It’s every tomato grower’s dream to harvest juicy, ripe and tasty tomatoes from the garden.
This guidewill help you know the various factors that determine tomato flavor, the most favorable weather and soil conditions for growing healthy tomatoes and the types of tomatoes cultivars you should select to achieve the ultimate sweetness you are yearning for.
You will also learn how to prepare the garden, maintain soil pH and tips for tendering your tomatoes until they are ready for harvest or ready to eat.
Everything You Need to Know about Tomatoes
Before we get to further details, let’s have a look at some few basics you should know about tomatoes.
Tomatoes are vegetables (call them fruits if you like) that come in various shapes, sizes, flavors, and colors. When it comes to sweetness, we all have different taste buds, which means that we differ on tastes-what you consider sweet may not be sweet for another.
That said, tomatoes come in different flavors; acidic, tart, sweet, or mild and there are those that are generally considered sweet by most people. Plant genetics and garden variables such as rainfall, temperature, sunlight, soil type and the garden location determine tomato flavor.
Flavor is a balance of sugar and acidity along with the influence of certain elusive, unpredictable compounds for flavor and aroma that every tomato breeder is eager to grasp-this is all about nature and its wonders. Tomatoes high in sugars and low in acids are generally sweet.
Those high in both sugars and acids are considered by most people as having a more balanced taste while tomatoes low in both sugars and acids have a bland taste. In addition, always check the plant description to ensure you select the desired sweetness.
Here are some ways you can select tomatoes based on their flavor:
Size of Fruit
You might have heard of the saying that ‘good things come in small packages’ and in the case of tomatoes, it can’t be further from the truth. The small sized cherry and grape tomatoes have more sugar than the full sized ones and therefore are considered to be sweeter.
Cherries such as sun gold are exceptionally loved by kids and even grownups as snacks due to their very sweet taste. However, some full-sized tomatoes such as lemon boy, bush goliath and black krim are also sweet and medium sized ones like ‘early girl’ are sweet for salads and sandwiches.
Color of Fruit
The tomato color also determines their sugar and acid balance. For example, yellow or orange tomatoes taste milder and less acidic than red tomatoes. When it comes to black tomatoes, some are created from a mixture of red and green pigments, which make them have a complex flavor which is loved by some and not so much by others.
It’s not necessarily true that a yellow tomato is less acidic than a black or red tomato–it all depends on the levels of sugar-acid combination as well as other compounds which gives it a milder taste. You can experiment tomatoes of different colors to find your most preferred sweetness.
It is also important to know that the more dense and healthy the foliage on a tomato plant, the more it captures sunlight which is converted to sugars and other flavorful components. Therefore, plants with many leaves like heirloom varieties which include; the black cherry, chocolate stripes, delicious red beefsteak and so on, are considered to be tastier than those with scarce leaf percentage like the hybrid ones found in the market.
According to the father of mountain pride and other common tomato varieties, Dr Gardner, heirlooms are sweeter due to their very soft texture when ripe and that their cells rapture quite fast to release the juice and the flavor components in the cells. This is not the case with the grocery store tomatoes which are meant to withstand rough handling for shipping purposes. However, there are many hybrid home garden tomatoes that are tasty. Just make sure the tomato leaves are healthy.
Factors That Influence Tomato Growth
Regardless of the tomato variety you grow, external factors such weather can make a huge difference on tomato health and flavor. For instance, an identical variety can taste better when planted in California than when grown in the Deep South where nights are longer.
Whether you are growing tomato seeds in a nursery or using purchased plant seedlings, in-house or outside, you need to provide the right atmosphere for proper growth. Given the proper conditions, you can grow tomatoes almost everywhere except in extremely cold weather.
There are genetic and external growth-influencing factors. Here are the external factors that influence the tomato health and flavor.
Soil tops the list when it comes to growing healthy tasty tomatoes. Without good soil, your tomatoes won’t grow to maturity leave alone sweeten.
So, you need to ensure the soil in your garden is rich in all the nutrients required for seed germination and growth of a tomato plant. Your soil should be well aerated, have the appropriate pH and enough water.
You need to learn as much as you can about your soil and these lessons are in the next chapter of this book.
