Ask gardeners about their favorite-tasting tomato, and there may be as many different answers as there are gardeners. One thing just about everyone agrees on is that homegrown is better than store-bought, which is why tomatoes are the most popular home garden vegetable in the country.
The plant’s genetics and a balance of acidity and sugar determine much of a tomato’s flavor. Tomatoes that taste sweet have a higher ratio of sugar to acids. Genetics determine many volatile and aromatic compounds that are not yet fully understood; their presence is variety specific. This genetic variation explains the passion some folks have for the taste of certain varieties. For example, Cherokee Purple is an heirloom that has been popular in Alabama over the last few years because of its complex flavor. For gardners still searching for a favorite tasting variety, the only way to find one is to try new ones or rely on advice from gardening friends.
In the garden, an interaction of the plant’s genetics with the environment ultimately determines tomato flavor. Here’s a few things to consider in selecting tomatoes for your garden:
Fruit size. Cherry and grape tomatoes reach higher concentrations of sugar than full-size fruit, so for sweet tomatoes, grow these.
Fruit color. Pigments tend to be associated with different balances of acids to sugars. Black tomatoes, which are a combination of red and green pigments, have complex flavors. Yellow and orange tomatoes often taste milder and are less acidic than red ones.
Leaves. Leaves are where sugars are made, so plants with dense canopy can convert more sunlight to sugar. Heirlooms tend to have a high leaf-to-fruit ratio, which may explain their general reputation for flavor. It also means they generally have fewer fruit per plant than most hybrids.
Soil. Maximize flavor by incorporating compost and source-rich organic matter into the soil including plenty of potassium and sulfur, which are important to flavor. Clay soil holds more minerals and often lead to better flavor than sandy soil unless it’s been well amended. The old-time amendment of Epsom salts adds sulfur (and magnesium) to the soil.
Water. Like with watermelons, a lot of water just before harvest dilutes the sugars in the fruit, so harvest before a downpour and avoid over watering.
Temperature. The ideal temperature for flavorful tomatoes is in the 80s during the day and in the 60s at night. That explains why California homegrown tomatoes usually have us beat. One thing Alabama gardeners can do is plant tomatoes where they get a little late afternoon shade from a distant tree or house peak to help keep the plants from respiring away all their sugar reserves in the hot afternoon sun. If you’re uncomfortable, your tomato probably is too. There is a common problem with fruit set in the summer. New heat-set varieties such as Solar Fire, Heatmaster, Phoenix, Solarset, Sunmaster and Florida 91 are bred to set in higher temperatures than many varieties. Most cherry tomatoes are quite heat tolerant.
Sun. Intense sunlight is important to photosynthesis in the leaves where sugars and other flavor components are made. For maximum flavor, tomatoes should get eight hours of sunlight daily, but many producers still get decent fruit with six hours.
Because tomato flavor is a matter of personal taste, experiment with selections and growing techniques.
Lois Chaplin is an accomplished gardener and author. Her work appears here courtesy of Alabama Farmers Cooperative.