After last summer’s bust, people are more eager than ever for the homegrown tomatoes of summer. The favorable weather of spring has paved the way for an early harvest, but even so, if you’ve been to the farmers markets, you’ve been seeing tomatoes for a while now.
How can this be?
Well, area growers use a number of different ways to grow tomatoes that allow them to stretch the season as long as possible for us tomato grubbers. But when we see the red orbs out of season, we tend to get suspicious. We think of the flavorless tomatoes available year-round at the grocery store. We don’t know hydroponic from hoophouse.
“I think you can get a really good-tasting tomato out of almost any system you use,” extension agent Rebecca McMahon says. “It has a lot more to do with the variety and when they (growers) harvest — whether when they’re fully ripe or slightly underripe.”
Here’s a little primer on the differences.
Hydroponic or greenhouse tomatoes
Hydroponic may include the word “hydro,” which is Greek for water, but that doesn’t mean that hydroponic tomatoes are necessarily grown in water. Hydroponic gardening means growing without soil. This, of course, happens anytime we plant a container garden with potting soil. “Potting mix” would be a more accurate term, because it doesn’t actually contain soil.
Hydroponic tomatoes are grown in a greenhouse, allowing growers to get a wintertime start so that we can see our first tomatoes at the earliest farmers markets. You know you look for them.
Hoophouse or high-tunnel tomatoes
A hoophouse is not to be confused with a greenhouse. Hoophouses, also known as high tunnels, are made of sheets of plastic and are unheated, and the plants inside them are planted in the ground. The plastic offers some protection from the elements, including the wind, and some heat does build up inside. These conditions allow these tomatoes to be planted earlier than those planted out in the field, allowing for the next wave of tomatoes at farmers markets.
“I think a lot of people assume if there’s plastic it’s a greenhouse, and if it’s a greenhouse it’s hydroponic,” Rebecca says. But the only difference between a hoophouse tomato and a field tomato is the use of plastic to make the season earlier, she says.
Our traditional summertime tomatoes are planted out in the field. Here they take their chances with wind, sun and hail.
This year, gardeners who planted early made a good gamble and already have been picking their jackpot.
But growers have ways to extend the season even here. They can plant at staggered times through the spring and summer, and they can plant indeterminate varieties that allow a longer harvest than determinate types of tomatoes do.
Spencer Ring of Sedgwick has been growing things for 40 years or more and has had a hoophouse for probably 30 years, he says. Once his children grew up and left home, he moved the bulk of his tomato energies into a greenhouse, because it’s easier for him to handle without the help of the kids.
He has 545 tomato plants in the greenhouse, 70 in the hoophouse, and 120 in the field this year, he says.
He starts his seeds for the greenhouse tomatoes in January, and in mid-February they’re being transplanted into 5-gallon plastic bags filled with potting mix. He uses a variety of tomato that produces under low light, which is what you have in February. The first tomatoes make a mid-April appearance at the farmers market.
Spencer plants his hoophouse tomatoes — another advantage to them is that their leaves don’t get wet from the rain like field tomatoes’ do, he says — about the third week of March.
He doesn’t plant his field tomatoes until late May. “I don’t get in any hurry, because I’ve got all the others coming on.”
Indeed, while the rest of us try to get our tomatoes in the ground at the earliest possible second, and trying to have tomatoes by the Fourth of July is a common goal of growers, Spencer says that by planting late he’s “primarily geared up for August and September. That’s when people go on vacation and their neighbor didn’t take care of the plants and they die.”
People are not as eager to accept greenhouse tomatoes as they are field tomatoes, he acknowledges.
“There is a built-in bias from our youth against the greenhouse tomato. ... They remember as a young person a tomato that never tastes as good as they remember it as. There is a certain amount of nostalgia of their youth. Once they taste mine they lose some of that bias. ... Any tomato needs hot weather and full ripeness to be really good flavor. When it’s fully ripe, I can’t tell any difference” between the hot-greenhouse and field tomato, he said. One thing people may prefer, he allows, is the lower acid in, say, a Jetstar tomato that he grows outside or in the hoophouse.
You can also find growers at some markets that specialize in heirloom tomatoes, and Ring says there’s a growing demand for green tomatoes. “We do sell several pounds of those each week.”
Bob Happy of Mulvane grows high-tunnel and field tomatoes. He says when he explains what hoophouse growing is to customers, they buy them. He starts his tomatoes in the greenhouse around Jan. 5, and moves them to the hoophouse at the end of February. He places black plastic on the ground, and there were a few nights when he had to put little propane heaters out there at night. He can roll the sides of the hoophouse up and down as needed.
Bob is about at the end of the hoophouse harvest now and has started to pick the field tomatoes, which are two to three weeks early this year. His 450 field tomato plants are indeterminate so that he can harvest them over a longer period of time.
“They’ll keep going for a while,” Bob says. “Last year they went until November.”