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Can Tasteless Tomatoes Be Made Tasty?

Q. Mike: I've been growing vegetables in raised beds for the past couple summers. This year our tomatoes don't have the great tangy "Jersey Tomato" flavor they've had in the past. Before I planted, I roto-tilled in some compost and used Osmocote fertilizer. Any idea why the flavor is different than in the past? Thanks.

    ---Bob in Newfield, New Jersey.

A. Tomato favor is largely dependent on variety; some varieties are bred to produce that great flavor you recall, while others sacrifice flavor for traits like disease resistance and early ripening. What varieties are you growing?

Oh, and two things in your email confuse me.

  1. Why would you ever till a raised bed garden? Tilling causes nutrient loss and promotes weeds. We design raised beds so that we never step on the soil in the growing area and thus never have to till. (Fresh compost should always be added on top of the existing soil in a raised bed.) And
  2. Why would you use that cheap chemical fertilizer? That alone will knock down some of the flavor....

Q. My wife is standing here laughing as I learn two important tomato growing lessons. I tilled because I thought mixing up the compost and top soil would make a better "blend"; and I used cheap chemical fertilizer because I hadn't yet read about the natural alternatives at your web site. And I'm afraid I don't know what varieties I'm growing. Some are supposed heirlooms from a big box store whose tags are long gone, and others were given to me by a friend. Thanks for any help and advice you can provide; I really enjoy your show!

    ---Bob in Newfield, New Jersey.

A. Hopefully, the varieties you're growing are capable of producing good flavor—which in tomatoes means the right combination of sugar, acid and the volatile aromatic oils that give the fruits their distinctive smell and taste. Next year, don't leave it to chance—plant for flavor! In a taste test conducted by ORGANIC GARDENING magazine back in '95, the legendary heirloom Brandywine got the highest score of any tomato tested. Other high-scoring varieties included Prudens Purple, Dinner Plate, Oxheart, German Johnson, Evergreen, Black Prince, Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple and Amish Paste.

But you're currently stuck with your unidentified orphans, so let's see if we can increase their flavor potential, no matter what they are. First, use no more chemical fertilizer—it increases the water content of the fruits and thins out their flavor. Remove any existing mulches and add an inch of the finest compost you can find; yard waste compost is ideal; well-aged mushroom soil would also be fine. Don't use 'bio-solids' or other euphuisms for sewage sludge--treated human waste from a water treatment plant.

And let's add some calcium; it enables tomatoes to develop the highest amounts of the volatile aromatic oils that give the fruits so much of their flavor. And it helps the plants better regulate their water uptake, which enhances flavor by limiting the amount of water inside each fruit. And it prevents problems like cracking and blossom end rot. Some nurseries and garden centers carry a premium bagged compost from Coast of Maine that's made with lobster and other shellfish waste; feeding or mulching your plants with such a compost would be a great way to add calcium and other important nutrients.

Typically I advise people to save up their eggshells over the winter so they can add a dozen crushed shells to the planting hole of each tomato to provide calcium at the beginning of the season, but it's obviously too late for that. It might even be a little late in the game to use one of the granulated natural plant foods designed for tomatoes; they all contain added calcium, but it takes a little while for granular fertilizers to have an effect. (But a natural granular plant food designed for tomatoes would be a great idea for NEXT season—or for people in climes where they're just getting ready to plant tomatoes now, like Southern Florida. Apply it to the surface of the soil about two weeks after you put your plants in the ground, and then cover it with soil or compost to activate the nutrients quickly.)

If you can't find a 'seafood compost', dissolve a dozen calcium carbonate tablets in a watering can and water your tomatoes with the calcium rich liquid. Repeat this nutritional watering in two or three weeks.

Make sure there's a good organic mulch on the surface of your beds to regulate the soil moisture—compost or shredded leaves are ideal; wood mulch is the worst. Whatever you use, don't make it any deeper than two inches.

When you water, water deeply for a few hours once or twice a week; and don't water if you've had a good soaking rain within the last five days.

And finally, time your harvesting for maximum flavor. Tomatoes should be picked when they're just fully ripe or very close to ripe. Do not let fully ripe tomatoes sit out in the sun; they can lose 30% of their flavor in a single day. When tomatoes come inside, store them out in the open at room temperature—not in direct sun or in the fridge; heat or cold can dissipate their flavor.

And pick those love apples first thing in the morning. Cool nights concentrate the sugars in all produce, and a tomato picked at 7 or 8 am will have more flavor potential than a tomato picked at 7 or 8 pm.

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