Growing the great-tasting tomato

barbara_pounds/Flickr

barbara_pounds/Flickr

The fabled Jersey tomato, luscious beyond glib description, has been our state’s claim to fame for more than 180 years.

Outsiders may poke fun at our politics, our traffic and our strip mall culture, but when it comes to the quintessential harvest of summer, the succulent queen of the vegetable patch — well, the jokes stop and righteous admiration wells up unbidden.

So it has been since Robert Gibbon Johnson, aiming to disprove rumors that the “love apple” was poisonous, publicly ate a tomato on the steps of the Salem County Courthouse one hot summer day in 1820. The story may be apocryphal, but devotion to this beloved vegetable is real, and the term “Jersey tomato” resonates in much the same way as “Idaho potato” or “Florida oranges.”

Still, it’s axiomatic that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself — which is why so many tomato-lovers grow their own, bringing the fruits of their labors to vine-ripened perfection. What does it take to grow the great-tasting tomato?

First, let’s address the basics. Tomatoes want warmth and sunshine — plenty of it — both to spur vigorous growth and to concentrate plant sugars in their tissues and fruit. “Full sun” means a minimum of six to eight hours, and more is better. Generous sun is crucial to the development of well-formed fruit (and flavor), so if you’re unable to give tomatoes a place in the sun, you might as well stick to lettuce.

Only slightly less important is a fertile, friable, well-drained growing medium. That means soil in good tilth, enriched with organic material and/or fertilizers. The soil needs to be fairly neutral, with a pH reading of 6.0 to 7.0; more acidic soil prevents plants from taking up the nutrients they need, even if they are present in the soil.

If you do fertilize, go for a low nitrogen formula designed for tomatoes, with a ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the 5-10-10 range, and apply periodically at half strength. Too much fertilizer, especially one rich in nitrogen, will push leaf growth at the expense of fruit production, and may actually undermine plants by stimulating rapid but weak growth. Proprietary tomato fertilizers also contain calcium to prevent blossom end rot, a common cultural problem.

The last of the “Big Three” is water. Tomatoes need a constant supply of moisture at their roots, but dampness that lingers on foliage promotes a disheartening array of fungal and bacterial diseases.Ideally, a drip system or “leaky hose” will accomplish watering without leaving top growth all wet, and a thick carpet of mulch will retain moisture and provide a barrier to prevent soil pathogens from splashing up onto foliage.

Once you’ve addressed the basics, you can move on to the variables. The most critical — and hotly contested — issue is “Which tomato?”

Tomato salad                                                 Tim Sackton/Flickr

Tomato salad                                                 Tim Sackton/Flickr

Varieties number in the thousands, but improvements in growth habits, keeping qualities, yield and disease-resistance account for a certain amount of churning, and some old favorites fall out of the mix. The realities of mass marketing mean that home gardeners who don’t start from seed often have a limited choice in seedling plants at garden centers.

There have been grumblings of discontent lately, out there in Tomatoland, especially among fans who must rely on farm stands for the object of their affection. Middle-aged aficionados may actually represent the last generation with intimate knowledge of universally available, reliably ripe, locally grown Jersey tomatoes with intense, full-bodied flavor that makes you say “Mmmm!”

The modern breeder’s push for tomatoes that are disease resistant, larger in size and uniform in shape has made it difficult for home gardeners to find tomato plants with good old-fashioned taste. Even officials of the New Jersey Tomato Council in Cedarville, a growers’ cooperative, admit the older varieties that made New Jersey famous aren’t grown commercially anymore because their shelf life is short and their appearance often too homely for a market that wants perfect good looks.

Lately there has been a turn toward traditional values in the push to revive “heirloom” tomatoes. (See my New York Times article from last year, linked below, for the latest developments in restoring old-fashioned flavor.)

Technically referring to privately saved and not commercially exploited tomatoes, “heirloom” now is a warm and fuzzy marketing term. “Antique” or “vintage” might be more accurate, since we are talking about open-pollinated varieties sold prior to 1940, when the first man-made hybrids began to flood the seed market.

Choosing older tomato varieties may get you closer to the taste you crave, but there’s another set of variables about which you can do nothing — the weather. Chilly temperatures can result in deformed tomatoes, excessive heat can cause blossoms to fall without setting fruit, and night temperatures are just as important as daytime readings.

A lack of sunlight in prolonged cloudy weather affects ripening. Drought stresses the plants, but too much rain can make tomatoes watery and intense flavor will never develop. Hail can beat your plants to the ground, and gale-force winds can topple them. Bottom line: Mother Nature always bats last.

As you bite into your best tomato this season, give the taste a critical evaluation. Chances are you can do better; odds are you’ll want to try. Make your next new-to-you tomato an oldie but goodie, pay attention to cultural practices and pray for good weather. Bon appetit!

 

For my article in the New York Times about Rutgers' project to revive old-fashioned tomato varieties, click here.