Cultivating Better (Tomato) Taste, Part 3

A scanned red tomato, along with leaves and fl...

Image via Wikipedia

In Part 2 of this series, I discussed how to choose a tomato variety, establish appropriate growing conditions, and plant the tomato seedling. In this post, I address watering, cultivation, problem solving and harvesting.

This is not a step by step tutorial. Each brand of planter comes with its own instructions for planting and cultivation, so I won’t duplicate those instructions here. I’ll emphasize some of the key points they make and add my own comments.

DISCLAIMER: My experience, and the insights I present here, apply only to “upside down” container gardening in a mostly arid Western U.S. location, with very high daytime temperatures and relatively cool nights.

Watering

There’s a big difference between watering garden-grown tomatoes and watering container tomatoes. The potting soil in a container like the Topsy Turvy planter is difficult to overwater, because it drains so fast that the plant’s roots are unlikely to get waterlogged. However, it can dry out easily, and increases in water at the wrong time can produce cracking or blossom end rot (BER).

Growing tomatoes in post-war Berlin picture

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-M1205-314 / Donath, Herbert / CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons

Water your tomato plant in the morning so it can handle the day’s heat, at a slow rate to deeply soak the soil. When I water, it takes a few minutes before I see water drip out one of the bottom drain holes. On hot days, I let the water trickle some more until I see it coming out of most of the drain holes, indicating that the soil is fully saturated. Because I water early, the portion that drips onto the plant’s leaves will easily evaporate in the heat. Try to keep water off the plant unless you’re certain that it will evaporate by sunset.

If your tomato plant has started to bear fruit, and you significantly increase the amount or frequency of water (say, to combat high temperatures), the fruit might develop cracks because its skin can’t expand to handle the unexpected extra moisture. Sometimes a crack will heal with a hard scab, and that part of the tomato will be inedible. Some tomato varieties are simply more susceptible to cracking than others; I think my Bonnie Select plant is one. I just cut out the inedible part and enjoy the rest.

In spite of everything I’ve just said about watering, it’s clear that above all, tomatoes require soil that’s consistently moist (not soggy) at all times. Container mix drains so well that it should never get soggy, as long as there are drain holes for the excess.

My tomato plant has developed serious fungus later in the season, and I suspect that it’s due to excess water dripping down from the planter’s drain holes when I water it (it’s still producing great fruit in spite of this). In my very hot climate, it’s difficult to strike a balance between ensuring the plant gets enough water and ensuring the leaves don’t get wet. This might also be contributing to radial cracking on the fruit.

Cultivation

For most varieties, pruning a tomato plant can reduce the number of fruits produced but make them larger. There’s no other need to prune determinate or semi-determinate tomato plants, except to remove diseased foliage. You can prune an indeterminate plant to control its growth pattern.

Tomatoes, like most other plants, can’t produce fruit without pollination. However, they don’t require another plant to provide the pollen. What’s needed is an occasional breeze – or you can just give the plant a gentle shake every now and then – after flowers appear. Do this between 10:00am and 4:00pm on a warm, sunny day. I’m not kidding.

I don’t really understand the mechanism, but this apparently distributes pollen from one part of the flower to another, where it can do its job. My area gets plenty of wind, so there’s no need for me to address this issue.

Here are some good resources for tomato cultivation:

Problem Solving

Tomatoes are subject to several common environmental problems. These aren’t viruses, pests or weeds, and they’re not contagious. They’re conditions that result mostly from inappropriate sunlight, water, temperatures or nutrients:

  • Blossom end rot (BER) – the fruit isn’t receiving enough calcium from the soil due to irregular watering, or it’s receiving too much nitrogen from the fertilizer. The best solution is prevention: to provide enough calcium, don’t let the soil dry out or get waterlogged (container mix usually has plenty of calcium, so there’s no need to supplement it). And use a fertilizer that doesn’t have too much nitrogen.
  • Cracked Brandywine tomato picture

    Radial tomato cracks - photo by Goldlocki, via Wikimedia Commons

    Cracking or splitting (radial or concentric) – a sudden increase in water, and the tomato skin can’t expand enough to accommodate the growing fruit; it cracks instead. Some varieties are more prone to this issue than others. Solution: apply mulch, and water evenly for consistent soil moisture.

