Organic Tomatoes Triumphant

It’s nice to learn that a respectable, long-term study has confirmed that organic tomatoes contain far more beneficial flavonoids than the conventional kind, but this news won’t be much of a surprise to people who value true organic produce* for its (frequently) superior flavor. Other things like variety, climate and distance-from-farm being equal, good taste and high nutrient content are both results of a growing method that works in partnership with plants instead of treating them like machines for turning synthetic fertilizers into edible widgets.

Tomato plants grown the conventional way get frequent doses of those fertilizers and of powerful pesticides that provide blanket protection. Organic feeding is slower and steadier; and the permitted pesticides are usually less speedy and less lingering. That means organically grown plants must be able to stand up for themselves, and one of the ways they do it is with the antioxidants that look so promising for fighting human disease. Plants that have all their needs met in advance produce far less of these compounds.

And plants have evolved to use solar power. Sun on leaves is what makes flavor, especially when there is a high ratio of leaves to fruit. Heavy jolts of fertilizer can goose the plants into making more fruit, but fertilizer can’t make more sunshine. Result according to people with taste buds: pallid flavor. Result according to the scientists: “nutrient dilution.”

Meanwhile, back in the garden:

* be sure your tomato plants are getting enough water and getting it consistently. The stress of alternating drought and deluge prevents plants from taking up calcium; calcium deficiency leads to blossom end rot.

* if you have an eye on the county fair, consider sacrificing part of the crop. Remove all but one baby tomato from each truss of fruit and the survivor will grow far larger than it would have otherwise. ( Same goes for your dahlias, by the way. )

* if you are growing beefsteak type heirloom tomatoes like Brandywine and Georgia Streak, it’s best to harvest them before they’re completely ripe. I’m not talking about green ( at least not until frost) but just barely on the pale side of fully colored – 2 or 3 days in front of vine ripe. Picking before the fruit is ripe may seem counter to the whole point of growing your own, but unlike strawberries tomatoes do continue to improve after they leave the vine. Taking them indoors while they’re still slightly firm lessens the chances they’ll crack from a late rain or, as far as I can tell, just natural cussedness.

This is sort of cheating because it was taken in late fall and some of these were rather green when they left the vine. Note that they are in single layers, which helps prevent rot – among other things because we can’t help keeping an eye on them. Anything nasty gets removed promptly, before problems can spread. Flavonoid content of tomatoes like these has not been studied, as far as I know. But I do know that only the red ones contain significant amounts of lycopene (another, quite different, antioxidant that’s also much in the news) and that if you want to load up it’s best to cook and concentrate ‘em. Cup for cup, old fashioned Jersey-Italian tomato sauce will deliver a lot more lycopene than Southwestern salsa.

* I say “true organic” because sustainability matters. Spinach grown without conventional pesticides is a better choice than spinach grown with them (especially if you’re feeding children) . But if the organic spinach was grown on a monocropped 1000 acre field; tended and harvested by underpaid itinerant workers and then shipped clear across the country in something that burns petroleum, it still has a way to go before it’s organic by me, and it may also fall short in the flavor department.

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