Big, Beautiful, Tasty Tomatoes
by: Aidan Feeney
Tomatoes are the gods of the summer garden. No other crop demands so much dedication, sacrifice and preparation from the grower, and no other crop offers a comparable reward.
To the uninitiated, who have never experienced anything but flavorless commodity tomatoes, salvation can be found in a single bite of a back-yard tomato.
The main advantage that home-growers have over largescale producers is that they have the ability to allow their tomatoes to fully ripen on the vine. They can also select varieties that are bred for flavor and texture, rather than just yield and shelf-life.
An increasingly common distinction between home-grown and commercial tomatoes is that home-grown tomatoes are grown in soil and many commercial tomato operations are hydroponic. There are intangible interactions between the plant and the earth that create flavors that cannot be imitated from nutrients out of a bottle.
Growing tomatoes successfully is all about preparation. Putting plants in the ground is the easiest part of the entire process. A successful harvest is hinged upon thoughtful selection of varieties, having a plan for trellising and pruning, providing adequate fertility for the plant and proper spacing.
Plant your tomatoes deep in the soil. The deeper you plant them, the less likely they are to experience water-stress. In fact, tomatoes have the ability to sprout additional roots from the stem when it is buried. These additional roots make the plant hardier and more efficient at finding water and nutrients. Planting your tomatoes deeply also reduces transplant shock from exposure to wind and the elements.
Give your plants plenty of space in the garden. One of the biggest threats to a successful tomato harvest is foliar disease caused by airborne spores. The best way to manage this is to encourage air flow between plants, leaves and stems. As another precaution, never water the foliage on your plants, just water the base of the plant.
Pruning and trellising
When preparing to prune and trellis your tomato plants, you need to know whether you are growing indeterminate or determinate varieties. Indeterminate varieties, as the name implies, can grow to an undetermined height. The plant will keep growing taller, producing more branches, suckers and flower clusters as long as it stays healthy, or as long as you allow it to.
Determinate varieties, on the other hand, grow to a genetically-predetermined size. Once they reach a certain height and produce a certain amount of flower clusters, the plant will put all of its energy into growing and ripening tomatoes. For the most part, they stay under four-and-a-half-feet tall.
Regardless of the type of tomatoes you are growing, once the plants get about waist-high you should prune all the leaves from the ground up to 18 inches or so. These leaves don’t contribute to the plant’s productivity once it is established and they often become hot-spots for foliar diseases.
If you are growing indeterminate varieties which grow very tall, I recommend that you also thin out some branches and suckers in the
mid-section of the plant mid-season. This will create more air flow, keep the plants more manageable and encourage them to put more energy into growing large tomatoes. More advanced growers can take this to an extreme by pruning plants down to one or two stems. This will make it so you get larger tomatoes earlier in the season.
Your plants have to be trellised and kept off the ground. Once a tomato has fallen and starts growing crooked, it can be impossible to get it upright again. It is important to give the crop structural support. This can be done with stakes and twine, cages or any number of ways. The important thing is to have a plan from the beginning and know whether your plants are short-growing determinates or tall-growing indeterminates. If you miss a week or two of pruning, it’s not a big deal, but if you fall behind with trellising and your plants fall over, it can be disastrous.
Nutrition and Watering
Quality compost should be the foundation of your plants’ nutrition. Compost improves the structure of the soil, increases soil biology and provides many of the needed nutrients for the plants. From there, it can be beneficial to add calcium and some organic nitrogen at planting. The nitrogen will keep the plant growing and healthy during its initial vegetative growth stage. Nitrogen will help your plant produce chlorophyll, which in turn allows it to photosynthesize more effectively. Once the plant is flowering and setting fruit, you should start adding an organic potash. This will dramatically increase fruit size and quality.
Water your plants heavily when they are young, but once they set fruit you should water much more judiciously. Many tomato varieties have thin skin on their fruit. Erratic and over-watering will result in cracked fruit and diluted flavor.
Picking the right tomato variety is very specific to what you like, where you live and how you grow. With that said, growing your own tomatoes is an opportunity to pick something you will never find in the supermarket aisle. There is often an inverse correlation between shelf-life and flavor. That’s why I always grow some old varieties that predate national and international tomato-shipping. These old strains are like time capsules, each one a representation of generations of farmers saving seeds and creating a variety representative of a time, place and culture.
The best-tasting tomato I have ever grown or tasted was a Brandywine, a large, pink, heirloom variety that was bred by an Amish community in Pennsylvania. The fruits are often over one pound with a thin skin and a rich, peppery flavor. Taste-wise they are the perfect slicing tomato, but they are relatively low-yielding and not very vigorous plants. A similar heirloom that is easier to grow is German Johnson. Other heirlooms that I grow every year are Striped German, a large red and yellow tomato, and Carbon, a mid-size black-purple tomato that is early to ripen and very productive.
Beefsteak varieties are easier to grow than heirlooms. They are typically more productive and have thicker skin that is less prone to splitting. My favorite beefsteaks are Big Beef, Chef’s Choice Orange and Celebrity. These are all hybrid tomatoes that have excellent yields and pretty good flavor. Big Beef is an indeterminate that ripens early and grows well-sized, nice-tasting tomatoes. Chef’s Choice Orange is a great indeterminate orange slicer to grow in combination with Big Beef. Celebrity is a determinate red slicer with great flavor and production, making it the easiest to grow out of all the tomatoes mentioned.
For cherry and grape tomatoes, my favorites are Sun Gold and 5 Star. Sun Gold is a yellow-orange cherry tomato that has exceptionally sweet and citrus-flavored fruits. It is better than candy. You have to keep picking them regularly, though, as they are prone to splitting. 5 Star is a grape tomato that has a thicker skin and is less prone to splitting. While not as sweet as Sun Gold, it still has great flavor and is a very low-maintenance plant. ///
Aidan Feeney is an island farmer who owns Fogtown Farm. He grew up on Nantucket and went to Sterling College and farmed in both the Hudson Valley and Long Island before moving back home.