Garden & Landscape Tips

Grape tomatoes
Small tomatoes, such as these grape types, generally have the sweetest flavor since sugars concentrate in smaller packages
© George Weigel

There is nothing like the taste of a freshly picked tomato from the garden. This is one of the best reasons to try vegetable gardening at home. Tomatoes plucked fully ripe from the back-yard are light years ahead of commercial types in flavor, a trait that’s long taken a back seat commercially to yield, shelf life, and price. Here are some tips on how to grow the best-tasting tomatoes.

Flavor

In general, small grape and cherry tomatoes pack the most flavor because their sugars and flavor compounds are concentrated into smaller packages. Color also can play a role, since pigments are related to different balances of sugars and acids. Many gardeners say that orange and yellow tomatoes taste milder and less acidic than red ones, or that black-fruited ones taste sweeter than pink- or red-fruited ones. Taste is a subjective matter, though, so what one gardener thinks is great flavor could rate so-so to another. Even the same tomato can come out tasting very differently from region to region, which is why one of the best guides to variety comes from the first-hand experiences of local gardeners and growers.

Dead tomato flower buds
Temperatures higher than 90 degrees can abort tomato flower buds and lead to reduced or no fruits.
© CREDIT

Weather

Taste in tomatoes varies from season to season depending upon the weather although of course we have no control over this. Optimum climates are sunny and run consistently in the 80s during the day and 60s or 70s at night. Some varieties however have been bred to do better than others in less than ideal climates. For example, Manitoba and Polar Baby were bred for earliness in short seasons. Heat-tolerant varieties include Solar Flare and Summer Heat.

Soil

The soil in which tomatoes are grown has a huge effect on the taste of the crop. Have the soil tested for pH (soil acidity or alkalinity), nutrients, and minerals, and follow the recommendations of the laboratory results. Also, it should be high in organic matter and drain well.

Dying tomato plants
Tomato diseases that cause leaves to thin or drop can lead to reduced flavor.
© George Weigel

Culture

Obviously optimum conditions have a huge effect on the taste of the fruit. The less stress and better the growing conditions, the healthier the tomato plant. And the healthier the plant, the more likely it is to reach its full flavor potential. So, for the most flavorful crops follow these recommendations:

  • Choose a sunny, well-drained spot that gets at least 8 hours of direct sun per day.
  • Provide the best soil conditions. Tomatoes need adequate levels of potassium especially during the fruit-ripening phase to produce the best flavor.
  • Keep the soil around growing plants consistently damp. Spotty watering results in poor crops. If the plants dry out, stress will ruin flavor. This said, flavor can intensify if water is reduced as fruits ripen.
  • Control bugs and diseases. Many tomato varieties are susceptible to leaf blights and fungal diseases that cause leaves to yellow, brown, and drop. Select resistant varieties. Lots of healthy green leaves (as often found in heirloom varieties) enables more photosynthesis, that produces extra sugars and improved flavor.
  • Don’t pick too soon. The best time to pick is just as tomatoes are approaching full ripeness, which you can detect both by looking at color and gently squeezing a fruit or two. The perfectly ready tomato will “give” slightly when gently squeezed but still be firm rather than “squishy.” In contrast, commercial growers have to harvest before tomatoes are fully ripe so they won’t end up overripe by the time they’re shipped to stores.
  • Store properly. Once in the house, store fruits at room temperature rather than in the refrigerator. Cold storage extends the life of the tomato but reduces its flavor. If you must refrigerate, remove the fruits several hours before you plan to eat them so they have a chance to come to room temperature.
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