It is April Fool’s day and I find myself out in my garden admiring my tomato plants, small one inch round green tomatoes are hanging in clusters from the vines and all seems right in the world! It’s true, here in my central Texas garden I will have ripe tomatoes, ready to be picked and enjoyed by May 1st – I remember my Grandfather in Pennsylvania hoping for tomatoes by the Fourth of July. Tomatoes are the most popular garden vegetable (technically tomatoes are a fruit, but they're used more like a vegetable) in the U.S., with 95 percent of home gardeners planting them in their backyards. No matter if you get ripe tomatoes in May or not until July we can all agree that there is nothing as wonderful as that first tomato of the season!
It's possible to successfully grow tomatoes even if you don't have a green thumb — in containers, raised beds or virtually anywhere there's soil — but simple tips can turn otherwise ordinary tomatoes into extraordinary tomatoes. For even more Tomato download this PDF first offered on my website several years ago, called, 10 Tomato Tips.
Tip No. 1 - Variety – Choose the best for your area.
Supermarket tomatoes are designed with travel readiness and pest resistance in mind. At home, you can choose tomato varieties based on their reputation for flavor and intended use as well as hardiness in your growing region.
Mother Earth News conducted an online survey of more than 2,000 mostly organic gardeners to reveal the best tomato varieties by US region. For North America, overall, the best slicer tomatoes included Brandywine, Early Girl, Better Boy and Beefsteak. Top cherry tomatoes included Super Sweet 100, Sungold, Black Cherry and Sweet Million.
In the category of "really big tomatoes," the winners were Beefsteak, Brandywine and Big Boy, while the top tomatoes for canning or making paste included Roma, Amish Paste, San Marzano and Opalka varieties.
The best variety for getting the most nutrition on an ounce for ounce basis was the Juliet Hybrid cherry or small plum style tomato.
Broken down by regions of the US, the top choices included:
Stupice and Sweet Million
Arkansas and Creole
Mid-Atlantic: Amish Paste and Brandywine
Super Sweet 100 and Juliet
Better Boy and Black Cherry
Striped Roman and Jet Star
North Central and Rockies:
Early Girl and Yellow Pear
Sungold and Other Cherry
Source matters, so choose seed companies wisely. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is one such option, which has a number of the best varieties and guarantees their seeds to have no chemical coatings. www.Phytonutrientfarms.com is a great online source and guarantees hand-harvested, hand-sorted, organic, NON-GMO fine quality seeds for every order.
Tip No. 3 - Start Planting
Once you've chosen your tomato varieties, it's time to start planting. Transplanted tomatoes do best, so either purchase transplants or start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last spring frost date. Tomatoes do best in full sun, so choose an area that gets plenty of daily sunlight, at least 6-10 hours.
The Old Farmer's Almanac recommends planting seedlings 2 feet apart and pinching off the lower branches prior to planting. "Plant the root ball deep enough so that the remaining lowest leaves are just above the surface of the soil, then water well to reduce shock to the roots."
You'll need to water the plants for the first few days and continue to give them about 2 inches per week throughout the summer (a rain barrel works well for this purpose). There are many other variables that may influence the final outcome of your tomatoes, including most importantly, their taste. A tomato's flavor is the result of an interplay between sugars, acids and other chemicals that give a tomato its scent. Researchers from the University of Florida have identified more than 3,000 aroma volatiles involved in tomato flavor, including some that contribute to a tomato's perceived sweetness independent of sugar concentration.
Growing conditions and much more also contribute to tomato flavor. For instance, as noted by NPR, which spoke with tomato researcher Harry Klee at the University of Florida:
- The more direct sunlight your tomatoes get, the sweeter they'll taste
- Too much water can dilute tomatoes' flavor; ideally, water three to four times during hot summer months (adjusting down for rainfall)
- Experiments suggest that so-called "salt fertilization," or dousing plants with a one-time dose of sea water (or water with natural sea salt) improves tomato flavor (although this must be done carefully, as it may burn foliage)
- Soil quality matters; in particular, soil with plenty of organic matter or compost is best
Tip No. 4 – Amend the soil to get better tomato flavor.
Adding compost to soil is important for a number of reasons, one of which is that it's a good source of sulfur, a compound that's often missing from soil but is not measured by standard soil fertility tests. "Sulfur is especially important because this nutrient forms organic compounds in the plant that gives flavor to vegetables," according to Joseph Heckman, Ph.D., extension specialist in soil fertility with the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.
When you apply compost and therefore add carbon back into the soil, the carbon feeds mycorrhizal fungi that eventually produce glomalin, which may be even better than humic acid at retaining water. This means you naturally limit your irrigation needs and make your garden more resilient during droughts.
