Tomatoes: Past & Present


I started vegetable gardening as a hobby in 2008. It had became very important to me to grow tomatoes -- the sweet, fat, juicy tomatoes that I remembered from my childhood. And I knew, that in order to grow tomatoes that were different from the ones I had been buying, that I should talk to an expert. So I went to my Uncle Mike. I talked to him about my seeds, watering, and which fertilizers were the best. I listened to every word he said, because his garden was a magical place and he was, therefore, a tomato wizard.

Metal monster lurking at Uncle Mike's place


My family would visit Mike's garden at least once every summer. Sometimes we would watch him catch a swarm of bees. Other times we would just pick vegetables for home canning. And if you could eat it, it grew there. If the grocery store carried 100 vegetables, then Mike grew 1000. The green bean plants were so tall that you needed a ladder to even get close to the tops. Onions were the size of grapefruit. Rhubarb leaves were 6 feet across. Sweet, crispy corn on the cob grew in row upon row upon row. There were cucumbers of all sizes. I hated cucumbers, but I sure did like the pickles Dad would make from them. Carrots, potatoes, garlic, cabbage, beets... And tomatoes. Those were the tomatoes that I wanted to grow.

I didn't know why Mike's tomatoes were better than the ones I had been buying, but I knew they were better. The skins weren't tough. They had more flavor. Was it the variety that he was growing? Was it the fertilizer?

It only took a single gardening season for me to realize that tomatoes grown at home were better, even if they came from a first time grower like me. But it took me seven more years to really understand why. Part of it is in the satisfaction you get from knowing that you are, quite literally, eating the fruits of your labor.

Homegrown 1.5 pound tomato

But there are two other major factors to consider, and it applies not just to tomatoes.

The first is the variety, the specific breed. When I look at a catalog before buying my seeds, I am choosing based on the description of that tomato. I am looking for one with robust flavor. High nutrient content. Natural disease resistance. One with meaty pulp for making sauce. Or one that grows colorful cherry tomatoes for snacking. Maybe I am looking for one that matures even if the summer is cool and rainy. There are hundreds of varieties to choose from, and I can pick exactly what I want. My garden is personalized for my tastes. Compare this to what you get at the grocery store. In general, you will see three different displays of tomatoes. There is usually one pile of big slicing tomatoes, one Roma type, and usually one cherry tomato as well. So instead of hundreds of choices, you have three. If you're talking about something like zucchini or celery, you may only have one choice. That's not really "choosing" at all. Rather, it is the grower that made the decision for you. And that decision is based on what is important to the grower, not what is important to you or I. Varieties shipped to grocery stores are typically chosen because they are cost effective, they look attractive to the buyer, they are of a uniform size to make packaging easier, they can withstand the bumps and bruises of transportation over long distances, and, somewhere in there, taste also comes into play. Odds are, the grower and I will not be choosing the same variety to plant this year.

Second, is the method of ripening. the vast majority of tomatoes purchased in a typical grocery store were picked while they were still green. They are brought to warehouses where they are exposed to ethylene gas. This is the same gas that is naturally emitted during field ripening, and the tomatoes, recognizing nature's signal, ripen right on cue. (1) Again, this aids the grower -- not the buyer. Green tomatoes don't spoil, and because they are still hard when green they can get tossed around without damaging the product. As a home gardener, we would never pick a tomato green unless a hard frost was about to destroy our crop - along with our caprese salad hopes and dreams.

Caprese salad with handmade mozzarella

We've all heard that vine-ripened tomatoes taste better, and that they are better for you. Is that true? Or is that just a myth being propagated by critics of the food industry? According to a paper (2) published in the Journal of Food Science in the year 2000, there was a both a nutritional and a perceived difference. The paper combined information from past studies (from the 1920's through the 1990's) with a new study that was designed to eliminate factors that could cause skewed results. What they found was pretty clear. The tomatoes that were allowed to ripen naturally on the plants had higher nutritional value than their gas-ripened counterparts. Their lycopene content was 32.51% higher. Lycopene is a free-radical anti-oxidant, which can help protect against cancer. (3) Their beta carotene content was 32.66% higher. Beta carotene is converted to Vitamin A, and may help prevent certain cancers and slow down the progress of age-related macular degeneration. (4) The vine-ripened tomatoes had better color, they were firmer when ripe, and taste-testers liked them better.

This doesn't sound like haters bashing The Food Industry, you won't find me spreading conspiracy theories and nutritional propoganda. This is just science, backed up by studies and the National Institute of Health. I feel very confident when I say that tomatoes that are allowed to ripen naturally, like those grown at home, or the ones you'll find at a Farmer's Market, really are better. Plant a few this year, I'll show you Mike's way. Start choosing real food, healthy food, the way it was meant to be.