The Great Tomato Debate

Tomatoes are the quintessential summer crop in the south. You aren’t considered a respectable backyard gardener, much less a farmer if you don’t grow tomatoes in summer. And rightfully so! After being denied all winter, everyone looks forward to the start of tomato season, and the first bite of a ripe heirloom slicer in a delicious tomato sandwich.

Tomatoes are a hot topic and people are rightfully passionate over one of the most beloved summer fruits in the south. Tomatoes are in fact, what began our obsession with growing food. If you’re interested in that story, you can read it here: Why Farming? It All Began With Some Tomatoes

From backyard gardeners, to professional growers, we all pour over seed catalogs wavering back and forth over which varieties to grow. We dutifully order our seeds, or purchase our seedlings as soon as there is a hint of a warm day in spring. Then we wait anxiously while babying our tiny plants and getting them ready to go in the ground. We lovingly prepare the soil adding just enough, but not too much nitrogen, calcium and compost. Then we water and wait.

Eventually the first flower appears, followed by a tiny fruit. This is usually cause for a small celebration, or at least a commemorative photo. As the fruit starts to grow, something else usually appears. At first it’s just a few tiny holes in some of the tomato leaves. Then the worms grow big enough to be seen. Yikes! Then it rains, which is good. But then the rain continues and now the bottoms of the fruit are browning. Possibly blossom end rot, maybe wilt too. Wait, is that a stink bug I see?

Growing tomatoes is hard. Even for us those of us that do it for a living, and we all have an opinion on the best way to do things.

We’d like to address a few of these passionately debated topics around tomato growing and share what works for us.

Heirlooms vs. Hybrids

We grow both. Heirlooms are known for being open-pollinated, meaning you can save seed and they’ll grow again true to type. These are often older varieties that have been grown and passed down for decades. Hybrids are a cross between two selected varieties and any seeds saved may grow a variation of either set of genes from the parent plants.

Hybrids get a bad rap because breeders have in the past selected genes for disease-resistance and yield, and have sacrificed the flavor of the tomato to achieve these. There are breeders working to undo this trend and we’re now seeing some that are incorporating rich and robust flavor into their hybrid species. We grow two of these varieties and really enjoy the taste of both. They aren’t quite as good as the heirlooms that we grow, but they perform well under stress from the weather and pests in addition to tasting really good.

Heirlooms are delicious. There’s no debating that, but they’re much more difficult to grow. The heirloom varieties that we grow are susceptible to fluctuations in the weather, fungal disease, wilt, pests and more. They like sun, but not too much heat or their pollen becomes sterile. They like rain, but more than an inch or two a week leads to blossom end rot.

We have always preferred heirlooms over hybrids, but I think we’ll keep trying out those breeders that are working to incorporate heirloom taste with hybrid disease resistance and improved yield. I think they’ll get there soon. In the meantime, we’ll keep growing both.

Determinate vs. Indeterminate

Determinate tomatoes grow to a set height and then stop producing fruit. This type of tomato is a bit more manageable in the size of the plant and is a good for compact spaces, however it’s likely that all the fruit will set at once and it can be easy to get overwhelmed with the size of the harvest.

We only grow indeterminate varieties of tomatoes because we sell over a long period of time during summer at the farmers market. We prefer to have smaller weekly harvests over a few months, though we do have to deal with the size of the tomato plant which can get unwieldy once it reaches 5-6 feet tall. Trellising is a must for indeterminate tomatoes and we use t-posts and wire to do this. We also use a technique called the Florida Weave using twine. This helps our plants stay upright and off the ground, which is important for reducing the spread of soil-borne disease.

Greenhouse Growing vs. Field Growing

There are a lot of farmers that grow greenhouse tomatoes. These plants are usually grown in containers, in a pre-mixed potting soil made especially for tomato growing. Greenhouse growing allows farmers to extend their growing season and sell tomatoes when it’s too cold outside to grow them naturally. Additionally, it can help farmers shield the plants from rain and control moisture because they can water via hose or sprinklers.

As organic farmers, the soil is essential to everything we do and we believe that we have a duty to improve the soil health on our farm. We also believe fruits and vegetables grown in healthy soil are more nutrient-dense and taste better. So, while we do start our seeds in the greenhouse in potting soil, as soon as they are large enough and it’s warm enough outside, they do directly into our field. We love rain, because it allows us to conserve water and only irrigate during long gaps between rain showers. Yes, sometimes we get too much rain and we lose some tomatoes. We also lose some tomatoes to pests as well, though crop rotation and mulching help protect against this.

Pruning vs. Natural Growth

Tomato pruning is a lot of work, especially when you’re growing over 500 plants. Proponents believe it can increase yield since removing the leaves forces the plant to concentrate it’s energy on the fruit. We haven’t seen any convincing evidence that this actually plays out in a meaningful way. Additionally, because we grow our plants in a field, in the soil as opposed to in buckets in a greenhouse, we need the leaves of the plant to help shield the fruit from the sun to prevent sun scald.

Keep Trying New Things

Regardless of where you fall on these issues, we’re all still learning. Keep trying new things – that’s how we get better as growers!

Thoughts on these issues or additional tomato growing tips? Please feel free to share in the comments below.

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