Every year, the same thing happens: the tomato season finishes, and I’m left to subsist on powdered, frozen and canned tomatoes until the following summer. I could of course buy tomatoes in our supermarket any time I like, but once you have tasted a homegrown tomato, there is no turning back.

So, one morning in early summer, I slide open the door to my greenhouse and am met with the familiar tomato smell. This is a smell that I’ve known since I was a child, and it conjures up memories of warm sunshine, salads and lazy afternoons. It is then that I notice it; the first tomato of the season; an occasion so joyous I have to put down my coffee mug to savour every moment. The fruit bursts in my mouth, right there in the warmth of the greenhouse. The fruit is warm, juicy and sweet, and it always feels like the first tomato I have ever tasted.

All gardeners will agree, homegrown tomatoes are far better than shop-bought ones. Freshly picked lettuce leaves are full of flavour, and a still-warm sun-ripened strawberry is an exquisite delicacy. But how is it possible that the very same produce we buy from supermarkets can taste so different when it comes from our garden? Is it due to a kind of parental bond, forged in the sowing and growing? Or is it something more subtle? The answer might surprise you.

Let’s start with varieties. The spectrum of vegetables available to growers is dazzling when compared with that which is available for purchase at the average supermarket. The primary concern for supermarkets is the price, so they will buy crops that can be produced relatively inexpensively and have a long shelf life. This means choosing high-yielding or disease-resistant varieties rather than varieties that stand out for their flavour. Home growers, of course, will often choose varieties that offer the best flavours. Heirloom and heritage varieties often produce smaller yields but have been bred over many generations for their fabulous flavours, and kept because they offer a unique delight. We can save seeds from our favourite fruits and continue to adapt them to our own tastes and garden conditions.

Variety isn’t the end of the story, though. Whilst the particular genetic makeup of a tomato codes for the flavours, fruit and vegetables are not able to produce these flavours unless their specific requirements are met. Imagine that a piece of fruit is a Lego house: The DNA of that fruit is the instruction manual, telling you what is possible to build and what specific pieces are needed. Without the instructions, we wouldn’t stand much of a chance, but we would stand even less of a chance without the correct pieces.

This is where the real magic comes in; strap in because it’s going to get a bit sciency! Plants use nutrients and minerals in the soil to build all the blocks that are coded for in the DNA. With the full suite of nutrients and minerals at their disposal, plants are able to create all the proteins and chemicals that make them unique. Each plant will produce a range of phytochemicals (plant chemicals); that produce taste and smell. When I walked into my greenhouse and smelt that wonderful tomato smell, what I was actually sensing was a range of phytochemicals that the tomato creates and releases from its leaves, primarily to aid it in protecting the plant from pests and infection and have even been shown to protect them from drought.

The tastes that explode in my mouth when I bite into a tomato are another range of phytochemicals that produce flavours. These are also known as flavonoids.

If plants are lacking in some of the nutrients or minerals, they can’t create specific proteins (which, in our analogy, are our Lego blocks). If we end up with a nutrient deficiency, it can play out as something like chlorosis in leaves (discolouration) or blossom end rot in tomatoes. But it can also be more subtle than that. Plants that do not have access to micro and macronutrients cannot create all their phytochemicals and flavonoids.

Many commercially grown plants are raised on a mixture of Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium (N-P-K). From the outside, this produces plants that grow fast, create healthy roots and produce a crop. Commercially, this is all you need. However, it’s not just plants that need nutrients, we get our nutrients from plants. So if we have bland, flavourless food, it’s likely that it also doesn’t contain many nutrients – another big vote for growing your own!

If you want to experience flavour in your food, one of the best ways to do this is by choosing great heirloom vegetable and fruit varieties, and growing in naturally nutrient-rich compost. Composts that are fortified with nutrients will contain only the N-P-K fertilisers mentioned earlier. But when the nutrients are held in the natural compounds of the compost, they will contain all the micro and macronutrients needed for healthy growth and to produce flavour in abundance. Plants growing in the ground need to employ the soil life to release nutrients to them. We can encourage that by not digging our soil and by adding organic matter to the surface. If the organic matter is natural and truly organic, like Dalefoot’s composts, it will be teaming with microscopic lives. This will not only inoculate your soil with microbes, but also feed the other lives in the soil, who feed on dead organic matter.

Dalefoot’s Tomato compost is my favourite for growing my favourite Heirloom Tomatoes such as Sungold Select, Dark Galaxy and Brad’s Atomic Grape. It feeds them right through from when they are juvenile plants to the end of the season, producing bountiful crops packed with nutrients and rich in flavour.


About Me:

Becky is a garden writer with a background in ecology and botany. She has a keen knowledge of soil and spends the time outside her garden speaking and writing about natural gardening and soil ecology. Becky has a podcast called The Seed Pod and is active on social media as Sow Much More. If you want to follow her journey, follow @Sow_Much_More on Instagram or Sow Much More on Facebook.


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