You need to regularly supply your tomato with water for them to grow strong foliage and healthy fruits, and to avoid cracking caused by sudden changes in moisture levels of your soil. Too little or too much moisture inhibits growth of plants.
Good soil moisture directly translates to better uptake of nutrients and efficient manure utilization. There is nothing you can do concerning excessive rain but when watering is under your control, watch out for any tendency to overwater your tomatoes.
Soaking your garden dilutes tomato flavor. You can manage any water menace by getting some good drainage or irrigation; dig trenches or whatever else that keeps off excess water!
When you hear the word temperature, think about heat intensity. Just like us, these fruits love a warm environment and need an average temperature of 65 degrees F. (18 C.) or more to ripen.
Therefore, make a point of waiting until frost threats pass before setting your tomatoes in the garden. The ideal temperatures for growing tasty tomatoes are 50s or 60s nighttime and 80s daytime.
Higher temps during days and night will trouble your tomatoes fruit growing process and lower temps will reduce the plant’s ability to create flavor compounds. If the heat is too high, your tomatoes will lose more water, won’t breathe well and won’t take in water and nutrients, plus worms and other microbes will be destroyed.
Freezing temperatures will kill your plant. This does not mean that if you do not have ideal temperatures, you can’t grow flavorful tomatoes; just make sure you choose tomato varieties suited to your region.
Heat is Key to getting a tasty tomato; there is a remarkable dissimilarity between a tomato that ripens in cool conditions and one that enjoys the benefit of good, hot summer days. Check with your extension officer to get advice on appropriate variety.
Quality, intensity, and duration of light are the most important aspects when it comes to sunlight. Tomatoes need areas with full sun and much protected from strong winds as well.
Natural light is best for healthy leaf formation and fruit flavor. The sun’s brightness takes full advantage of photosynthesis in tomatoes, letting the plants make carbohydrates that are eventually converted to flavor components—acids, sugars and other substances in the fruit.
Giving your tomatoes 6-8 hours of intense sunlight daily greatly favors them so plant your tomatoes in a place that has enough access to light. Cloudy, wet regions without clearly defined day and night temperatures, like the Northwest, fail to produce the finest-flavorful tomatoes.
However, heirloom varieties such as Seattle’s and San Francisco Fog are known to perform better than most of other varieties in such areas.
Grow your tomatoes in well-ventilated places. Co2 is converted to organic matter during photosynthesis and it is released to the atmosphere after that. Sufficient air circulation ensures that your tomatoes grow healthy and tasty.
You should avoid air pollutants like the excessive chemical sprays which are toxic and suffocating to your tomatoes. Use ceiling fans to improve air circulation if you are planting indoors.
Like any other plant, tomatoes are vulnerable to attacks from pests and diseases. Using fertilizers in excess makes plants even more susceptible to diseases so watch out on that. Weeds compete with your tomatoes for moisture, light, and nutrients so you should get rid of any weeds in your garden.
Similar to humans, for good health, tomatoes require the right balance of nutrients. For instance, if your soil is calcium deficient, your tomatoes will suffer from blossom-end rot.
On the other hand, too much nitrogen accelerates leaf growth but can lessen the number of fruits or flowers. Nitrogen boosts the health of your tomato leaves, which adds on flavor.
Yellow leaves indicate nitrogen deficiency. To increase on nitrogen levels, add organic manure, which is a healthier option. Studies have proven that the inorganic manures are full of harmful synthetic chemicals, so make a healthier choice. Organic sources include; alfalfa, fish meal, compost, leaf mold and feather meal.
Potassium helps in keeping diseases at bay and promotes tomato growth. Its deficiency slows growth and weakens the tomato plant. To boost on potassium level, use available organic substances such as granite dust, wood ash, and rock sands.
Phosphorus aids in formation of tomatoes' roots and seeds. Insufficient phosphorus in your soil can cause tomatoes to have reddened stems and stunted growth. If your test results indicate that your soil needs more phosphorus, you can add some bone meal or compost manure to boost it.
