Big, Bold Tomato Flavor

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Sea Salt And Compost

I was recently asked why even homegrown heritage tomatoes can taste a little flat. There are quite a few factors that influence the flavor of all fruits and vegetables, from soil quality to plant variety. For one thing, excess water and high nitrogen fertilizer both dilute flavor in all food crops. As Italian farmers and gardeners have long insisted, tomatoes should grown on the dry side to develop the boldest flavor. Early in the season, water weekly as needed, wetting down soil only, since wet leaves encourage foliage diseases. Toward summer’s end, let plants dry out a bit between waterings. By late September, let foliage wilt just a little before watering to get the last fruits to ripen properly.

To bring out the natural flavors of fruits and vegetables, mulch generously with compost and water sparingly, as needed. Compost mulch is as important as fertilizer because it helps plants build natural sugars called brix. Though brix is an indicator of sugar content, high brix counts improve complex flavor profiles in everything from tomatoes to turnips and peaches to peppers. Compost is also a key to strong, sturdy plants because it encourages vigorous root growth. It’s often said that roots are plant anchors, keeping them upright while keeping them well nourished. Wide spreading roots can harvest water and nutrients even from less than ideal soil. Compost improves soil quality and texture, making it easier for roots to penetrate dense or airy soils. Since most compost is close to pH neutral, it helps to balance acidic or alkaline soils as well (many edibles prefer pH neutral soils).

Give Gross Feeders What They Need

Tomatoes are what’s known as gross feeders, meaning they require a lot of food to succeed. Tomato plants in pots benefit from frequent feeding (as in every 10-14 days), as fertilizers get washed out by repeated watering. Plants in the ground can spread their roots a lot further, so feeding once or twice a month is plenty. It’s best not to count on time-release fertilizers, which don’t work when temperatures are below 70 degrees F. What’s more, they can burn tender plants by releasing too much too fast on hot days.

For better results with container plantings, supplement potting soil with compost and use natural fertilizers that combine quick and slow-release foods. Both Whitney Farms and Dr. Earth make excellent fertilizers of this kind. To promote steady production, surround each tomato plant with a cup of corn gluten at planting time. High in nitrogen, corn gluten also kills weed (or any) seeds by drying out emerging seedlings.

Sea Salt For Fuller Flavor

For even fuller, brighter flavor, you can also feed tomatoes with kelp extract and a mild (5-5-5) organic fertilizer. If tomato stems break before the fruit has a chance to ripen fully, the problem may be linked to using inadequate water-soluble fertilizers, especially when tomatoes are grown in pots. Liquid seaweed extracts help strengthen weak stems by supporting steady plant growth even when cold nights follow warm days. Kelp itself combines micronutrients and trace elements with natural plant hormones and growth stimulants that promote root growth, improve stem and foliage density, and increase chlorophyll production. Kelp extracts also contain traces of sea salt. This turns out to be yet another key to amazing taste. In fact, a single dose of salty seawater (1 cup of seawater per quart of tap water) can improve tomato flavor in particular.

About 15 years ago, New Jersey farmers were alarmed by the decreasing flavor of field grown tomatoes. A number of field trials and studies suggested that changes in fertilizer ingredients had resulted in reductions of measurable sodium in soils. Though too much salt can kill plants, a little can help them develop their best flavor. Where fertilizers and/or soils retained sodium, tomatoes had greater concentrations and variety of sugars and acids that influence the tomato flavor profile. Amending less salty field soils with mined sea salt (in the form of an agricultural product called SEA90) boosted soil levels of sodium, chloride, and many other minerals in trace amounts. Happily, a panel of blind testers found the salty tomatoes decidedly tastier than untreated ones.

Bring The Sea Home

If you want to try this at home and are not near a source of fresh sea water, check out this link.

Here’s one researchers’ report:
“For growers interested in conducting a small trial to evaluate the effect of salt fertilizer on tomato taste here is a suggested protocol: Use 46 grams of to treat an area 4 square feet or land area needed to grow one tomato plant. Apply the treatment by mixing the SEA-90 product into the soil at time of planting. Flag the treated plant and perform your own personal taste test by comparing the treated fruits to other fruits of the same tomato variety from another part of the field. Leave some border space between plants when sampling fruits for comparing treated and untreated plants.

An alternative approach is to use sea water from the Atlantic Ocean. {Or Pacific, of course} 1300 ml (or 0.35 gallons) of sea water contains about 46 grams of salt which is enough to treat one tomato plant. Apply this seawater as a soil drench around the base of the plant two weeks after transplanting. To prevent leaf burn, do not allow the seawater to touch the leaves.”

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