The biggest quest for most gardeners must be to grow tastier tomatoes, after all, it is the most popular vegetable in the world, and store-bought tomatoes are pale renditions of the real thing at best. There are several reasons that grocery store tomatoes lack the flavor everyone is after. It’s not just being picked green and gas-ripened after shipping, or even the bred-for-market variety being grown, though both of these are huge contributors to the problem.
1. The Variety
Many gardeners swear by the heirloom varieties for delivering superior flavor over modern hybrids. This is partially true, because in more recent years there seems to be a focus on creating tomatoes that sweeter than those encountered in the past. Seed catalogs that do a brisk business in hybrid tomatoes seem to offer more ‘sweet’ tomatoes than ‘old-fashioned tomato flavor’ varieties. Did someone tell tomato breeders that sugar is like sex – it sells more stuff?
A sweet tomato is great for snacking, and probably in big demand with people with acid-reflux problems, but more people are after the perfect BLT tomato, or the one that’s going to give them rock on sauces, which both call for fruits that offer balanced sugar to acid content. The best bet at getting that will be found in indeterminate tomato plants, especially the heirlooms. Both cherry tomatoes and bush or determinate tomatoes (also called canning tomatoes) are going to have a higher sugar than acid content.
The same is true of early ripening types. It takes more time, and more inputs to grow tastier tomatoes with that fabulous old-time flavor so many people want.
It might be warm enough and frost-free in climates like California and Florida in winter, but tomato harvests are still influenced by short days and weaker sunlight. Winter tomatoes are lacking in flavor the world over from November through April because it takes light intensity and long days to grow tastier tomatoes.
The cloudier the season is, the flavor is reduced even more, even in a greenhouse where temperatures can be controlled to deliver the perfect tomato-growing climate. Weak light does not give tomatoes the energy to turn carbohydrates into sugars, leading to less flavor. For this reason, serious tomato growers add supplemental lighting overhead and in between the rows in greenhouses over the winter months. Not just any lights will do if you want premium tomato flavor either. For this reason, Phillips has developed LED light recipe specifically for commercial tomato growers who want to preserve their reputation for producing the very best tasting tomatoes available.
Now in the home indoor garden over the winter, most people will try to coax a tomato harvest out of the grow room with energy-saving LED or high output fluorescent grow lighting alone. While you won’t need a loan to pay the electric bill, your tomatoes will be bland tasting. A more efficient way to grow tastier tomatoes indoors in the offseason would be to invest in a much more powerful light and one that delivers full spectrum with UV light included. Indoor and greenhouse tomatoes have little to no UV light compared to those grown in the soil outdoors. All greenhouses have coatings to reduce poly covering deterioration due to UV rays, which doesn’t allow them to be absorbed by the crop with the rest of the spectrum.
Then you’ll need the right spectrum of light for inter-lighting beneath the canopy. If Phillips created a special recipe of diode colors for commercial tomato growers to use horizontally – light color has a lot more influence on tomato flavor than most indoor gardeners realize. Note that they use multi-directional LEDs for inter-lighting as well. And because light power is also important to create the heat that tomato plants need to flourish and build excellent fruits, Phillips counsels commercial growers to use HPS top lighting to warm the environment for better production.
The no-brainer approach to plant nutrition is a balanced analysis fertilizer on the low side, like 10-10-10. The higher the numbers, the ‘hotter’ the fertilizer, and the easier it is to burn up your plants if water input in the outdoor garden is too low. Still, more home gardeners will opt for that “safe, non-burning” plant food on the garden center shelves. It works well for all plants, as long as you don’t want a boatload of flowers and fruit. For that, you need a ‘bloom booster’ formula, which will have a much higher P and K content than nitrogen, but with tomatoes, you don’t want to start the garden season off with the same nutrient analysis as during the flowering and fruiting stage.
You need thick-leafed, robust plants to grow tastier tomatoes, which calls for more nitrogen at first. Why? Scrawny tomato plants with fewer leaves lack the photoreceptor surface space required to collect enough energy to build that flavor you’re after! Which leads back to light power. A weak grow light doesn’t allow them to become as bushy as a more intense one. Once flower buds start to form they also need more P than K, but the weak availability of K early in their life can also lead to reduced fruit flavor, and increased problems later one, such as uneven tomato ripening.
There are two parts to a tomato: juice and dry matter. Dry matter is where the sugar, acid, and flavonoids are located. One problem found in hydroponic tomatoes is that too much water dilutes the taste. This can largely be overcome with the right nutrient solution, which requires a great deal of attention on the part of the grower. Choice of cultivar will have a huge influence here too. A mild-flavored fruit producer will wind up bland, but one that has intense taste may very well give you an easier time in producing that sought-after tomato flavor harvest.
If you want to grow tastier tomatoes in the soil, however, a lighter hand on the hose is best, though there is a sweet spot to be aware of. Dry climate tomatoes have a superior flavor to those where it rains a lot, and a drought can produce some of the very best tasting tomatoes you’ve ever eaten – but you will have fewer fruits during a drought due to plant stress. In excessively dry conditions, tomato plants work overtime at producing the seeds to perpetuate the species. It’s a survival mechanism. If faced with the end of your kind due to life-threatening conditions, only the strongest will survive to replenish the population, so many plants put every ounce of energy into leaving the very best they’ve got to give behind. A super tomato, in this case, and it’s possible the seedlings those drought-driven fruits produce will exhibit better drought resistance than their parent. That is what causes superweeds to develop – survival traits created in offspring to battle the enemy.
It’s a choice of a heavy harvest or growing more plants that deliver incredibly intense flavored fruits due to gardener-imposed drought conditions. By the same token, many heirloom varieties with thinner skins are prone to cracking open in the wetter climates around the Great Lakes, and if they’re splitting from too much water, you’re safe in assuming the flavor is watered down too! In a wet season, it’s wise to only water if the soil is bone dry an inch below the surface. You’ll have less disease and fruit problems that way, along with improved flavor.
5. Grow Tastier Tomatoes Anywhere
Things that differ from one region to another can also have a big influence on the taste of the harvest. Not just the temperature, or the amount of rainfall, but also what is naturally present in the soil and water. A tomato variety that has awesome flavor grown in California may lose a lot of flavor grown in the Midwest or on the East Coast, and one that offers old-fashioned tomato flavor in Michigan and Ohio could be a huge disappointment for Massachusetts gardeners.
Both soil and water will differ greatly in such vastly different geo-locations. Unless you can pinpoint what elements are there as opposed to where you are, it’s best to select tomato varieties that produce better-flavored fruit in your region.
Salt can influence fruit flavor a great deal. Brackish water in Israel is said to give tomatoes incredibly sweet flavor. While you have to be careful what variety you grow, and how much salt water is applied, this could be something to experiment with in bringing out the most desirable flavor qualities in fruits you grow. Some kinds of tomatoes are known to do better than others in salty conditions.
And finally, for those balcony and patio gardeners, you’ll get a far more delicious tomato harvest growing in fabric pots with a mix of topsoil and compost than you will from a potting mix in a plastic container. Unless you want to get super scientific about your little urban garden – the secret lies in natural soil and composted humus. Plus your plants will have a healthy root system due to the air flow through the sidewalls.