Soil Testing Strategies
Soil testing will help you know what needs to be done to make the soil ideal for tomato growth. Learning about your soil’s acidity texture, drainage, composition, and mineral density will help you curb the frustrations that you may experience when your soil is unsuitable for a tomato garden of your dreams. You will get invaluable tips on how to do soil testing in this chapter and for sure, you will see that soil testing is not rocket science.
First, you need to prepare a soil sample to use in the testing process. You can use the sample collected to do the testing on your own or send to a soil lab if you can’t do it for some good reason.
General guidelines for collecting a sample
1) Fill a cup with your vegetable garden top soil (4 to 6 inches from the surface) then put the soil in a plastic bag.
2) Dig soil samples from different parts of your plot. Obtain six to eight similar samples then put them in the plastic bag.
3) Combine well the soil from all the cups; put two cups of the mixed soil in a different plastic bag —you have your soil sample!
After you've collected your sample, you can take it to the lab or do the testing yourself to get more hands on experience and understand your soil better.
Here are several soil tests you can do on your own:
Soil Test#1: The Squeeze Test
Soil composition is one of the most basic characteristic. Soil is broadly classified into 3: clay, loam, and sandy soil. Clay is slow draining but rich in nutrients, sand is fast draining but doesn’t retain nutrients while loam is the considered the mother of all soils and ideal for planting delicious tomatoes and almost all other crops. Loam is rich in nutrients and retains moisture without being soggy.
Steps to test your soil type:
1) Take a handful of moist soil (not wet) from your garden.
2) Squeeze it firmly then release your hand.
3) Stroke it lightly. If it retains its shape but crumbles when you stroke it, you are very lucky to have the luxurious loam in your garden.
Soil Test#2: Soil Drainage Test
Testing your soil’s drainage is equally important when it comes to planting sweet tomatoes. A waterlogged garden makes tomatoes tasteless, which is why if you pick a tomato the morning after it has rained, you will notice it’s not as sweet as it was before the rain.
Steps for checking soil drainage:
1) Dig a hole; one foot deep and six inches wide.
2) Pour water into the hole up to the brim and let it drain off completely.
3) Fill it with water one more time.
4) Record the time it takes for the water to drain each time.
If it takes more than four hours for the water to drain, you have poor soil drainage and you need to improve it by digging trenches or applying other methods available for soil drainage problem; tips are available online or inquire from extension officers.
Soil Test#3; The Worm Test
Worms are wonderful indicators of how healthy your soil is, in biological activity terms. If you see earthworms coiled up or moving in your garden, you should rejoice because their presence means that there is a high chance that all the bacteria, nutrients, and microbes necessary for a healthy soil and strong tomato plants are present in your garden. A dead soil destroys all life forms!
Steps for checking on worms:
1) Ensure your soil is at least 55 degrees warm and somehow moist, although not soaking wet.
2) Dig a hole one foot deep and one foot wide. Put the soil on a cardboard piece or a trap.
3) Sift the soil through your hand as you put it back into the hole and count your blessings-earthworms. Don’t fear the worms; they don’t bite!
If you have at least 10 or more worms in your hand, your soil is in excellent shape. Less than 10 worms is a red flag for insufficient organic matter in your soil to support worm population growth or that your soil is too alkaline or acidic.
Prepare Your Soil And Plant Your Tomatoes
Soil preparation is a crucial step you should take before you start to plant your tomatoes. A well-prepared soil produces first-class tasty tomatoes. When preparing your soil, keep in mind that chemical fertilizers may promote growth of the plant, but do not increase on the flavor of the fruit and in fact can make tomatoes hardened and bland, use organic manure for healthy and tasty tomatoes.
Here are simple guidelines of preparing the soil in your garden:
1 - Warm the soil
Start the soil preparation by warming the soil on which you plan to grow your tomatoes. Tomatoes do well in warm soil. Add gravel to the soil, which helps with drainage and raises the soil temperature. Either you can wait for the air temperature to rise, which will take a while or you can simply cover your soil with a black plastic paper to help in moisture absorption. You can use bricks, rocks or anything else sturdy and heavy to secure the plastic firmly on the ground just in case strong wind blows.
