One of the greatest joys of growing tomatoes is the moment when the first fruit start turning color and we know that the harvesting time for those plants is beginning! Here at NatureFresh™ Farms, we grow many different varieties of tomatoes, and they come in different colors, shapes, and various sizes. That means that each variety has its own time from when the flower is pollinated (by approximately 270,000 bumble bees per year in 45 acres!) to the final mature stage. Overall, we can say it takes somewhere between 90-115 days from seeding to reach maturity depending on the time of the year and on the size of the tomato (the bigger the tomato, the longer the wait!).
That amazing journey from a beautiful small yellow flower to a delicious and juicy tomato goes through complex transformations and processes within the plant. Let’s dig deeper to understand it better. The tomato plants have many things happening at the same time: development of new flowers, growing fruit, ripening mature fruit, adding new growth, extending the root system and keeping everything in balance. That’s what we call multi-tasking! But the plants, as long as we can provide them with everything they need, seem to have no problems with handling all that activity and can deliver very generous amounts of produce.
How does everything start? It starts with the development of the flowers at the top of the plant. After a few days, the flower is ready and goes into anthesis (opens up). The intensity of the flower color depends on the variety and also the size of the flower can be slightly bigger or smaller on different types of tomatoes, but generally less than one inch in diameter. Once the flower is fully open and mature, it usually stays open for about five days. During that time, the wind or, in our case, the bumble bees are up for a nice job. They pollinate the attractive open flowers. We can check if the pollination by the bees is being successful by looking at the marks in the flower. Because the tomatoes have the female and male parts (pistil and stamen, respectively) in the same flower, the vibration caused by the bees in each flower will move the pollen to the right place and will trigger physiological changes that culminate in the formation of new fruits.
Once we see the fruits are set, we know that everything that happens with the plant will influence the quality, size, and flavor of the tomatoes. During those weeks between setting the fruit and maturity, there are many factors we control and optimize to achieve great results. The plants growing in our greenhouses are always in a nice balance of generative and vegetative. That indicates the plants are growing healthy to support the fruit load, and also there is a lot of energy to go to the fruits to make them grow.
After setting the fruits, the next phase for the plant is dividing the cells and expanding them in the tissues of the tomatoes. For better results, we record every week the growing results and compare to our benchmarks. The climate control keeps the temperatures during the day and during the night ideal for plant growth and fruit development; it’s like a tomato paradise! In addition to the irrigation, fertilization, correct balance of fertilizers and a lot of light for the plants, we also keep an improved ratio of leaves per area per plant, so the plants are able to better utilize all the light and nutrients. With an optimal leaf area and addition of CO2 in the greenhouse, there is a great benefit for the plant that is able to increase photosynthesis and convert more light into sugars and other compounds that enhance flavor. Several studies show that the better the conditions the plants are subject to, the higher the nutritional content of the fruits.
A few weeks later, the tomatoes reach maturity and it’s time to start the ripening process. The tomatoes basically reach their full size before they start turning color, however, they need to accumulate many compounds (nutrients and enzymes) before they start that process. There are more than four hundred different compounds in the tomato fruits that together help create the aroma, color, taste and nutritional value. With a healthy plant, the correct timing and good environmental conditions, the fruit that is mature receives the signal to start degrading the chlorophyll (the green pigment) and starts synthesizing carotenoids and lycopene pigments (to give color). The signal is the production of ethylene by the plant, a natural plant hormone that is invisible to us. The ethylene will activate several enzymes and physiological changes in the fruits, resulting in the change of color, softening and development of the aroma and taste.
To achieve the best-tasting tomatoes is very important for us to have the fruit vine-ripened & on the plant as long as possible, so they can be loaded with more compounds, nutrients, vitamins and have the best color they can have. Tomatoes are very nutritious and rich in several important vitamins for people, such as vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin E, several vitamins from the B-complex, vitamin A, many nutrients like potassium, phosphorus, and lots of dietary fiber.
We take that part very seriously, and maintain our tomatoes in the best conditions, with the lowest number of miles to reach the consumer and have the highest degree of freshness!