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The Secret Lives of a Tomato

Updated on February 18, 2009

I've been growing tomatoes for decades and have learned a few tips along the way. I hope these help you either grow better tomatoes or keep the ones you buy tasting fresher.


This is a sort of 'secret' that took me way too long to learn. I moved my veggie garden one year to a spot that got more sun. For several years I had great, big, beautiful green plants that formed great big beautiful green tomatoes. Then, just as the tomatoes would begin to ripen, the plant would turn yellow, wilt and die a quite dramatic death.

I checked for bugs, fungus, mean -spirited neighbor kids, urinating dogs - but none of these were the problem. The problem was my neighbor's huge, beautiful Black Walnut. It was poisoning my tomatoes (among other plants). Walnut trees excrete a chemical called jug alone from their roots that is poisonous to tomatoes. What was happening was, my tomato plants would do well until their roots, which grow quite deep, reached the same depth as the Walnut Roots and Kaboom! Dead tomato plant.

I outsmarted the tree by buying some flue liners (unglazed ceramic liners for chimneys that range in size from 10" across to much larger). My flue liners are about two feet tall. I fill them with good soil with a lot compost and composted manure and have had great success. The tomato roots never grow deep enough to reach the jug alone.

If you have a lot of space and a Black Walnut, plant your tomatoes at least 40 feet from the drip line of the tree; or, the farther away the better.


We've all done it. Picked our purchased great looking and smelling tomatoes and brought them in and put them in the refrigerator. NOT! I'm not exactly sure of the chemical terms, but when tomatoes get cold (below 55 degrees) they lose their flavor and even become sour. I forgot about this year and left a lot of my tomatoes outside when the nights got a bit chilly and they definitely do not tastes as good as they did before they got cold.

Not All Tomatoes Are Created Equal

Commercially grown tomatoes have been literally bred and cross bred into pretty little round red balls of goo. This is so the 'product' keeps for a long time, looks pretty and don't bruise easily. But face it, they're yucky tasting, or worse yet, tasteless.

Some grocery stores sell the 'on the vine' tomatoes that are grown with hydroponics, which means in water. They hang from a conveyor that continually sprays the plants with just the right amount of nutrients. Their roots never see soil at all. These taste a little better, but are quite expensive.

Look for a local grocer or a farmers market. In season you'll find an amazing variety of locally grown tomatoes with flavor that far surpasses those commercially grown. Off season you have a slightly better chance of finding tomatoes from independent growers in the warmer regions of the world. These too may be a bit more expensive, but you'll be helping to support your local growers and sellers, or a family struggling to make it in a corporately-owned world.


If you grow your own tomatoes, look for heirloom seeds or plants. I grow Brandywine tomatoes and they are truly ugly, don't keep well and never get really red. However, they are the meatiest, sweetest, yummiest tomatoes you'll ever eat.

Heirloom tomatoes are grown from seeds that have been handed down from generation to generation and have not been hybridized or cross bred. Commercial farms don't grown them for all the reasons I listed above. I've tried a few other heirloom varieties and they were good, but the Brandywine are my favorite. I save the seeds each year for next year's crop.


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