Tasty Tomatoes

The word is out on tasty tomatoes — the uglier, the better. It seems the pretty pink firm pommes you find in the supermarket are hybrid varieties grown for their ability to ship well and not much more. Their lackluster flavor leaves a gaping hole on the salad of anyone who has grown tomatoes in the back yard — especially if it was your parents’ garden, and you just enjoyed the warm soil between your toes and a hot tomato in your hand.

Now those strange bulbous tomatoes are back, at local farmstands at least. It’s time to give them a try, or better yet, plant them in your own garden. Even a single tomato plant in a large pot with drainage will survive and flourish with adequate sunlight. Consider buying or planting yellow-fruited tomatoes, too; they are surprisingly sweet. Husky Gold VF is a sturdy yellow variety that is well suited for growing in containers on the patio.

We asked several local experts for more tips on growing a tasty tomato.

Henry Homeyer

Homeyer is a University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension master gardener with more than 50 years experience in gardening. He is the author of “Notes from the Garden: Reflections and Observations of an Organic Gardener “and more recently “The New Hampshire Gardener’s Companion.” (www.globepequot.com)

In his last book he recommends using raised beds that are four to six inches above ground level, with each bed being 24 to 36 inches wide. You avoid having too many paths that reduce planting area and reduce the amount of soil that is tamped down by foot traffic.

His favorite varieties for tomatoes include a few heirlooms — “Striped German,” “Cherokee Purple” and “Brandywine” (the best tasting of all he claims). Other top picks include “Jet Star” (early and disease-resistant) “Red Agate” (grape), “Big Beef” and “Sun Gold” (prolific cherry tomatoes).

He also recommends not rushing to put the baby tomato plants into the ground. He feels it is less important than you might think. Wait until the ground has warmed up nicely — you should be able to sit on the ground for 5-10 minutes without freezing your bum, he states. If you rush them into the ground and get hit by a late frost, you are back to square one — particularly if you have started unusual tomatoes from seed, varieties that are not available at the local farm stand.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so he recommends stirring in a cup of bagged organic fertilizer and a shovel of compost when you plant them. Stir it into the soil in an circle 18-inches in diameter, centered where the tomato will grow.

To prevent an invasion of weeds he recommends mulching around the tomato plants with straw or mulch hay on top of a thick layer of newspapers. That solves the weed problem and aids moisture retention. Wait until the Fourth of July weekend to mulch so the soil is good and warm.

Mary Ann and Guy Esposito

Guy, Mary Ann Esposito’s husband, is the head gardener for the backyard garden that supplies fresh vegetables for the home table and Mary Ann’s “Ciao Italia” public television show.

Guy suggests adding manure or composted manure when the soil is tilled in the spring; then fertilize once a week with a liquid 10-10-10 solution. He warns against overwatering, which can cause the fruit to be watery and tasteless. And be warned, if there is too much rain or water, there is the danger of blossom-end rot.

For tomato varieties, Mary Ann loves Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes and Italian varieties they order online through an American distributor. See the link on her Web site, www.ciaoitalia.com, for seed sources.

Derek Sarnow

Sarnow had two successful restaurant models, the 100 Club and Mahalos, both in the Portsmouth area. He became so enamored with quality vegetables he sold out to start his own organic farming operation just over the border in Maine. He eventually came back to cooking and catering with Mizuna in Greenland, but he still maintains the farm growing mizuna, a micro green, and more for his own restaurant.

Sarnow is organic all the way and goes so far as to recommend vegan compost. That means no animal products or manure in the mix. (www.mizunanh.com)

Chef Liz Barbour

Barbour cooks with many of the flowers she grows in her cottage garden in Hollis. Although feeling she doesn’t have time to grow regular tomatoes, she is willing to try a pot or two of the cherry variety on the patio.

As a gardener she suggests cutting back on the leaves when the plant is about eight weeks old. They will provide better air circulation and allow more of the moisture to go to the fruit. Barbour also moves her plants into dappled sunlight once they begin to blossom, claiming it is better for the developing fruit. The smaller tomatoes not only ripen earlier, but also bear fruit right up until frost.

As a chef, she suggests not only putting the cherry tomatoes in salads, but also cooking them up into sauces. They have less liquid and consequently make a “tighter” sauce. (www.thecreativefeast.com)

Roger Swain

Swain is a science editor with Horticulture magazine and a member of the Slow Food Convivium in the Monadnock region.

Swain explains that blossom-end rot of tomatoes is a physiological deficiency (not a disease caused by a pathogen), and the breakdown of tissue in the blossom fruit has to do with a deficiency in calcium uptake by the plant. Most vegetable-garden soils in New Hampshire that have been amended with ground limestone to a pH of 6.5 (per a soil test) contain sufficient calcium. Blossom-end rot is better addressed by making sure that tomato plants have an even supply of water. The variation of heavy rainfall and then drought is the primary culprit because it causes drastic fluctuations in soil moisture, which leads to insufficient calcium uptake. A layer of moisture-retaining mulch, such as black plastic film, will do more to solve the problem than adding anything to the soil.

Swain says, “As for what you should add to your garden to make the tomatoes grow well, in general, there is no substitute for the gardener’s shadow.” You guessed it. Plants that are regularly tended do far better than those that are ignored.

Danielle and Joshua Enright

The Enrights own and operate the Seedling Café in downtown Nashua. They strive to use organic produce in the sandwiches and gourmet-to-go meals. (www.theseedlingcafe.com)

“We prefer the heirloom varieties,” say the Enrights. They are much more flavorful, easier to grow and you can save the seeds if you find a great variety. Their favorite is the currant tomatoes. They are tiny (about the size of a large pea), but super sweet and flavorful. The vines are large and produce a ton of the little things.

They plant in soil that has been amended with lots of compost and is very loose, burying three or so inches of the stem in the soil. The buried stem produces roots that make the plant much stronger and fruitful. For mulch they use grass clippings to keep the weeds out and the moisture in. This keeps watering to a minimum (overwatering can cause cracked tomatoes which rot quickly) and thwarts weeds, which can steal the nutrients from the tomatoes. The other recommendation is seaweed emulsion. If sprayed directly on the tomatoes, the leaves absorb the trace minerals to help keep deficiencies at bay and make the whole plant stronger. A strong plant will be much less prone to insect infestations.

If you are serious about gardening but have little space, you may want to consider the Verti-Gro system. Sticks and Stones Farm (776-8989) in Center Barnstead is a distributor and uses the product to grow strawberries and produce hydroponically.

A series of pots are rigged on a vertical support and a whole series is connected via tubing to a nutrient tank. Visit www.sticksandstonesfarm.net for more information.

Now, not only is Ugly Betty popular, so are ugly tomatoes. The Florida Legislature recently had to come to grips with its classification for shipping tomatoes that ranked fruit by its beauty. An ugly contender made its case and won. NH