High-acidity Tomato Variety Wanted
August 21, 2008 11:21 AM   Subscribe

Tomato grower expertise needed.

I planted a variety around the 1st of June (maybe late?) called "Big Beef" and live in upstate New York. It hasn't been a hot or sunny summer. My plants have 15-20 tomatoes, 5-8 oz. each, but only about a third are ripening and the season is almost over. The few I've harvested so far are bland. I'm pretty sure this variety is a hybrid and it is indeterminate. What are the pros and cons of going with an heirloom? I'm looking for a high acid variety because I prefer the taste and because I want to can. Is the acidity due to the variety or the soil conditions, or other factors? Should I prune the plants? Remove late/small tomatoes and blossoms that have no chance of ripening? Any advise or pointers to online info is greatly appreciated.
posted by sluglicker to Home & Garden (30 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm on a similar latitude, and I'd hardly call the season 'almost over'. Most tomatoes will keep producing right up until they get frosted. That said, if yours aren't getting enough sun, they won't ripen well. You might consider pruning the blossoms to let it focus on the existing tomatoes, or thinning the leaves so more sunlight gets to the unripened fruit.
posted by echo target at 11:26 AM on August 21, 2008

The few I've harvested so far are bland.

How are you watering? Has it been a wet summer? Tomatoes do best with deep, infrequent waterings. They get too much water, they don't taste so good. Once mine start ripening, I pretty much cut the watering out entirely.

What are the pros and cons of going with an heirloom?

That totally depends on who you ask. There are people who are practically religious about heirlooms, but that doesn't really make them reliable.

Some heirlooms have very good flavor. By and large, they are not as productive or reliable as hybrids, which, of course, have been bred for yield and disease resistance. I usually grow one or two heirlooms, but the majority of my crop is hybrids. I just have better luck with them, and don't feel like spending the time on tomatoes that aren't going to produce.

Is the acidity due to the variety or the soil conditions, or other factors?

It's mostly due to variety. And, again, too much water can cut the flavor.

Should I prune the plants?

There's no reason to do, unless you want to grow huge county-fair-winning fruit.

Remove late/small tomatoes and blossoms that have no chance of ripening?

No. You need to be patient. The tomatoes you have will ripen -- you just need to give them time. Leave them there until first frost. Then, pick the fully grown green ones. Stick them on your kitchen counter. They'll still ripen, eventually.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:31 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

On preview: Tomatoes don't need sun to ripen. The plants need sun, yes, but the fruit don't. They'll ripen in a dark closet, if you let 'em.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:33 AM on August 21, 2008

I'm down towards NYC and we've only started ripening in earnest a couple weeks ago. I'd say you're probably right on schedule for upstate. Tomatoes are acid loving plants in general, and that is down to the soil composition. I imagine a high acid variety likes seriously acidic soil. If your tomatoes are bland, you might be harvesting too early. Are they deep red? Or do they still have orange in them? If any are still partially orange or even green when you harvest you can let them continue to ripen indoors in a sunny window for a while until they are a deep red. It's not quite as nice as ripened fully on the vine but if a tomato falls or if it's getting squished in a big group of fruit it's the best option.

I'd recommend taking a sample of soil to a local nursery where they might be enticed into analyzing it. They can tell you what your soil composition is like and if there might be any problems with your variety, and if you might want any additives.
posted by rocketpup at 11:41 AM on August 21, 2008

Note to self: take tomatoes out of window sill.
posted by rocketpup at 11:43 AM on August 21, 2008

You too, huh, rocketpup?
posted by echo target at 11:48 AM on August 21, 2008

I'm a fan of pruning the suckers off the plant, and you may want to read up on the idea of 'topping' the tomato plant too. These ideas are of great debate among gardeners, so it's something for everyone to look into and decide on their own. My landlord doesn't really prune his tomatoes, but I do, and while he has a few more tomatoes than I do, mine seem to be nicer and have less cracks and insect damage. If you do prune, be careful of exposing the tomatoes to too much sun, as sunscald is a bit of a risk, especially if we gets lots of hot sunny days.

Some heirlooms are neat and tasty, and I have enough space that I grow too many tomatoes anyway, so that's why I prefer to grow hybrids. Since they're open-pollinated, you can potentially save your own sees too.

I'm in southern Ontario, only one of my tomatoes has started to ripen, but all mine are late season tomatoes this year, so it's to be expected. It's been a record year for rainfall, so I'd blame that for the most part. If we don't have a bad frost until late september, you'll have heaps of tomatoes that will ripen, and when it frosts, you can make green salsa, or bring 'em and they'll ripen eventually.

