Seeking the perfect tomato for Northern summers

My grandfather’s backyard was a gardener’s dream. Flat as a postage stamp, with deep, rich soil and daylong exposure to intense southwestern Ontario sunshine.

My grandfather, a gentleman and tobacco farmer, had an incredibly green thumb. Among his harvests were tons of heavenly tomatoes.

The tomatoes were never mealy or white-fleshed, but deep red all the way through. They were also heavy, juicy, sliceable and not-too-acidic. They had a slight orange bloom on the skin from ripening on the vine.

A childhood of perfect tomatoes spoiled me for life; it is difficult to grow perfect tomatoes in most of Canada. But Northern gardeners are an optimistic bunch, and growing such tomatoes isn’t impossible, it just takes experimentation, planning and work.

If you keep this in mind that the tomato plant is native to the warm climes of Mexico and South America, you will be less disappointed when your tomato plants don’t produce bushels of fruit – and you will be more likely to artificially reproduce the hot, sunny environment that tomato plants crave.

Planting tomatoes in containers is helpful, because you can move them to sunny and hot locations. Planting tomatoes directly in the ground is less likely to produce high yields, unless you have used ground warming techniques and devices throughout the early spring and summer.

It’s easier to grow tomato plants in greenhouses, conservatories, containers, and raised beds. Surround the plants with small, moveable, heat-trapping devices such as jars, mini-cold frames or well-ventilated, clear plastic tents.

When the plants are small, place large, wide-mouthed glass jars over the wee plant, and prop up the opening at soil level with a stone, door wedge or piece of wood. This will improve air circulation and allow for excess moisture to weep out. Mound earth around the base of the tomato plant to encourage stability and strong roots.

Tomatoes with spindly roots will pop right out of the soil after a heavy rainfall and weak roots produce weak fruit. In fact, it’s helpful to let your tomatoes dry out a little once they have fruited.

This is counter-intuitive because tomatoes need a lot of water to first establish the fruit, but roots that reach deep into the soil for water create stronger fruit with fuller flavour. Tomatoes, like grapes, pick up flavour from the terroir (“sense of place”).

If you find your tomatoes have yellow leaves, you are killing the plant by over-watering. Over-watering also encourages pests.

To reduce pests and encourage growth, consider planting helper plants beside one another. Good companion plants for tomatoes are basil, onions, leeks and chives. Borage will repel tomato hornworm and marigold will encourage growth.

Some tomato varieties are more likely to produce fruit in short-season climes.

Amish paste tomatoes mature in 74-85 days, Black Cherry Tomatoes mature in 64 days and the Bellstar Tomato, developed in 1981 by Dr. Jack Metcalf of Smithfield Experimental Farm in Trenton, Ontario, matures in 65 days.

Stick to determinate varieties that produce fruit all at once in shorter time periods, as opposed to indeterminate types that continue to produce fruit on endlessly growing vines. To increase the quality of your harvest, taper off fruit production when the growing season is coming to an end. Pinch off blooms to encourage already established fruit to fully develop and ripen, otherwise, the plant will expend its energy trying to develop the newer fruit.

It’s also helpful to harvest tomatoes prematurely and ripen them indoors in paper bags, allowing newer fruit ripen on the vine — saving the extra delicious vine-ripened fruit for your final harvest.

Serve tomatoes in wooden or ceramic bowls because metal will react with the fruit and increase acid content.

Until Christopher Columbus re-introduced tomatoes to Europe as edibles, this member of the nightshade family — which also includes include tobacco, peppers, potato, and eggplant — were considered poisonous, and were grown only as ornamentals.

At the time, wealthy Europeans ate from plates made of lead and other metals. Hence, near-toxic acid levels in the produce could have started the rumour that tomatoes were poisonous.

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