Cultivating Better (Tomato) Taste, Part 1

Tomato slices.

Image via Wikipedia

Is it too much to ask for tomatoes with decent flavor and ripeness? This year I decided to grow my own tomatoes, using the simplest method I could find. I discovered that I had a lot to learn.

This is the first of a series of posts about my experience growing tomatoes for the first time.

For most of my life I’ve eaten store-bought, commercially grown tomatoes; I long ago became used to their taste and texture. Supermarket tomatoes have been bred to withstand rough handling and long trips from farm to store, and are harvested very early and exposed to a reddening agent so they look ripe even when green. They aren’t horrible; they just aren’t all that good, and they never really seem to ripen completely.

From time to time I eat out at a good restaurant, or the house of a friend or a relative, and the tomatoes they serve taste somehow richer, more flavorful and meatier. I discovered that I could get flavor like that if I bought heirloom tomatoes from the organic section of the supermarket, for 2-3 times the price. It didn’t seem like a very good deal. I could probably get them at a good price from a farmers market, but I’m still tied to the convenience of one-stop local grocery shopping, and farmers markets generally don’t have discount canned beans and low-fat ice cream.

Then I began using more and more tomatoes in my food. You can add a tomato to improve the taste of almost anything savory: seafood, pasta, soup, eggs, rice, chicken, any cold dishes, and of course burgers, sandwiches and salads. Then tomato prices started to rise, and I had to face the fact that I’m now a tomato addict. Maybe I need to grow my own. . .

Taking Matters into My Own Hands

I couldn’t stand supermarket tomatoes any longer, but I wanted something really simple to manage. In the past I lived in apartments. I tried growing a small flower garden for several years with poor to fair results, and prior to that, every plant I’ve ever owned has died horribly. But now I live in a house with some good sun exposure, and landscaping that I’ve slowly learned to maintain.

Topsy turvy planter image

My Topsy Turvy planter

I decided to try one of those “upside down” tomato planters. “Topsy Turvy” is the trade name for a popular hanging tomato planter. Its key feature is that the plant grows downward from the bottom of the container. I chose the Topsy Turvy because I noticed it on the shelf at the local Home Depot for ten bucks. Another more sophisticated design, called the “Revolution” planter, is available from the Gardener’s Supply Company.

Myth: “You can’t successfully grow tomatoes upside down, because it’s not natural.” Pish tosh. The experience of thousands of satisfied gardeners says otherwise.

Growing tomatoes upside down from a container has a number of benefits to recommend it to the novice:

  • Virtually no exposure to ground-based pests. With a sterile potting mix, there are no soil-borne diseases either.
  • No need to prepare and maintain a garden bed. No weeds.
  • The tomato fruit are somewhat better shaded from hot sun by the pot and by its own leaves, even as the plant itself gets a lot of needed sunlight.
  • No need to support the plant with stakes or a cage.
  • The plant and its cultivation are isolated from influence by other plants in the garden, so it’s possible to zero in on solutions to cultivation problems with less confusion.

This is not to say that using the Topsy Turvy planter is without its pitfalls. Hardly. But I did get some nice, meaty, flavorful tomatoes this summer, and it’s still producing fruit now (around Halloween).

Besides the ostensible goal of producing flavorful tomatoes, my experiment in tomato cultivation has also proven to be an informal gauge of the veracity and usefulness of information about the subject that’s available on the internet. I’ve done a lot of research online, and found much contradictory advice about it. I’ve discovered an amazing (eh, probably not so amazing at that) range of quality in articles from purported experts on tomato growing.

The Research

The difficulty in learning about tomato cultivation comes partly because of the ubiquity of both misinformation and unquestioned tomato lore on the internet; it’s partly due to the fact that the gardeners writing about the subject are situated in a wide range of growing climates, with varying levels of temperature and humidity; and most frequently it’s because they’re growing their tomatoes in a garden bed, which presents very different conditions than a container, especially an upside down container.

Some additional reasons to consume the available information with a liberal sprinkling of salt:

  • Some articles merely scratch the surface in presenting the bare basics (they’re true, but insufficiently complete to be useful).
  • Some address techniques meant for a specific set of growing conditions without expressly clarifying what those conditions are.
  • Some (based on my experience and on clear contradictions from many other sources) are simply incorrect.

There are also some very informative articles that delve into enough detail to be truly worthwhile, and my personal experience bears out their claims.

My conclusion is that a website calling itself a “tomato expert,” with an address like “www.thetomatoexpert.com” is no guarantee of its worth as a useful reference. As the Gipper once commented while holding talks with the Soviets: “Trust, but verify.” Good advice.

In Part 2 of this series I’ll discuss choosing a tomato variety, establishing appropriate growing conditions, and planting the tomato seedling.

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Posted on 4 November, 2010, in Food and Drink and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Home grown tomatoes are soo much yummier aren’t they? If i could only grow one vegetable myself I think it would be tomatoes.

    • Clearly, Bee, we’re on the same wavelength.
      I’m neither a gardener nor a cook, so this is me trying to demonstrate that at least with tomatoes, you don’t have to be an expert to get a lot of tasty returns with moderate effort.
      This dabbling, though, is a far cry from the wholehearted foodie journalism in your blog, and your photographs are especially appealing.

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