Send away for some seed catalogues, or check out some seed companies in your area, they'll have picked tomatoes that do well in your area (hopefully!).
posted by glip at 11:50 AM on August 21, 2008

I don't have a specific suggestion, but my dad is from upstate and has said that growing tomatoes and corn is pretty challenging, since the growing season is short and it never gets especially hot.
posted by electroboy at 12:10 PM on August 21, 2008

Also, dude, fried green tomatoes.
posted by electroboy at 12:12 PM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's lots of things you can do with green tomatoes.
posted by LN at 12:24 PM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you are in upstate New York, you have at least until beginning of October (and probably another 2-3 weeks) for the tomatoes to ripen (from my one year's experience in your area). I am about 150 miles south of you in the US and mine are ripening well -- but then I am growing cherry tomatoes this year: these grow and ripen faster. I grew mine in a large window box this year (something I used to do in the UK). I used Miracle Grow compost for the first time and I have a record yield (my SO laughed at me, saying they would be the most expensive tomatoes I had grown, but he is changing his tune now he can see the yield -- and taste the wonderful flavor). You could try feeding your tomatoes, to see if this increases the yield and taste. In the UK, with similar growing conditions to your area, I would feed the plants weekly with a special tomato feed formula, which has a slightly higher potash ratio (the K of the N:P:K ratio shown in the feed description), rather than the higher phosphate ratio (the P of the N:P:K) that is common in most plant foods. For example, a standard plant food is 15:30:15 ratio, while an average tomato food is 18:18:21 ratio. Potash encourages fruiting, while phosphate encourages root growth. I have not yet fed my tomatoes here, as I have the pre-fertilized compost (you do not want to overdo feeding). I agree with mudpuppie that tomatoes do best with infrequent but deep waterings -- but if you are growing in a container, you will have to water more or the forming fruit will crack.
As for pruning, just pinch out the tips of the plant when they grow too tall to be supported easily on the canes that you have. That is all you need to do -- this encourages lateral shoots and increases the yield. mudpuppie is also right that tomatoes will ripen in the dark -- we place them in a brown paper bag to ripen, in the UK.
posted by Susurration at 12:24 PM on August 21, 2008

At the end of the season, we wrap the unripe tomatoes in newspaper and close them up in a cardboard box. Every other week or so, we pick out one or two ripe ones, toss any that are going bad, and close up the box again. We've been able to have "fresh" tomatoes for two months after harvest that way. In semi-blind taste tests, even these boxed tomatoes have come out WAY ahead of store-bought ones.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:28 PM on August 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

PS - if they taste bland, it is probable that they are still underripe - you are just being impatient ... wait until they are really dark red and soften a little, to eat them ... :-)
posted by Susurration at 12:29 PM on August 21, 2008

MrMoonPie, the comments in your link suggest that those tomatoes aren't actually ripening, just changing in color. Is this true only for tomato snobs, or for the rest of us as well?
posted by echo target at 12:52 PM on August 21, 2008

Per the nice man at the farmer's market, upstate NY (Buffalo's) tomato season is actually around labor day weekend, so you've got a little more than a week left.
posted by Kellydamnit at 1:22 PM on August 21, 2008

Well, I think they're just being snobs. They're not wrong, really; yes, indeed, it is always better to let the tomatoes ripen on the vines, but if that isn't an option, the newspaper method is better than doing without. Try it, then compare yours to store-bought--we did, and were impressed. It's a pretty low-risk experiment.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:41 PM on August 21, 2008

Nthing that you have lots of time. Tomatoes will keep producing right up until they get hit by a frost. Worst comes to worst, I've successfully fended off early frosts with blankets covering the plants overnight. Tomatoes are very cold tolerant so as long as the leafs aren't frozen they'll continue growing.

In addition to MrMoonPie's method we also just hang tomato vines with attached just about ready tomatoes in our cold room to give them a chance to ripen.

PS: for those in short growing season locals there are numerous varieties, mostly from russia, that mature in as little as 60-70 days.
posted by Mitheral at 2:28 PM on August 21, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the advice. Well, I've been doing a lot wrong: picking too early, over-watering (every evening unless it looks like rain) and no plant food. Thanks, Susurration for that explanation.

Cornell University says the first frost here should be around Sept. 29, so there is still plenty of time. We've had some mid-50 degree nights already, though.

My vines are out of control. They're growing in all directions (I've been tying them to stakes) out to 5- 6 feet, and still would keeping growing, but I've clipped them off when they get that far. They're so loaded with fruit that a moderate wind causes damage, even with the stakes.

Also, they aren't getting the amount of sun they need. Maybe 4-5 hours/day if they're lucky. We don't have the sunniest weather here. I've been marking off other areas of the yard and keeping track of direct sunlight so I can move the garden next year.

