Nothing beats the taste, texture and sweet juiciness of a freshly picked tomato in the height of summer. We’re all well aware of the trends and benefits of eating seasonally, but by taking advantage of the technology used in hydroponic growing practices, we can enjoy high quality tomatoes throughout the entire year and avoid those that have been picked green, cold stored and manipulated to the tasteless varieties that sometimes find their way onto our plates in winter and spring.

There’s a reason why a blushing hydroponic tomato tastes better, is more appealing to the eye and is, admittedly, sometimes slightly more expensive than their field grown cousins. It all comes down to controlling their growing environment.

Glass and greenhouses are the perfect place to create the environment a crop needs to grow—and not just grow, but thrive, blossom and develop into a taste sensation that transports your tender tastebuds to another world. Here’s why: even though a hydroponic truss of delights might cost a bit more per unit, you should reach to the higher shelves in your fruit shop or supermarket and pick up a truss of hydroponically cultivated tomatoes. Or, begin growing your own.

A brief backgrounder on hydroponics

Most of the population has a fair idea of the concept behind hydroponics— plants are grown indoors in an inert medium and are fed by nutrient rich, pH balanced water while the grower manipulates the indoor environment to the ideal climate for optimal growth, yield and fruit production. What makes hydroponics a preferred growing method for a lot of growers is that the nutrient-rich water is recycled through the hydroponic channels, reducing water and nutrient usage. Most hydroponic growers use a third less water to grow twice the amount of produce than traditional farming methods.

Natural pest controls are generally introduced to the indoor environment, cutting out the use of hard-chemicals; controls like integrated pest management. If a pest is discovered in the local area or greenhouse, farmers introduce a new insect, one that is the natural predator of the bad bug; I like to call it the ‘bug-eat-bug’ method. If the situation is identified early and given quick attention, no insecticides are sprayed on the crops.

The hydroponic farmer

In the early days of hydroponic cultivation, hydroponic tomatoes received a pretty bad rap—they were tasteless, bland, pale and expensive—so many consumers (and growers for that matter) avoided hydroponic crops like the plague. But as we approached the 21st century, knowledge of hydroponic practices evolved. Jump to the present day, and hydroponic growers are not only conscious of environmental impact and sustainability, but also of the importance of flavor and nutritional value.

Growers have acknowledged that we have entered into a fresh food revolution where consumers are avoiding cheap, mass produced, poor quality produce. Savvy consumers are buying less produce in favor of food that has a higher nutritional value, is environmentally sound, in season and tastes like it should taste.

We no longer want fresh produce that has traveled thousands of miles to reach our plates, amassing more stamps on their passports than us. This is where hydroponics becomes our food savior; we can grow more produce on less land than ever before, utilizing even barren wasteland where nothing has ever grown in the past, and not only can we grow fresh and flavorful fruits out of season, but because hydroponic food is grown closer to our population we are drastically reducing our carbon footprint.

What makes a hydroponic tomato better?

Essential nutrients are supplied directly to a hydroponic tomato plant’s root system constantly, so the plant can conserve its energy and concentrate on using that energy to grow its budding fruits. Growers can cater to the specific growing requirements throughout a plants life cycle on a daily basis and give the plant the right nutrients at the right time, depending on where the plant is at in its growth cycle. A tomato requires different levels of nutrients when it’s in the fruit producing stage, for example.Because of this, nutrient levels are tested daily so the growers knows exactly which nutrients the plant is receiving; it’s much harder to control nutrient levels in the ground.

Hydroponic tomatoes are never picked green and stored in a cool room because hydroponic growers understand that to produce superior fruit they must be ripened on the vine for ultimate flavor, sweetness, and juiciness and to develop a rich and invigorating color. Then we come to production— the yield far outweighs that of field-grown tomatoes with small to medium commercial growers looking to yield a minimum of around 40 kilos per square foot and large growers looking to yield up to 55 to 60 kilos.

Longevity

Hydroponic tomatoes can have a fresh and happy shelf life of up to two weeks once harvested if you store them correctly. The optimal holding temperature for a tomato sits at 55°F, making a refrigerator the worst possible home for them because the cold kills the cells in the fruit, in-turn reducing the flavor of the tomato. Store them the cupboard or in a fruit bowl on the counter.

Green picking

There are a couple reasons field growers pick tomatoes green. A ripe tomato’s worst enemy is over-handling, whereas green tomatoes travel better and are less likely to bruise in transport or with constant handling.

The problem here is that the flavor and juiciness of the tomatoes hasn’t had enough time to fully develop and the end product will never be as sweet and delicious as fruit that is picked closer to ripeness; those in the industry call this procedure cold flick.

The fruit will continue to ripen naturally unless some crafty transport company or supermarket needs the shelf life extended, then at that point they’ll cold-store them. At 39°F, tomatoes will stop naturally ripening and lie dormant until the temperature is increased.

Aroma

Head down to your local supermarket or fruit shop and find some field-grown tomatoes and a truss of hydroponic tomatoes. Pick them up one at a time and breathe in their aroma. The scent of the hydroponic bunch will fill your senses and be far more aromatic than the field-grown variety—that’s if you can even detect the scent of the field grown variety. This all comes back to hydroponic tomatoes being left to ripen on their vine. It is a tomato’s vine that holds the aromas and essential oils that give off that particular scent we associate with a ripe, fresh tomato. The next time you come across a tomato plant, rub the stem between your fingers and you’ll be blown away by the smell it leaves behind.

Growers know

Chris Burges has been growing hydroponic tomatoes for 20 years and suggests pruning them right. Tomatoes need to be pruned two ways, he says. First you have to prune the shoots—with every leaf there is a shoot.

Afterwards, you have to prune the flowers back to as many as five if you are growing on the truss. Take the first open flower off, then prune it back to five flowers, taking note of which flowers are open because that is the order they will ripen in, he adds. If you leave eight or nine tomatoes on the truss you will have two problems. The first tomato will go soft before the last one ripens and you will end up with a lot of medium-sized tomatoes.

Worth knowing

High-quality grown tomatoes are a great source of fibre, foliate and vitamins A, C, B and E. They are high in lycopene and are both fat and cholesterol free. They can help control sugar levels in people suffering from diabetes. The jelly-like substance around the seeds holds the highest amount of vitamin C and is thought to alleviate people who suffer from deep vein thrombosis. So, the next time you make a salad without the seeds, don’t throw them out—eat them!