Adding crushed eggshells to your soil is another simple trick. Rich in calcium, adding them as a supplement to the soil around tomato plants helps to provide nutrition and moderate soil acidity.
"Tomatoes that have a handful of eggshell meal worked into the planting site are not likely to develop blossom end rot," notes expert organic gardener Barbara Pleasant.
By optimizing soil composition and nutrient application, you can, for essentially the same amount of time, effort and energy, increase your yield six to eight times.
John Kempf, an Amish farmer and the founder and CEO of Advancing Eco Agriculture, is one of the leaders in the field of high-performance agriculture. The results you can achieve when you apply the principles he teaches are truly astounding. As Kempf says:
"You have to have different expectations and you have to begin managing your crops differently. For example, when you are expecting to produce 60 to 70 pounds of tomatoes per plant, you no longer plant the plants 12 inches apart. That doesn't work logistically. You have to begin spacing tomato plants two and a half to three feet apart. But all of a sudden, you only need six tomato plants instead of 36!"
We are learning all the time that tomatoes, or love apples as they were once called, are extremely good for human beings. Research is constandly confirming tomatoes as a nutritional “Big Gun.” Ever wonder why that is? Flavor is only one reason to home-grow tomatoes; they're also incredibly healthy. Rich in flavonoids and other phytonutrients, tomatoes have anti-carcinogenic and other healthy properties. They're also an excellent source of lutein, zeaxanthin and vitamin C (which is most concentrated in the jelly-like substance that surrounds the seeds) as well as vitamins A, E and B-complex vitamins, potassium, manganese and phosphorus. Other lesser-known phytonutrients found in tomatoes include:
- Flavonols: rutin, kaempferol and quercetin
- Flavonones: naringenin and chalconaringenin
- Hydroxycinnamic acids: caffeic acid, ferulic acid and coumaric acid
- Glycosides: esculeoside A
- Fatty acid derivatives: 9-oxo-octadecadienoic acid
Organic tomatoes have proven better for our health.
Using organic growing methods makes sense, as it's better for your health and the environment. Plus, the resulting tomatoes may be more nutritious. One study found growing tomatoes according to organic standards resulted in dramatically elevated phenols content compared to tomatoes grown conventionally, using agricultural chemicals. The organic tomatoes were found to contain 55 percent more vitamin C and 139 percent more total phenolic content at the stage of commercial maturity compared to the conventionally grown tomatoes. The conventional tomatoes were significantly larger; however, while many unaware consumers equate size with quality, this simply isn't the case. At least in the case of organic tomatoes, you get more even though it may be in a smaller "package." Now that you're ready to plant your tomatoes, the next question is what to do with your harvest.
Presented below are two of my favorite ways to use tomatoes from my garden. First in a cold tomato soup preparation and second in a gluten-free, sugar-free, low-carb, and Paleo friendly, not to mention delicious tomato sauce recipe.
Cold Tomato Soup
This cold tomato soup recipe is one option that might fit the bill on those hot summer days of July and August. It's perfect for lunch or dinner and uses other home-grown garden favorites like cucumber and basil.
- 1 long European or Japanese cucumber
- 1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, quartered
- 2 slices red onion, soaked for 5 minutes in cold water, drained and rinsed
- 2 large garlic cloves, halved, green germs removed
- 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt to taste
- 1/4 cup broth from the farro, an ancient, less allergenic form of wheat (optional)
- 2 to 4 ice cubes (optional)
- 1 cup cooked farro or spelt (*see below)
- Slivered fresh basil leaves or very small whole basil leaves and additional olive oil if desired for garnish
- Cut cucumber into 2 equal pieces. Peel and roughly chop one piece, and cut the other piece into 1/4-inch dice, for garnish.
- Working in 2 batches, blend roughly chopped cucumber, tomatoes, onion, garlic, vinegar, olive oil, salt, farro broth and ice cubes (if using) in a blender for 2 minutes or longer, until smooth and frothy.
- Taste and adjust salt. Transfer to a bowl or container (a metal bowl is the most efficient for chilling) and chill for 1 to 2 hours.
- Place about 1/4 cup cooked farro (or spelt) in each soup bowl. Ladle in the soup. Garnish with diced cucumber and basil. Drizzle on olive oil if desired and serve.
- *To cook farro or spelt, soak 1 part farro with 3 parts water for 1 hour or longer. Bring to a boil, add salt to taste, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer 50 minutes, or until the grains begin to splay. Some brands of farro are softer than others and yield a softer, starchier grain. 1 cup raw farro yields 3 cups cooked.