2 - Test your soil’s pH level
Use the soil acidity test kits as mentioned earlier. If needed, you can adjust your soil’s pH level. If the pH is too high, put some sulfur in it and if it’s too low, put in lime. If your soil acidity is not suitable, your tomato plant can’t absorb all the nutrients required for proper growth, even if your soil has them in large amounts. If the acidity is too low, it will increase solubility of minerals such as manganese making your tomatoes toxic.
3 - Evaluate your soil’s nutrient level
Use the acidity test kit or take a soil sample to a local approved lab for testing. The test will show you the chemical makeup of your soil and the nutrients in your soil. There should be a good balance of potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus in your soil for you to yield good tasty tomatoes.
4 - Add compost
A great way to improve your gardening soil is put some compost to help improve the soil cultivability, structure and nutrition retention. It also attracts earthworms and increases microbes. Compost is made up of broken down organic matter. You can purchase compost manure in a gardening store or you can make your own using leaves, fruit and vegetable wastes or yard clippings. Add plenty of manure-based or spent mushroom compost to your soil. Dig a roomy hole and mix the soil with the compost. Whether using a pot or your garden, work a half-inch of compost into the soil.
Once your soil is setup, you can now go ahead and plant your seedling indoors or outdoors.
5 - Planting process
You can start to grow your tomatoes from seeds, which will not only offer you a variety of choices, but also costs less. If you are using seeds from a ripe tomato you just ate, make sure they are dry and fermented and from a good plant like the heirloom or they are open pollinated seeds.
- 1Put the seeds in a container with water and place a loose fitting lid on top to allow oxygen to enter. Label the container to avoid mix-ups.
- 2Put the loaded container in a warm place somewhere far from you to avoid the awful smell. Wait for 2-3 days and stir the mixture daily until you see some molds on the surface, then remove the mold with some gloves on.
- 3Pour some more water into the container to dilute the mixture, pour out the unwanted solution then sieve out the seeds and rinse them before they germinate. Dry your seeds on a non-stick surface like a baking sheet for several days. Store in sealed plastic bags or in the fridge (not the freezer) inside airtight containers for later use. Label the containers and bags!
If you buy them from a garden or a nursery, make sure you select bushy plants without flowers and lookout for presence of any pests.
6 - Steps for planting seeds
- 1Sow your tomato seeds indoors before taking them outdoors in pots or trays for around six weeks before the expected end of spring frost in order to avoid stunted growth or even death of your plant. The proper pots (peat pots or other small pots) are available in garden stores or local nursery.
- 2Make sure you fill your pot with soil mix, for example 1/3 course vermiculite, 1/3 peat moss and compost. Just find a good mix online or seek extension services.
- 3Sow the seeds in holes 2 to 3 inches deep inside the pot or tray. Sow twice as many seeds so that you can be able to select the healthiest and strongest seedlings to grow in your garden.
- 4Mist tomato seeds daily for the initial 7-10 days. When the first sprouts appear, water less frequently. Keep checking your pots daily for plants peeking out of the soil.
- 5Cut off the plants you don’t need with scissors to avoid space and nutrient wastage; if you planted twice as much.
- 6Transplant your seeds to 4 small pots if you are sowing them in a tray, because the roots will run out of room to grow. After the first true leaf appears, hold it carefully using your thumb and fore finger with one hand and use a chopstick, pencil or any similar object to dig into the soil and loosen the roots (don’t hold the stem). Put them in a pot with well-prepared soil. Put the seedlings at the centre of the pot and pour dirt over the roots, avoid pressing the soil down; you might damage the roots so just water them and everything will fall into place.
- 7Take your plants outside regularly a week before transplanting them to your garden, under bright light of 6-8 hours in order to harden them off. After your plants are above 2 inches, you need to place support in order to help them grow strong.
- 8Transfer your plant outdoors. Once your nighttime temperature is consistently higher than 50 degrees and your tomatoes are 6 inches (15.2 cm) tall, you can transfer your plant to your well prepared garden. Dig a hole of approximately 2 feet deep and put in some organic manure. Take off some lower leaves to make sure you plant them deep enough. This will promote root growth, which translates to better uptake of water and minerals, and avoid plant water loss. Plant the tomatoes in simple rows and use about 8-10 seedlings in each row for a small, manageable garden. Add peat moss to your soil to improve its drainage if you desire or build a raised garden using a good wood like cedar.