Has anyone grown Brandywine or other heirloom with success? Any recommendations for a very high acidity variety? Thanks!
posted by sluglicker at 4:25 PM on August 21, 2008

Up here in Toronto, I'm growing Big Beef in a small backyard that doesn't get more than 3-4 hours of direct sun a day. I've harvested 4 tomatoes so far from very gangly, bushy plants, and they are definitely more bland than they were last year. I blame the very wet summer, because they were tastier last year when it was drier.

Stop watering the plants until they're gasping for water and the lower leaves are going limp, then soak the little buggers. You want to concentrate the flavours as much as possible.

And you will keep harvesting for weeks. I harvested my last tomato last year on Halloween. But if you're left with green ones when the frosts hit bad, do what MrMoonPie advises. Tomatoes do ripen well in a dark basement or any dark environment. If you want to cheat and make them ripen faster, throw a banana in with them.
posted by maudlin at 4:28 PM on August 21, 2008

sluglicer, lack of sun makes tomato plants extra bushy. I'm getting proper metal cages next year, because these plants are overwhelming my bamboo sticks. I've actually had to apply bandaids, then tomato tape (and, in the worst case, a couple of toothpicks as splints) to broken stems, but they're still green and producing growing fruit even after the break point.

No blossom end rot for me this year either, as I added calcium in the form of a crushed eggshell to each seedlings bed when I planted in May.
posted by maudlin at 4:32 PM on August 21, 2008

Writing from Northwest Vermont... You should consider yourself lucky that you haven't lost all of your tomatoes to blight because of the rainy summer. I would disagree with the watering scheme that has been recommended here. I've found that my tomatoes split if they get dry and then get a lot of water. I have grown Brandywine and they are one of my favorites because they are blight resistent and I have big problem with blight in my garden. I would also pinch off any flowers at this point and let the plant put energy into the fruit you have.

Sounds like you'll have better luck next year with the full sun.

Also, remember that a tomato is a vine and it will cast off roots if a part of the stem touches the ground. In the spring when you put your transplants into the ground, pick off the bottom leaves and lay them horizontally. Bury the leafless stem but keep the plant close to the surface of the soil because the roots like the warmth. The whole buried stem will create roots and help build a nice big root system and once established creates a nice fast growing plant (which is good for our short season). But it is essential to get full sun, full sun, full sun.
posted by vermontlife at 4:50 PM on August 21, 2008

My Big Beef is about the same place yours is, and I planted it late April. The fruits are not ready yet. Tomatoes divide up into ultra-early, extra-early, early, main season, and beefsteak varieties. Beefsteaks take a long time and lot of heat ("degree days") and sunlight to mature; the 70-80 degree daytime and 59 degree nighttime weather here is really on the border of what they'll tolerate, and the yields here are greatly reduced compared to, say, California's central valley, where the daytime temps are 85-90 and the nighttime temps don't go under 70.

The "earlier" a tomato variety is, the fewer "degree days" it needs. The idea is that if you have 10 80-degree days, that's 80x10 = 800 degree days, which is about the same as 13.3 60-degree days. It doesn't really work that way because at 60 degrees tomatoes won't set fruit, but you get the idea. It also doesn't work that way because you can plant tomatoes in March if it's temperate but they "know" how long the day is, and so they "know" what time of year it is, and they just won't start flowering or setting fruit or ripening until they know it's time anyway, you can't rush them.

Learn more about tomatoes here.

Bottom line, your Big Beefs are on schedule for their particular genetics, and next year you might consider an earlier tomato.

I've had great results with Early Girls, Lemon Boys, and Ace, which all have early genes, great flavor and texture, and good disease resistances - the Lemon Boy and Ace this year have probably provided 40 tomatoes already and there are many more to come. By comparison, the two Brandywines I have in the prime sunniness spot in my garden take up just as much room (better tomato real estate, too) and it looks like I may get 4 fruit from them this year, total (barring disaster.)
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:05 PM on August 21, 2008

There's no reason to go to heirlooms, unless that's the flavor you want. They're usually fairly low yield, although the ones you get will probably have outstanding flavor. I'd suggest going a few steps back toward heirlooms, though -- try Big Boy, or Better Boy, or Early Girls. They're not as hybridised as the Big Beefs, but have more flavor. You may also want to try a shorter season tomato -- most beefsteaks are long season, so you may have to look around for a shorter season tomato with the characteristics you want.