Next, we have…
Homemade Tomato Sauce
I find the taste of homemade tomato sauce to be way better than any kind of jarred sauce. And it costs much less, too. The active preparation time is as long as it takes to pick some tomatoes and chop a bit of garlic or (if garden tomatoes are not in season yet) open a can and chop some garlic.
You can make this sauce with either cans of crushed tomatoes or fresh tomatoes. If using fresh tomatoes, you would need about 12-15 medium sized tomatoes. There is definitely more work involved when using fresh tomatoes, but it is worth it!
First, you will need to get the skins off. The easiest method for this is to score the skins with a sharp knife, and then boil them for about a minute and then place in cold water.You will want to do this in batches.
Once you the tomatoes have cooled, the skins should peel off relatively easily. Then chop them up, and blend in a food processor. You can control how chunky or smooth you want the sauce by how long you blend them for.
Once this step is done, follow the rest of the recipe using the tomatoes you just prepared as the crushed tomatoes.
This recipe does require about half an hour of minimally attended cooking to stir the sauce and prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pot. You may not have that time on the night you’re making dinner. Luckily, this sauce can be made 5 days ahead of time and can also be frozen. The recipe can be doubled, tripled, quadrupled… Just make sure to increase your pot size.
This is my go-to sugar free tomato sauce for pizza, stuffed zucchini and pretty much everything that calls for tomato sauce. It sounds kind of boring, I know – canned tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic. But the sauce is way better than the straightforward ingredients make it sound. Once you’ve made it a couple of times I think you’ll find it very simple and well worth it.
One person’s feedback on this sauce was that it took way longer than 30 minutes to reduce. I strongly suspect that was either because the pot diameter was too small, the heat was too low, or your home grown fresh tomatoes were extra plump and juicy. A wide pot and a lively simmer will ensure that the liquid in the sauce evaporates quickly.
An important note about what pan to use. Tomatoes are acidic and will react with aluminum and copper. So, it’s important to use a non-reactive pan when making tomato sauce. Use a stainless-steel pan. I’m referring to the exterior material only. Many stainless-steel pans have copper or aluminum cores, and that’s fine. Same goes for the spoon you use to stir the sauce. No aluminum. Wood is great and feels good to hold, so I prefer that.
- 1 28 oz. can peeled whole tomatoes (Italian or regular), roughly chopped with juice reserved, or crushed by hand as described in the instructions. My favorite are the Muir Glen brand.
- 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) extra virgin olive oil
- 5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fairly fine
- 1 teaspoon salt
- freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 1/2 - 2 cups fresh basil leaves, rinsed and roughly chopped or
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano, basil, or rosemary
- 1 onion, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced into half-rounds
- Tomato sauce reduces more quickly in a wide pot. Choose a non-reactive pot (not aluminum or copper) with a diameter of at least 8 inches. If I'm doubling the recipe I use a pot that's 11 inches wide x 3 inches deep.
- Open can of tomatoes and roughly chop tomatoes, reserving juice; or if using fresh tomatoes chop 15 medium tomatoes and retain as much liquid as possible.
- If adding onions, put oil and onions in pot and cook on medium heat until onions have softened, about 5-7 minutes. If not, then proceed with just oil and garlic as described below.
- Put oil and garlic in pot, turn heat to medium, and cook garlic, stirring, until it just starts to color slightly, about 30 seconds. It's important not to allow garlic to darken or burn. If that happens, you need to start over because the sauce will not taste good. Remove pan from heat.
- Add chopped tomatoes and juice or if using fresh tomatoes, you can may add ½ cup of tomato juice if your chopped tomatoes do not provide enough juice. Add salt and pepper. If adding herbs, do so now. Stir to combine with a wooden spoon.
Botanists tell us that the tomato is actually a fruit, not a vegetable. But other fruits have it all over the tomato; they have more flavor, more charisma. Mangoes are more voluptuous, oranges are juicier, raspberries more tartly delicious. As a berry, the tomato is just the wrong size. (Would you want one in your cereal?) The tomato's decision to defect to the vegetables was a good career move. As a vegetable, it competes only with sweet corn for allure. If the onion is the vegetable that can make you weep, the tomato is the one that can make you smile. A pile of cucumbers or cabbages or kohlrabies or carrots in the farmers' market can be abstractly beautiful, but the moment you lay eyes on a basketful of bright, ripe, red tomatoes, you can't help but get happy. If they're cherry tomatoes, you want to pop one or two or three of them right into your mouth. Tomatoes are their own best sauce, as well as the best sauce for everything else. You may have noticed, incidentally, that when it defected to the savory side, the tomato brought its desserts with it. Tomato pie, tomato sorbet, tomato pudding, all are eaten with, or as, the meal, not as the finish to it. Yes, you could say I love tomatoes!