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Can alkaline soil make your tomatoes taste BLAND?

September 2, 2011

OK, so this year I grew a number of different tomatoes, heirloom and hybrid, and ALL of them are bland. I crave that acidic, strong-tasting tomato which tastes kinda like the plant leaves smell, if that makes sense. But all mine are bland. It occurs to me that my soil, while heavily amended, mostly with horse manure, is naturally slightly basic, PH 7.1 when tested when we moved in, before being amended. Could this have anything to do with it? If so, can I just add some garden sulfur next year? Please help, tomatoes are my very favorite and I can't stand the bland!

Comments (22)
  • remy_gw

    Here in my area of NY, we have slightly alkaline soil, but it doesn't affect the flavor. Plus isn't 7.1 normal?
    What varieties did you grow? How much water did they get? Strong tasting tomatoes are definitely varietal to begin with. Some varieties that are very sweet, I find bland. Other ones might be slightly strong flavored, but with too much water, I find they lose flavor.

  • jayco

    7.1 is only slightly alkaline, but I think in the east it's much more common to have an acidic PH, and it was my understanding that tomatoes like it a bit on the acid side. When I was a kid we had acidic soil and grew great tomatoes, so it got me wondering.

    They got a good bit of water since it rained a lot this year; we watered only when they were young and it was dry. I grew Brandywine, Black Cherry, Purple Cherokee, Big Boy, Early Girl, Roma, and some others I forget. I guess I should've mentioned I've been growing tomatoes for a number of years now and have been consistently disappointed with intensity of flavor, variety notwithstanding. So I began to wonder about the soil.

  • mrs.b_in_wy

    Hi Jayco,
    The pH in our garden is 8.1. The tomatoes seem to adapt to it fine, though, and we get a mix of both strong and sweet tomatoes. Of course, what seems strong-tasting to me might be mild for someone else. Also, since I like sweeter tomatoes anyway, I tend not to repeat the ones I find strongly flavored.

  • eric30

    I get that sometimes when I eat strong tasting foods. Like today for supper I had blt w brandywine and it was awesome. Later on I had a couple strong beers and some spicy pickles I made; took a slice of the same tomato and I could hardly taste it! Give your taste buds a rest for a few hours and try again. Or sprinkle a little salt. Maybe it was the salt in the bacon that did it.

  • carolyn137

    Tomatoes are known to grow well between the pH's of about 4.5 to about 7. The fruits don't adapt the pH of the surrounding soil or mix, rather, the primary determinate of the internal pH of fruits is detwemined by the genes they have and how those are exptressed in any one season.

    There are over 400 different organic compounds known to be involved in tomato taste of different varieties, that from spectroscopy, and only a few of them have been associated with specific genes.

    I know how frustrating it must be to conclude that varieties are bland in any given season, at least some of them can be, but about the only variable I'm aware of is that using ammonia based nitrogen is not good for tomato taste.


  • jayco

    Eric, thanks, but I tend to eat my tomatoes straight out of the garden with nothing on them, so your bacon theory doesn't hold water with me.

    Carolyn, thanks, that's informative. We did fertilize with a lot of manure but I guess that doesn't count. However, I did wonder also whether a leaner soil might produce better taste.

    I tell you, I feel frustrated. Home-grown tomatoes are just about my favorite food, and I have yet to grow a single one that I'd really call anything better than "pretty good."


  • yumtomatoes

    This article out of Rutgers suggests that adding sodium to your soil may help the flavor.

    Here is a link that might be useful: Rutgers Article

  • jayco

    Thanks, that article looks very interesting!

  • missingtheobvious

    Interesting article, yum. Alas that I'm at the wrong end of the state to go get a barrel of sea water!

  • Ohiofem

    I think your problem could be caused by using horse manure. It is a high nitrogen source, and can grow huge plants with low yields. I try to be careful not to use too much nitrogen when feeding fruiting plants.

  • yumtomatoes

    You can approximate the salinity of seawater by mixing 1/3 cup of kosher salt with a gallon of tap water. If you were planning on using saline, I would start out with 1/4 cup of kosher salt just to make sure you don't harm the plants.