Nthing the season being nowhere near over. You'll get fruit until first freeze. I grew Better Boys and Early Girls in the Keweenaw Peninsula for a few years, and usually got tomatoes until late September. (I've got a mix of heirlooms, BetterBoys and cherry tomatoes in the garden this year, and so far I've gotten three cherry tomatoes, although that's the fault of the deer and the no rain since July....)
posted by jlkr at 7:45 PM on August 21, 2008

Yeah, this has been a mixed summer for tomatoes in the Northeast, especially with all the rain. In addition to overwatering, you should try to water them in the morning. When you water in the evening, as the air cools, the water will take longer to dry off of the leaves and the tomatoes. This will encourage blight and other bad things, however you can water a bit in the evening if you take care to hit just the roots as much as possible.

It's probably been said somewhere above, but tomatoes do much better if you water the root system. If you're getting into it, this summer I set up a drip irrigation system in about 1/2 day and my tomatoes are going gangbusters. I highly recommend Dripworks, a company I found through these very pages. I got the Yard and Garden kit and an automatic timer and I only have to deal with weeding, pruning and harvesting.
posted by jeremias at 9:28 PM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Err . .I meant to say "In addition to *not* overwatering, you should try to water them in the morning."
posted by jeremias at 9:29 PM on August 21, 2008

I agree with pretty much everything mudpuppie says. Regarding heirlooms, there are all different types from all over the world, so if you do your research you may find a short growing season, high acidity heirloom tomato.

No blossom end rot for me this year either, as I added calcium in the form of a crushed eggshell to each seedlings bed when I planted in May.

Tomatoes are heavy calcium users, so supplementing is a good idea. However, the distribution of calcium throughout plants is controlled by transpiration: water moves from the root zone through the plant as water vapor is released by leaves, and one of the nutrients that moves along with it by calcium. So blossom end rot is caused when 1) there's not enough calcium available, 2) there's calcium but water uptake has been reduced to such an extent that calcium does not move through the plant. Here in the calcium rich clay soil of the Bay Area, blossom end root happens with shallow, inconsistent watering. The calcium is available, but it can't travel through the plant without adequate water movement. So consistent, deep, infrequent water without extended drought periods is best. I let my tomatoes go to a light wilt stage for the best flavor, and then water deeply.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:32 PM on August 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: ...if you do your research you may find a short growing season, high acidity heirloom tomato.

That's really the problem. The seed companies don't offer much info regarding the acidity. How is it measured? Recently, we had a post here about canning and how the USDA recommended a longer canning process due to low acidity, or adding ascorbic acid to the brew as a result of the genetic modification. I'm not so much concerned with yield but with flavor and canning. Tomato-based juice and sauce is a huge part of my diet and I want to produce my own. Maybe I need to experiment with many different strains and measure the results.

Thanks to everyone! There sure are a lot of knowledgeable people here.
posted by sluglicker at 1:18 AM on August 22, 2008

Well, a lot of descriptions of varieties will mention tomatoes that are specifically high-acid, but that may be subjective anyway, and may be more about the flavor profile. The best way to be sure when canning is to do a quick pH test before deciding if you need to add citric acid. Can you explain what you mean about the "genetic modification"? I'm looking at USDA tomato canning recommendations right now, and there's nothing about genetic modification.

Here's more info about tomato acidity:

"Flavors: A lot of customers want a tomato that "bites them back when they bite it"-or, in other words, a very acid tomato. Most are disappointed with commercial varieties because their flavor is so bland, but that is the characteristic of any tomato picked green and then later gassed for ripening. Their flavors never develop.
All tomatoes ripened on the vine have a substantial amount of acid, but they vary greatly in the proportion of sugars. As a general rule, red tomatoes are the most acid of the various colors while yellows are the most sweet. The pinks, blacks, browns, purples, greens, whites and striped all have varying acid/ sugar combinations with the Yellow German tomatoes (yellow with red stripes) being the most sweet of all I know about. Flavor scientists have isolated over thirty flavor components of tomatoes and there are probably many more.
Also it is not safe to say that one variety is necessarily more acid than another variety. The flavors change as the season progresses from early summer to fall with most varieties becoming more acid as the season progresses. I am not sure of all the reasons this is so, but it is probably a combination of shorter days, cooler nights, and the general loss of foliage to disease and weathering as the season progresses. A diminished amount of total leaf surface means less space for the production of sugars. At any rate, those who wish to can tomatoes and have a high acid content in the finished product would be wise to can from about the middle of August onward."
posted by oneirodynia at 9:49 AM on August 22, 2008

Here's a google cache of heirloom seed's site with the following words highlighted: high acid tomato canning. Personally, I would look for good canning tomatoes that are short season, and not worry about acidity, since it's so easy to test for and correct.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:01 AM on August 22, 2008

If you are interested in canning and sauce tomatoes, I'd recommend a Roma type, maybe San Marzanos.

Do check out Territorial Seed's tomato pages. They will be worth your time to browse.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:09 PM on August 24, 2008

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