How To Care For Your Growing Tomatoes
Tomato plants require extra care to ensure that they grow into healthy and flavorful fruits. We can’t talk about caring for healthy tomatoes without touching on pests and diseases which greatly affect tomato yields, health and flavor.
Presence of diseases and pests suggests that something is not right in your plant internal and external environment. Plant diseases and pests are mostly due to poor conditions such as inadequate water, nutrients, space or sun; pathogens such as bacteria, fungi, or viruses; and weather.
However, with proper maintenance and care, you can overcome most of these problems easily. Just like humans, you need to boost your plant’s immunity. Also, if your area is prone to certain types of diseases or pests, make sure you choose the kinds of tomatoes that are listed as resistant.
Try to grow three to four tomato varieties to see which one suits your locality, which is susceptible to diseases and which one tastes better. If growing tomatoes outside, you can start with cherries or black krim for they do well in most areas and ripen faster than others do.
Here is how to care for your plants and keep off the pests and diseases:
Mulch your tomatoes
Once the soil is fully warmed up, you can do mulching which helps to suppress weeds, retain moisture, and avoid disease problems.
Don’t mulch too early to avoid prolonged cool underground temperatures. In the fall, you can plant living mulch called hairy vetch. You can mow it down in spring, and plant tomatoes through it, which works very well.
Several studies propose that hairy vetch mulch enhances the tomato plant’s ability to utilize nitrogen and calcium and increases their resistance to disease.
Other mulches, such as chip mulch, wheat straw, promote the plants’ roots and prevent rain from splashing soil-borne disease microorganisms onto the foliage.
Keep your plants upright
Maintain your plants in an upright position, by growing them in sturdy cages or secure them to trellis or stakes-this largely depends on your space.
This keeps the foliage high over the ground, which increases the chances of each leaf’s exposure to the sun and lessens the risk of foliage loss due to disease in addition to making fruit picking easier. Just make sure you don’t destroy the roots in the process.
Water your plants
Never let your plants droop due to insufficient water supply. You need to water your plants if the weather is warm and dry. Water the plant deeply in the morning hours for approximately once to thrice a week.
Avoid watering at night, which endangers your plant, as insects prefer wet dark environments and it makes your tomato vulnerable to diseases such as rots and mold.
If you water during noon, the water will evaporate very fast, even before your plants absorb. You can sink in a pipe vertically on the ground when you plant the seedling on the garden, to make sure the water gets to deepest roots faster.
Water your plant at the ground level and not on the leaves to prevent diseases. Water the soil not the plant stems or leaves!
Feed your plants
Just keep the nutrients coming. Every week after your plant starts flowering, give them a comfrey or seaweed feed to increase fruit production.
Fertilize your tomatoes immediately after planting using premixed high phosphorus-low nitrogen organic manure to avoid diseases, promote growth and taste. Do this to your garden once a year.
Remove the plant suckers
You can cut off any shoots that form between the main branches and the stem as your plant grows-they just consume valuable energy from the emerging fruit.
Just leave a few stems near the top to prevent sunscald. When growing tomatoes outdoors, cut off the tops once the first six fruit trusses appear in order to focus the plants energies.
Harvest the fruit at peak time
Tomato fruit should emerge six days after transplanting. Keep an eye on the plants daily once they start ripening, to ensure you get maximum flavor.
Once the fruits are fully ripe, pick them by gently twisting the fruits and not pulling out the vine.
Growing healthy and tasty tomatoes is easy once you’ve identified the ideal cultivar for your area depending on the weather, temperatures, soil and other aspects. And even if some of the conditions in your area are not ideal for the particular cultivar that you want to grow, you can always adjust such conditions as soil pH, nutrients, and drainage to ensure that you only provide the very best conditions for your tomatoes to thrive.
It is best to plant tomato seeds indoors then move them outside when they have a few leaves after about 6 weeks. Once you’ve transplanted them, you will then need to watch out for pests and diseases, protect them against harsh weather conditions, provide sufficient sunlight, monitor the temperatures, water them properly and ensure that they are fed properly if you want to harvest tasty tomatoes in the end.