We’ve all noticed the temperatures starting to dip and the days getting shorter. Our tomatoes are noticing it too. Most Pikes Peak area gardeners have plenty of green tomatoes still on their plants at the end of the season. They ripen much more slowly once night-time temperatures start to drop into the 40’s. It’s time to start thinking about how you want to end your tomato season.
Option 1 – Frost protection
If you want to keep your plants alive for as long as possible, frost protection is essential. Start watching predicted night-time lows faithfully, and when the weather forecaster says we’ll be getting near the mid-to-low 30’s, cover your plants (for those at higher altitudes, you’ll need to be even more diligent). Covers can be as simple as old sheets or even plastic sheeting. Be sure the covers touch the plant as little as possible. This can be tricky if your plants are as large and gangly as mine! Just know that the parts of the plant that are touched will likely suffer frost damage, but the rest of the plant should do well. Covering can easily extend your season a few weeks. Often we’ll have a week with very chilly temperatures only to rebound to warmer temperatures. Those extra weeks are your pay off. Once temperatures are predicted to be in the upper-20’s, it is probably time to consider one of your other options.
Option 2 – Enjoy green tomatoes
Yes, this time of year brings out all of the recipes for green tomato relish, green tomato pie, green tomato salsa, and that old standby – fried green tomatoes. By all means try a recipe or two, but chances are, many of us can only stand so many green tomato dishes. So on to our next option.
Option 3 – Pick ’em green and ripen them inside
Gardeners who do this often enjoy tomatoes into November or even later. In fact, some varieties like ‘Red October’ and ‘Northern Exposure’ are bred for this very option! One way to ripen your end-of-season tomatoes is to pull the entire plant out of the ground and hang it upside down in a protected area – an attached garage or unheated basement works well. This can be a fairly messy procedure with dried leaves and soil dropping from the plants, so don’t hang them over flooring you really care about. Often the plants are very large and this method is not practical. In that case, pick all the green fruit that is larger than a golf ball and store in a single layer in a cardboard box lined with newspaper. Place the box in a cool area of your house and check it weekly to retrieve any tomatoes that have ripened and to toss any that are rotting into the compost. Some sources recommend wrapping each individual tomato in newspaper, and if you only have a few, this may not take too much time or effort. Otherwise, gardeners can get perfectly satisfactory results just lining the box with newspaper. Do not stack the tomatoes; keep them in one layer. These methods only work if the tomatoes have not been hit by a frost already. It can be tempting to run out the morning after a light frost to your plants that you forgot to cover and pick all the green tomatoes to ripen inside. Sadly, this will just lead to rotting tomatoes.
Contributed by Carey Harrington, Colorado Master Gardener. For answers to your horticultural questions, until Sep 30, 2009 contact the Master Gardener Help Desk at 520-7684 or CSUmg2@elpasoco.com. Access fact sheets and seasonal information on the El Paso County Horticulture website http://elpasoco.colostate.edu/horticulture/.