“Why do tomatoes from the grocery store have no taste? They’re pretty but pale. Last a good while, fit on the bun, but have zero taste.” — F.R., Maryville

Great question … and one with an oxymoron answer; we humans asked for it to be thus!

There’s nothing better than a tomato, warm from the sun, and ripe for the picking! I’ve been with my grandparents, working in the garden, when one of them reached over, picked a beautiful, plump, red fruit, and bit right into it. Juice squirted out and ran down their chins as they savored the indescribable flavor of a freshly grown, nutrient-packed, refreshment. To this day, I’ll do the same thing!

Not so with a tomato-looking thing I buy in the grocery in mid-December! Yet, it was the demand-of-the-masses – you and me — that brought that supermarket item to us. Corporate US heard the unrest and sunk their money into research & development of this popular fruit, giving birth to what we asked for.

The original tomato, to the best of our research, was no more than a berry in South America, many years ago. It was nothing like where I live in upper east Tennessee, in the horridly humid summers. They’re native to an arid, coastal place that is not humid. As of 2012 there were about 20 states where tomatoes were grown commercially, with Florida growing the lion’s share of “slicing” tomatoes, and California doing the canning tomatoes.

Did you know that there are regulations, in Florida, that prohibit growers from exporting many of the older, better tasting varieties, because they’re “not pretty? They must be “flawlessly smooth and evenly round.” They must be a certain size and have no blemishes. Taste has nothing to do with the choosing.

Tomatoes love the heat, but are pretty much flattened with disease after the humidity starts. Many of the fungal and bacterial onslaughts grow so well in the warm, still, humid nights in July, so about the time the fruiting begins in earnest, so do the diseases. You can imagine what Florida growers must do to produce a sellable crop; pesticides, fungicides, synthetic fertilizer, some of which are the most toxic in the industry. USDA-tested tomatoes, bound for dinner tables across the US, were positive for 35 different pesticides!

What else have we lost besides flavor? Nutrients! Here’s a few: according to the USDA, 100 grams of fresh tomato: 30% less vit. C, 30% less thiamin, 19% less niacin, 62% less calcium than contained in the ‘60’s. Want more?? The modern-day supermarket tomato contains 14 times as much sodium!

How many cultivars of tomatoes are there? Between 10,000 – 25,000, and yet what we’re offered may be five. These have been bred, gene-spliced, DNA-altered, and manipulated until they fit the “perfect” picture of the slicing tomato; firm, keep longer, fit the bun, and make us think we’re eating healthy. Before they get to our table though, they’re picked green (absolutely no pink), packed and sent to warehouses where they’re gassed to achieve the “perfect” color, which makes our brains think they’re ripe. Marketing. Manipulation. But we asked for it. We purchased more than $5-billion dollars’ worth of “perfect,” tasteless tomatoes.

Thank goodness for seed-savers, and exchanges! More and more cultivars are available each year, in the form of open-pollinated seeds. There are even a few non-GMO seedlings now. Do your research in the fall, for “clean” seeds, and order ahead. If it’s plants you want, again, search before time to plant.

Things to remember when planting tomatoes: are they determinate (will stop growing at a certain height) or indeterminate (will grow taller as long as they live)? You’ll treat them differently as to spacing and staking. They like an alkaline, rich, loamy soil, and must have great airflow to keep down problems with disease. Don’t plant vines in the same spot as last year, as disease can overwinter in the soil. If you’re a smoker, Don’t handle your vines without washing thoroughly. Tobacco carries a disease that can kill the vines. Don’t overhead water ever. Keep the leaves dry to prevent disease. Soapy water with a little baking soda is often enough to slow the spread of disease.

By now you’ve got tomatoes up and growing and probably doing fine, if your soil is right. There’re probably tiny blooms, and maybe even small fruits on them, and you’re already anticipating the flavor. And you’re right. No supermarket tomato will ever compete with a home-grown one. Savor the flavor, and know that December’s tasteless wonders will return!

Sherrie Ottinger, aka: “The TN Dirtgirl,” is a regenerative Earth thinker, teacher, columnist, author and speaker. Her passion is all things “dirt.” She may be reached at velokigate@yahoo.com with comments or questions.

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