From a tiny yellow blossom: a grape-sized tomato, a golf-ball-sized orb, or something the size of a grapefruit? The size of the blossom doesn’t tell you much about the size of the fruit that’s on the way.
Tomatoes are coming on full-force in my small kitchen garden, and I hope you’re having the same kind of luck with yours. I understand that cool and wet weather has challenged many tomato plants from the Midwest into the Northeast. The lucky folks, apparently, have lost some fruit to blossom-end rot. The unlucky ones have seen late blight decimate their plants.
Whether your tomatoes are growing strong, coming ripe, or dying on the vine, you’ve probably been involved in at least one conversation about tomatoes this year. The one I hear repeatedly is about how terrible are the tomatoes you buy in grocery stores. Invariably, everyone in this conversation agrees, and someone offers up that those tomatoes come off the vines green and travel cross-country while ripening… and if it doesn’t ripen on the vine, it’s just no good.
I respectfully submit: That last observation is complete hogwash.
Water regularly, and your tomatoes will likely come out OK. However, one ill-timed rainstorm could cause cracks that lead to rot, insect infestations, and mildew.
Genetics Makes a Lousy Tomato
If you want a tomato that tastes horrible and has lousy texture, start by planting seeds for the “tastes horrible and has lousy texture” tomato. That’s what commercial grocery suppliers do. Plant breeders spent decades developing varieties of tomatoes that hold up incredibly well when stacked and jostled during harvest and transport. They paid no attention to the flavor and textural appeal of these tomatoes.
Hapless grocery store shoppers buy those horrid things because those shoppers have grown up believing real tomatoes taste horrible and have lousy texture. OK… that horrible flavor becomes an acquired taste if it’s the only tomato you ever eat.
If the tomato cracks early, it may try to heal itself. Once healed, it won’t attract insects and disease, but there will be a section you’d rather not chew.
These tomatoes aren’t bad because they’re picked green. They’re bad because they’re a lousy breed. Put a decent tomato on a truck and ship it 3,000 miles, and it’ll be a smooshed tomato at its destination.
Vine-Ripened is Over-Rated
On the flip-side of this discussion is the erroneously perpetuated belief that a tomato must ripen on the vine to be good. I’m confident that the belief exists because no right-minded gardener would pick a tomato before it’s ripe (unless there was threat of frost). Yet, would the right-minded gardeners of the world pick some un-ripened tomatoes for the sake of comparison, they would learn an astonishing and happy truth: vine-ripening is way over-rated.
In fact, vine-ripening tomatoes is one of the most challenging of all gardening tasks… yet experienced gardeners so often suggest tomatoes as the ideal beginner’s crop: Tomatoes are so easy to grow, we say, and they’re so superior to store-bought. But unless you have absolute control over how much rain falls in your small kitchen garden, and how often it falls, growing beautiful ripe tomatoes is a bit of a nail-biting proposition.
This tomato cracked because it got too much water during ripening. The cracks healed, but then the tomato received too much sunshine, so it developed green shoulders. When I slice this up for salad, I’ll probably cut off some of the green stuff, leaving less to eat.
Perfect Tomato Culture
When a tomato first emerges from its tiny yellow tomato flower, it’s hard to visualize the monster it may eventually become. Still, over the course of a month, the little green ball grows larger as it sucks water from the tomato plant. To produce a perfect, ripe tomato, the plant must draw from a steady supply of water. If there is no rain, you should water two or three times a week. Ideally the weekly total will be a full inch of water over the area defined by the outstretched leaves of the plant.
If you can manage that, you may also need to control the amount of sunlight that reaches the individual tomatoes; a tomato that gets excessive direct sun may not ripen evenly.
Cracks and Hard Spots (Green Shoulders)
So, you’re controlling the amount of water and sunlight your tomatoes get, and then it rains. Your tomato plants don’t mind too much of a good thing; they suck up the additional burst of water and the young, green tomatoes get larger. Here’s the rub: tomatoes that have started to ripen aren’t as resilient as younger, greener tomatoes. As they expand under the new load of water, their skins are likely to stretch and tear.
A tomato that gets extra water during its last week or two of growth can develop stretch marks and cracks in the skin. Left to finish ripening, the cracked tomato can attract fruit flies and other sugar-loving insects, fungus and mold, and bacteria that rapidly reduce the tomato’s innards to smelly slime.
Even without the rain storm, sunlight striking the top of a tomato on the vine can prevent ripening there while the bottom and sides of the tomato sweeten, soften, and turn bright red (or whatever other color represents ripe for the varieties you grow). These “green shoulders” detract considerably from the flavor and texture of an otherwise ripe fruit.
This tomato has just started to show pink; I‘ll let it ripen on my dining room table and it will be ready to use in seven-to-fourteen days. It will taste every bit as good as a cracked tomato with green shoulders that ripens on the vine. Actually, it’ll taste better, because it won’t have green shoulders!
So, Don’t Vine-Ripen!
Earlier I said, “…unless you have absolute control over how much rain falls and how often…” You do have such control! Quite simply: don’t let your tomatoes ripen on the vine. When pink first appears on a tomato’s skin, pick the tomato and set it inside out of direct sunlight.
Unless I get busy and miss a few days, I pick each tomato when it starts to change color. Typically, this means that every second day, I harvest anything showing pink. I fill a large stainless steel bowl with the day’s pickings, and set it on my dining room table. About seven-to-ten days later, the tomatoes reach peak ripeness without torn skin and without green shoulders… and every tomato is just as delectable as any tomato I ever let ripen on the vine. In fact, every tomato is nearly perfect… and I could never say that in the days that I left them on the plants.
I picked these tomatoes about two weeks before I photographed them. They ripened on my dining room table, and they are as red, juicy, sweet, and delicious as any vine-ripened tomato.
Oh, Yeah? (an Anecdote)
I visited with a farmer once who managed an impressive kitchen garden. Before touring his garden, his wife and I discussed various gardening techniques. At one point, she insisted: “Oh, we let all our tomatoes ripen on the vine. They’re just not as good if they don’t.”
I countered: “I’ve found if I pick them when they start to ripen, they never split or develop green shoulders… and you can’t taste the difference.”
Her reply: “A farmer can taste the difference… and our tomatoes never crack.”
When we reached the garden, every red tomato on every tomato plant had one or more cracks in its skin. (No, I didn’t comment about it… that would have been rude. But I’d sure like to put my tomatoes up against hers in a taste-test with farmers.)
Here are links to other articles that discuss green shoulders and cracking tomatoes:
Ripening Disorders in Tomatoes « Weekly Crop Update – I have seen a considerable amount of tomato blotchy ripening, yellow shoulder, graywall and white tissue in market tomatoes recently. The discolored tissue is often hard even when the rest of the tomato is ripe. These are physiological ripening disorders and not diseases.
Tomato Quirks Part 3 – Green Shoulders : Veggie Gardener – Have you ever had a tomato that seemed to never really ripen all the way on top? Find out how and why this happens, and how to prevent it.
Cincinnati.Com | Cincinnati Enquirer | Cincinnati Gardener … – Tags: black walnut tree, black walnuts, Cincinnati, cracked tomatoes, garden, garden question, Home and Garden, juglone, juglone toxin, split tomatoes. This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 14th, 2009 at 3:06 pm and is filed under …
tomato garden – cracked tomatoes causing disappointment this year … – longtime gardeners have struggled this year with cracked tomatoes — just as the tomato is almost ripe, it splits and in a short period of time, is invaded by insects or rots. many of the vegetable more …