Grow Great-Tasting Tomatoes

Find out how expert growers cultivate terrific tomato flavor.

| April/May 2005

Nothing captures the flavor of summer quite like a homegrown, perfectly ripe tomato, and for some gardeners, the quest for ultimate tomato taste becomes a way of life. Take Nebraska greenhouse owner Linda Morris for example. Five years ago she reshuffled her priorities, giving up full-time nursing to start Cedar Knoll Farm Greenhouse, near Laurel, where she grows tomatoes, peppers and herbs. Morris’ main agenda is to help people stay healthy by eating more nutritious foods, and superior flavor is an integral part of that mission. “You cannot beat the taste of the tomato that you pick in its prime when you walk out your back door,” she says.

But how do you get from wanting a great-tasting tomato to picking one? From Nebraska to North Carolina to Texas, folks who know tomatoes say great flavor involves the interplay of personal preferences and plant variety with soil fertility, water and sunshine.

The tomato varieties you pick should be a good fit for your climate because big, healthy plants produce better-tasting tomatoes. Heirloom varieties are famous for their flavors, and equally notorious for growing well in some areas, but not in others. “I had a customer from the South who could not believe he had to order ‘Arkansas Traveler’ plants from a greenhouse in Nebraska,” Morris says. “His local nursery carried ‘Brandywine,’ a well-known name in the heirloom world that does not grow well in hot climates. In comparison, ‘Arkansas Traveler’ holds up in intense heat.”

At Angel Valley Organic Farm near Austin, Texas, full-time organic farmers Jo and John Dwyer have found they can grow a few heirlooms as early tomatoes, but even then they are lackluster producers. “Some folks find it kind of odd that most of our tomatoes are hybrids, but we need disease resistance and good productivity because we do this for a living. We won’t grow a genetically modified variety, but we’ve found several hybrids that stand up to heat and disease and deliver big tomato flavor,” Jo Dwyer says. Two of her favorites are ‘Dona,’ a juicy French hybrid, and ‘Red Sun,’ a huge slicing tomato that she says handles the heat beautifully.

In any tomato, lots of foliage leads to lots of flavor, and lush foliage is due to both nature (variety) and nurture (how the plants are grown). “Flavor in tomatoes is dependent on the food that’s manufactured in the foliage,” says Randy Gardner, a tomato breeder at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Agricultural Research Station near Asheville, N.C. “That’s one reason why heirlooms have such good flavor. They are typically large, indeterminate plants, with a higher ratio of foliage to fruit.”

In tomato lingo, indeterminate means that plants continue to produce new leaves and flowers after they enter their reproductive stage.eterminates stop growing when they start flowering and send all their energy toward the production of tomatoes. In between are the so-called vigorous determinates, such as ‘Celebrity,’ that produce a big crop, then keep growing and setting more fruits later in the season.

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