A Pinch of Salt for Tasty Tomatoes?

By Susan Littlefield

A tomato ripe from the garden needs little more than a sprinkling of salt to make it a mouthwatering treat. But could a pinch of salt while it's still in the ground make it even tastier?

According to Rutgers University soil fertility specialist Joseph Heckman, that might just be the case. He has looked at the ways that various soil nutrients influence the development of flavor in tomatoes. For example, potassium's role is to help move water into the cells of maturing fruits, so if you want juicy tomatoes, you need to make sure this nutrient is present in adequate amounts. Sulfur is needed for the formation of the organic compounds that give flavor to tomatoes. It is likely to be deficient in sandy soils that are low in organic matter, a problem that can be remedied with applications of compost or gypsum. According to Heckman, unrecognized boron deficiencies are not uncommon. Research in North Carolina demonstrated that adding boron reduced the incidence of fruit cracking and uneven ripening.

Which brings us to sodium, present in sodium chloride, better known as salt. In the past, sodium was found in many of the fertilizers used in vegetable production, such as sodium nitrate, but Heckman notes that most nitrogen fertilizers used today contain no sodium. A study in Israel suggested that this lack of sodium in the soil might have a detrimental influence on tomato flavor.

So he conducted a small trial of his own at Rutgers. One group of Jersey tomatoes received a one-time top drench of Atlantic seawater during early bloom, while the control group got tap water. After both groups ripened, a blind taste test was held- and the salted tomatoes won hands down!

Of course, this was a very small trial and excess sodium in the soil can cause problems for plants and harm soil structure. But if you are an investigative sort of gardener, it might be interesting to experiment with some container-grown tomatoes and see if you find that a little salt results in a tastier tomato.

For more information on Dr. Heckman's experiment, go to: Can Soil Fertility Improve Tomato Flavor?.

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