Backyard Feast: Take a lesson from Breaking Bad when growing your tomatoes
By Joshua McNichols, award-winning author of The Urban Farm Handbook
If you’re a fan of Breaking Bad, you’ve probably heard actor Bryan Cranston talk about his character’s gradual transformation from gentle high school teacher to … Scarface. Well, gentle gardener, if you hope to have ripe tomatoes, you must undergo a similar transformation.
I didn’t want to be the one to tell you. After all you’ve done. After you’ve coddled your tomatoes and wrapped them in wall-of-waters to protect them from the spring night-time temperatures. After you’ve watered them during the early summer droughts.
You’re very sweet. And what do you have to show for it? Hulking green plants covered with green fruits. How quaint. Well, I have a hard truth for you. Fried green tomatoes suck. At least when compared to the umami-rush of a red heirloom. When cut open on your plate, it should look like the high-priest’s dinner following a human sacrifice. Open heart surgery.
Happy tomatoes will keep on growing forever. Tomatoes begin to ripen only when they smell the stink of death.
Okay, so it’s a little more complicated: Tomatoes do need a trickle of water, which I expect my tomatoes to get from the subsoil, as I am a miser. They need calcium, which for some reason they can’t absorb if it’s too dry. And if they wilt, you’ve gone too far. But stress, drought – these conditions trigger a chemical change in tomatoes that cause them to release ethylene gas.
That’s the gas that allows you to ripen peaches by placing them in a paper bag with a ripe banana. It’s what factory farms gas their bland, industrial tomatoes with to turn them red for the grocery store. It emanates from rotting things. Once your tomatoes smell it, they’ll want to rot too.
Ethylene fills a simple biological function. It tells plants (and fruits) nearby: “Hey, I’m dying over here!”
The other plants respond with, “There must be a reason he’s dying. Maybe I’m next! I’d better ripen my fruit so it can get eaten or my seeds will never escape this place of death!”
So stop watering already. Next year, stop even earlier. If you have time, remove all blossoms and tiny fruits to break your plants’ spirit. Leave a few over-ripe tomatoes on your plant. Let them spread their gassy message. This year, I’m experimenting with hanging rotten bananas in my plants. It’s kind of like putting a skull on a spike at the entrance to a medieval city.
By now, I hope your tomatoes are quaking in their roots. I hope they’re looking at you like you’re Jack Nicholson in The Shining who just popped his head through the door panel. Because this coddling must end now. You’re never going to see red if you don’t draw a little blood.
Thanks Martha at the Elisabeth C. Miller Library and Laura at the Lawn and Garden Hotline for your help.