Building Bodacious Flavor In Tomatoes

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photo by Robin Cushman

Of Soil And Sea Salt

My new garden is charming if miniscule; the (very) narrow frontage is our parking area so squeezing in plants required some thought. However, where there’s a will, plant nerds will make a way. Now, a trio of 6x2x2-foot galvanized watering troughs line the front of our vintage mobile home, providing bed space for an astonishing number of plants. This limited space is amplified (of course) by more and more large pots. Indeed, the pots keep mysteriously increasing in number as I find just a few more things I can’t live without. Fortunately, those deep troughs are full of beautiful soil, so I can plant more tightly than I would otherwise. Thus, my gorgeous tomatoes share space with lavender and zinnias, while thyme and oregano snuggle up with Amsonia Blue Ice and fizzy green Santolina, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. This mashup of annuals, perennials, grasses and bulbs won’t stay together forever, of course; they’re merely having a sweet summer fling.

My next project involves rebuilding a side bed to provide some privacy screening and to make a home for more beloved plants. In the meantime, my edibles are thrilled with their position, getting light from the east and south with a bonus of reflected heat from the house and gravel parking area. As a result, I harvested several cucumbers yesterday and some of my tomatoes are already starting to get pink cheeks. Fittingly enough, my Blush Tiger is the first to show color; this husky plant is set on producing LOTS of elongated cherry tomatoes that are clearly going to ripen fast. Super Fantastic is also setting its plump fruit well; these are among the tastiest I’ve ever grown, with rich, true tomato flavor and a perfect sweet/tart balance.

Wait, Sea Water?

Since flavor is the whole point of growing your own tomatoes, here’s the deal: To get that fabulous, deep, rich flavor, we need to give our plants both great soil and a tiny sip of sea water. No joke! A single dose of salty seawater (1 cup of seawater per quart of tap water) can markedly improve tomato flavor. Several decades ago, commercial tomato growers in New Jersey farmers were horrified to find that their signature crop was losing its savor. Field trials and studies revealed that as fertilizer ingredients changed over time, measurable sodium in soils was reduced.

While an excess of salt can kill plants, the right amount can boost flavor in tomatoes and other crops. Where soils contain adequate sodium, tomatoes develop far greater concentrations and variety of the sugars and acids that influence the classic tomato flavor profile. When growers amended less salty field soils with mined sea salt (in the form of an agricultural product called SEA90), soil levels of sodium, chloride, and many other minerals again showed the trace amounts that make the difference between bland and bodacious.

Sea Water For The Land Locked

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.”

Real Food First

Of course, well fed plants will offer the very best produce. To enhance the natural flavors of all fruits and vegetables, mulch generously with compost and water sparingly, as needed. Sparingly? Yup. Excess water and high nitrogen fertilizer both dilute flavor, and tomatoes grown on the dry side will 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 between waterings to get the last fruits to ripen properly.

As for feeding, compost mulch is as important as fertilizer because it helps plants build natural sugars called brix. Brix levels indicate sugar content, and high brix counts improve complex flavor profiles in everything from tomatoes to turnips and peaches to peppers. Compost promotes strong, sturdy plants by encouraging root growth, and vigorous roots can harvest water and nutrients even from less than ideal soil. Compost also improves soil quality and texture, making it easier for roots to penetrate dense or overly 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).

Big Appetites Need Satisfaction

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 waterings. 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. To avoid multiple feedings, give each tomato plant a cup of corn gluten now, as a final feeding that will last 6-8 weeks. High in nitrogen, corn gluten also kills weed (or any) seeds by drying out emerging seedlings. For container plantings, use natural fertilizers that combine quick and slow-release foods (both Whitney Farms and Dr. Earth make excellent fertilizers of this kind).

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 combines micronutrients and trace elements with 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, which may make an ocean visit unnecessary….


This entry was posted in Care & Feeding, Planting & Transplanting, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Tomatoes and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Building Bodacious Flavor In Tomatoes

  1. William McCahill says:

    Most informative and helpful. Thank you.

  2. Tamara Mitchell says:

    Thank you! This is the first year I’m growing tomatoes in large pots rather than in the ground so they can be in a location that gets full sun. Your information is in perfect time for me to make use of it.

  3. Diane Hooper says:

    Thanks for the great article Ann,
    Only wish I had it a month ago! Think I’ve been watering my tomatoes too much:(
    Sent onto my neighbor, we are both always stressing about our tomato progress! Think I also need to get the right kind!
    Love the photo too!

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Thanks, Diane! Some tomatoes are feeling the chilly nights and would appreciate a little help from a light blanket of floating row cover or a water-filled wrap. You might also try giving them a sip of elixir…

  4. Tamara Mitchell says:

    So I sent for and received my Sea-90 and kelp extract fertilizers and I was making a drench for my tomatoes in pots today. I am wondering why not use this on everything? I put some on my peppers. If this helps tomatoes, why wouldn’t it help everything else?

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      I think it might help but definitely only do the drench one time. Too much salt can be a problem too! The SEA-90 has trace minerals that ought to help bolster soil nutrients and improve flavor too. Let me know how it works out!

      • Tamara Mitchell says:

        Yes. I was worried about the salt. Everything is looking quite happy after a couple of days 🙂

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