra nitrogen at that point, the leaves will start to yellow and die from the bottom at some point in the middle of the season.

You also want to try your best to make sure that you have even watering. Both severe dryness or severe overwatering can lead to blossom end rot (as can not having enough calcium in the soil — another reason to test your soil).

But one condition that can really affect the flavor of tomatoes is one that you probably don’t think about — sunshine! Tomatoes require at least six hours of direct sunlight to be productive. Any less and you won’t get a good crop. Since the plant uses sunlight to produce its food (sugar) via photosynthesis, you can really boost the flavor of tomatoes by making sure they get plenty of sunshine.

This doesn’t mean just planting them in full sun. You also must make sure they aren’t planted too closely so they aren’t shaded by other plants, and even thinning them out a bit to make sure that all of the leaves get lots of light.

You also want to make sure they are staked or caged, especially if they are the indeterminate type that don’t stop growing through the season.

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