  • Green shoulders or sunscald – the fruit is receiving too much direct, hot sunlight while ripening. Shade the ripening fruit from the hottest afternoon sun (the leaves usually do this, but you might have to help with an artificial shade). Or simply pick the fruit at the first blush of red. It’ll ripen just fine indoors.

Green shoulders, sunscald, cracking, catfacing, or even minor blossom end rot don’t mean a tomato is completely inedible. Just cut out the bad parts and enjoy the rest!

As you investigate the proper way to treat (or prevent) these and other issues, keep in mind that much of the advice you’ll see applies to tomatoes growing in a garden bed, which might not always be appropriate for container-grown tomatoes. Also, if you’re gardening with a kit that includes appropriate soil and fertilizer, and you’re following the instructions properly, amending the soil or altering the fertilizer probably won’t be necessary.

I haven’t addressed pests or diseases, because I experienced only a few of them, late in the growing season. I wasn’t able to definitively deal with them. There are so many that it’s best to do your own research on the pests and diseases that you encounter. Here are some problem solving resources:

Harvesting

The only thing left to do is wait for the tomatoes to mature, then harvest them. The big question is, when? There are two common notions about harvesting tomatoes that have not been borne out by my experience:

Always wait for a tomato to ripen completely on the vine before picking it.

This is simply not true, as I’ve proven to my own satisfaction. I can pick my tomatoes any time after they first start to get a blush of red color, and they ripen beautifully indoors. Picking each tomato as soon as possible gives the plant more energy and nutrients to devote to fruits that are still developing, and it might even sprout new fruit sooner.

However, it’s possible that vine-ripening produces more flavor. This has yet to be proven to my satisfaction; with my somewhat limited senses of taste and smell, I might not be able to tell the difference anyway.

If you pick a tomato before it’s fully ripe, set it on a sunny window sill to ripen.

Not necessary; in fact some gardeners say that the extra sunlight and heat can be detrimental. Tomatoes don’t require sunlight to ripen. Instead, put your tomatoes in a bowl or a paper bag at room temperature (or a bit cooler), and allow the natural emission of ethylene gas to ripen it just like a banana. Indeed, you can include a banana or a piece of apple in the bowl or bag to speed things along. I’ve found that even tomatoes with just a bare hint of a red blush at the blossom end will eventually reach full ripeness.

Bumper Crop O' Tomatoes picture

Bumper Crop O' Tomatoes - photo by Aylanah via PhotoRee

Reasons to pick a tomato at first blush:

  • Enables the plant to devote more resources to the remaining fruit
  • Minimizes cracking and bruising
  • Minimizes bird damage
  • Reduces the chance of blossom end rot
  • Reduces the chance of green shoulders and sunscald
  • When outside temperatures reach 95°F (35°C), indoor ripening produces better color

Supermarket tomatoes aren’t necessarily tasteless because they were picked too soon. They’re tasteless because they were bred to be durable and blemish-free, without regard to taste. Even if they had been allowed to ripen completely on the vine, and you were able to pick the resulting fruit yourself, they wouldn’t taste any better. They might also be picked before even the slightest blush occurs, to increase durability even more. They can’t develop full flavor from that point.

Here’s some scientific support for early harvesting: At First Blush, Harvest Tomatoes

Conclusion

Throughout the 2010 season, I was able to harvest about 80 tomatoes from my rather straggly Bonnie Select plant. A few of them had BER, and half of them were cracked, but I just cut out the inedible portions and enjoyed about two thirds of a very meaty, flavorful harvest.

I learned a lot about container tomato gardening (especially upside down tomato gardening). The single biggest problem with the upside down approach is water management. The Topsy Turvy container is too small to maintain consistently moist soil, and excess water drips onto the plant at every watering. I know I can improve on these results in 2011.

For further practical ideas about tomato gardening, check out the Tomato Chronicles page.

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Posted on 2 April, 2011, in Food and Drink and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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