Sunday, January 16, 2022

Tomato Basics

Harvested Tomato
Who doesn’t love the taste of a fresh from the vine tomato?  I know as a kid it was something that I under appreciated, leaning instead towards grandma’s strawberries, carrots, and the occasional bowl of green beans.  But now that my pallet has matured, I have come to truly appreciate the complexity of flavor, the subtle to strong sweetness, and the range of textures that tomatoes fresh from the garden have to offer.  They are one of my go to snacks while in the garden each summer.  I just love them, grow way too many of them, and have decided over my next couple blog posts to share a few tips and tricks that I have learned over the years.  I will be giving you some specific examples with the hopes that you can learn from my years of experience.  

Let’s start off by talking about how I classify tomatoes.  To me, there are really just three main types.  Slicers, meant for burgers, sandwiches, topping pizza, sliced in salads etc.  Roma’s, which are those beautiful elongated small tomatoes famous for sauces and salsas.  They are by design more meaty, with less seeds than a typical slicer and have a slightly lower water content.  And the humble cherry tomato, everyone's favorite for salads, fresh eating and stroll through the garden snacking.  Within these three basic categories, there is a wide, wide range of tastes and varieties to explore.  

Bus Tubs Loaded After Harvest

Now let me address the wormhole that is hybrid vs heirloom plants. I like to keep this simple, and focus on the true end result in this debate and that is the seeds inside the fruit.  Hybrid plants will produce seeds, but those seeds will not produce the same tomato next year if you were to plant them.  This is due to the fact that hybrid plants are specific crosses between two different tomato plants to achieve a desired outcome.  In agriculture there is this thing called hybrid vigor, which accounts for the fact that these types of crosses, in both plants and animals, can sometimes lead to more robust, stronger offspring and show increased harvest volumes.  In plain terms that means faster growth, better disease resistance, and more ripe tomatoes.  Not necessarily a bad thing depending upon your goals.  

Tomatoes Ripening on the Vine
Heirloom plants on the other hand are “old world varieties” that have in some cases been around for centuries.  They breed true to type, which means if you plant an heirloom tomato, you can save the seeds from the fruit and replant it next year and get the same tomato.  Which of course is a cycle that would never end, year after year, save the seeds and grow more tomatoes.  They often have epic flavor profiles as well and are some of the most beautiful tomatoes I have ever grown.  But this comes with a catch….. Remember what I said about crossing two specific tomatoes to get hybrids?  Well, if you plant eight different heirloom tomatoes in the same bed, pollen from the different flowers will transfer to other plants and you will end up with some seeds resulting from crossed plants.  In a sense, you will create your own hybrid seeds.  These new hybrids might be amazing and delicious, or they might taste bitter and nasty….trust me when I tell you that nothing sucks quite like nurturing a tomato vine all the way to the fruit stage only to figure out that you’ve basically been growing chicken food.  You also have to account for the fact that their growth might be slower, and their overall output lower.  These however are somewhat easy to address by starting your seedlings early, and making room for more plants to increase your harvest volume.  

Indoor Seed Starting Station

Now, the final thing to consider with tomatoes is this whole notion of determinant vs indeterminate. It’s taken me years to wrap my head around this, and actually an accidental purchase to really drive it home for me.  Determinant varieties are designed to grow, flower abundantly, put on heavy amounts of fruit all at once, and then die.  Indeterminate varieties by contrast just keep growing.  All summer long their vines will keep sprawling, keep flowering clear till the end, and give you a steady supply of ripe to baby tomatoes right up until they are killed by your first frost at the end of your growing season.  I used to think that these were the only tomatoes to grow.  Why would you want your tomatoes to stop after all?  I wanted that taste of summer to last till the bitter end.  Then something happened that changed my perspective.  

Hoop House Tomatoes
Two seasons ago, my wife was buying plants off and on here and there for the garden and she came home with some beautiful roma plants.  After planting them in the hoop house and looking them over more closely, I rather mockingly told her she had purchased determinant vines and that that was a mistake.  Next time by the indeterminate.  Boy oh boy was I ever wrong.  

Roma Harvest
Those plants absolutely thrived in my hoop house that summer, and all at once, I had a bus tub full of beautiful roma tomatoes.  The vines were spent, having never crowded out all the light and growing space in my small hoop house, and I removed them after that mid summer harvest.  For the first time ever, I had clear bed space after a tomato harvest with plenty of growing season left in the hoop house.  Had I been more ready, I could have slipped in some lettuce and other salad greens and gotten a head start on a fall planting that would have produced well into the fall season.  My views on tomatoes were beginning to change.  

Spaghetti Sauce Started
That bus tub full of tomatoes seemed overwhelming at first.  There was no way we could eat that many all at once.  I had to do something so I started looking around online and through old cook books and decided I should make spaghetti sauce.  Oh. My. Goodness.  Seriously, the best experience of my gardening career was that sauce.  It was…. And it tasted like….. Oh….. so, so good.  

Sauce After a Long, Low Heat Reduction

It is for that reason, all of these reasons really, that I now grow a wide variety of tomatoes.  I honestly grow them all.  We have some heirlooms and some hybrids.  We grow some of all three types, and I will now always grow some determinate varieties, probably in my hoop house, and see if I can recreate that epic sauce.  But it is the understanding of these nuances in the tomato family that have allowed me to come to that decision.  I hope this information helps you on your tomato journey.  In our next few posts, we will look more closely at each of three types, talk about some variety that I really enjoy in each, and then share some growing tips and tricks we have discovered over the years. 

What is your favorite tomato variety to grow? Share in the comments down below. I am always looking for new ideas and new varieties to try! And remember to get outside and get growing!  Life is better when it's lived outdoorz! 

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