  • jayco

    Ohiofem, this year I have huge plants with excellent fruit yields... my problem is only that the fruit doesn't taste as delicious as I would prefer.

  • remy_gw

    Sorry I didn't get back right away. I think you need to rework your varieties you are growing. None of them have the flavor you are looking for. You need stronger more assertive flavored ones. Some say acidic ,but that really isn't true as most all tomatoes have the same PH. Off the top of my head varieties you might like better Stump of the World (for a Brandywine alternative,) Azoychka (early yellow,) Silvery Fir Tree(dwarf,) Green Zebra, Slavic Masterpiece, Guernsey Island, and Sunsugar (is a sweet cherry but is strong with assertive flavor.) I'm sure others could name some other varieties too.
    Hope that helps some,

  • jayco

    Thanks, Remy. I will try some of those next year. But, I'm surprised to hear you say Brandywine and Purple Cherokee are not supposed to be strong-tasting tomatoes. I'm further surprised that some of the varieties you recommend are yellow or green. I've always found yellow tomatoes to be on the insipid side and have avoided them. In any case over the years I must've grown 30+ varieties and find it hard to fathom that I haven't yet hit on a single one I love. Go figure!

  • macky77

    We've got very alkaline soil here (almost off the colour chart with those home kits), to the point where we actually have alkali flats spotted here and there around the countryside. This is the first year we've tried sulphering the garden and doing better with the spring ammendments. This is the most productive garden I think we've ever had!

    In my experience, no... alkaline soils most definitely do not contribute bland tomatoes. I'm not a lover of sweet toms; I like that super-zingy tomato flavour that starts hurting your tongue if you eat too many. The years where we've just been too busy and I haven't ammended (or had time to weed) the soil at all, we've had to burrow under weeds to find the tomatoes. While the plants and fruit were definitely smaller, the flavour... WOW! This year, we've been good with the water and ammendments, the plants are big and lush and the tomatoes are huge and plentiful, BUT I'm finding that my favourites are certainly not as zingy as in past years. I'm going to have to find a balance between flavour and production.

  • jayco

    Macky, that is very interesting. It also goes along with something I've noted about our apple trees. We have 3 standard apple trees to which we do nothing -- no fertilizer, no spray, nada. Well, we do have them pruned. But they made rather small, spotted, blemish-rich apples that taste GREAT. Maybe small and neglected is a route to look into.... I tend to be good at neglect, too. ;)

  • remy_gw

    Hi again Jay,
    Brandywine and Cherokee Purple are very very good tasting, but that does not make them strong tasting. To me Cherokee Purple is a bit on the mild side. Stump of the World tastes like Brandywine but a bit zippier.
    You'll find ones you love!

  • jayco

    OK, thanks, I'll look for those varieties next year.

  • libbie4j_gmail_com

    My tomatoes were very bland too! I am so bummed! An older ethnic gentleman suggested I put ammonia in the soil a month prior to planting next spring. What do you think that will do?

  • libbie4j_gmail_com

    My tomatoes were very bland too! I am so bummed! An older ethnic gentleman suggested I put ammonia in the soil a month prior to planting next spring. What do you think that will do?

  • Deborah lippitt

    I've grown Early Girl (along with other varieties) for years and always had excellent flavor. In all kinds of PH and I water meagerly, and do not fertilize heavily if at all. But this year my tomatoes are so bland I can not believe it. Except the cherry tomatoes..all varieties all bland..I am at a loss..though a local nursery owner said that some years he just had a bland crop..doesn't know why..I'm hoping next year better..though I did keep them in a plastic tomato house during spring and I at least have a much larger crop than most people did this year..our spring was hot cold hot.. Lots of tomatoes with bland flavor..so lots of stewed tomatoes and sauce in the freezer!

  • vgkg Z-7 Va

    A Brandywine & Cherokee Purple fan here too. As for soil pH, if memory serves the recommended pH is 6-6.5 for most plants. Soil on the slightly acidic side of pH 7 more readily allows the nutrients, esp certain trace metals/minerals to be available to the plants. Thx for the tip on Ammonia based ferts Carolyn.

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