Plan now for the best tomatoes next year
A myth among tomato lovers is that home-grown tomatoes taste best. Not true! The best varieties of tomatoes are what taste best, whether they're grown on a farm or in a backyard.
What about growing conditions? You would think that tomatoes grown on a farm or backyard in a sunny, Mediterranean climate would taste best. Not necessarily so. There are hundreds of tomato varieties and, again, the variety is what's important for flavour.
Many farms, however, grow varieties selected for commercial qualities. That translates to tough skins able to withstand shipping, bold colour for eye appeal, and uniform ripening for efficient harvest. Flavor is secondary.
So we're back to home-grown tomatoes for the most reliably good flavour — IF you grow the best-flavoured varieties. These varieties generally aren't offered as transplants, or seedlings, so you might have to grow your own from seed. Now is a perfect time to find what tomatoes suit your palate so that you can get your seeds in order for next year.
Taste a lot of different tomatoes from neighbours' gardens, farm markets, even supermarkets. For any tomato that you like, find out the variety name. Don't be lulled by appearance; go by taste.
Once you have the name, you can order seeds for next year. Search the web; a number of seed companies specialize in tomato varieties.
If you can't find the variety name of that tomato you love — it might be lost among a neighbour's grab bag of seed packets — simply save its seeds yourself.
Generally, seeds come most true (that is, they will grow into plants that bear fruits just like the ones from which you got the seeds) from non-hybrid tomatoes, which constitute many of the finest tasting tomatoes. Hybrid tomatoes generally do not come true, but some "hybrids" are labeled as such only to dissuade seed saving. So all seeds are worth a try.
SAVE YOUR OWN TOMATO SEED
Here's how to save tomato seeds yourself: Cut the fruit in half along its "equator" to give better access to all the seed-containing cavities. Gently squeeze the fruit over a drinking glass, along with some coaxing with a teaspoon, to get out most of the seeds. (You can still eat the fruit after you've removed the seeds.)
That jelly-like fluid around the seeds contains inhibitors to prevent their germination while they are still in the fruit. Add water to the jellied mass of seeds to leach and ferment away the inhibitors.
After two to three days, pour the seeds into a fine sieve and rinse with water.
Now that the inhibitors have been removed, prevent the seeds from sprouting by patting them dry and spreading them on a paper towel. Set that towel in a bright, airy location to hasten drying, and once they are thoroughly dry, pack the seeds away for storage. Under cool, dry conditions, tomato seeds keep well for four years.
Fortunately, tomatoes are among the easiest vegetables to grow. Mark your calendar to sow your saved seeds about six weeks before the average date of spring's last killing frost in your area. (This information is available online and from your local Cooperative Extension office.)
Six weeks later, you should have stocky transplants ready for the great outdoors, and then 10 weeks or so after that — depending on the variety — you'll be eating your fill of great-tasting tomatoes.