More tomatoes, please! Extending your tomato harvest

IMG_0392Some weeks ago I wrote  Takeaways from a Tomato Tutorial, based off Northside garden mentor Sarah Johnson’s advice she gave fellow gardeners in her tomato tutorial workshop. That post was all about supporting, pruning, fertilizing, and watering your tomatoes throughout the season. But now, our days are getting shorter and the mornings and evenings are getting cooler.  These bittersweet seasonal changes are well and good for a bit o‘ fall gardening, but what do they mean for our garden tomatoes?
In season harvesting and storage

Tomatoes are best picked at their peak of ripeness when the color has reached its fullest hue. But tomatoes that have a tendency to crack – such as cherry tomatoes – can be picked when just slightly underripe.

Once picked, tomatoes should be stored on a counter or shelf out of direct sunlight. If you wash them after picking them, make sure to dry them before you leave them on the counter. Tomatoes typically last 3-5 days on the counter. They can also be stored in the refrigerator so they keep a little longer. (Storing them in the fridge doesn’t do them any favors in the flavor department, so ideally you store them on the counter and use them or process them before they need to go in the fridge.)

Extending the growing season

Did you know that the other week we actually had a frost advisory in place for Missoula valley? Yes, it’s true. It seems the frost missed us that time, but it goes to show that it’s time to start paying attention to night time temps. My favorite place to check the weather is the National Weather Service. They usually give pretty detailed frost warnings(and fire, wind, rain and heat, too! They have a whole discussion each week on the weather patters, if you want to get nerdy with it).

When frost is expected you better get those tomato plants covered up because their foliage is especially sensitive to frost damage. When the foliage is damaged or dead it can’t photosynthesize as well or at all, and your tomatoes won’t ripen. And we certainly don’t want that to happen!

You can use an old blanket or sheets to cover your tomato plants, but be sure to remove them in the morning so the plants can see the light of day. A more expensive option is to use row cover which is air permeable and allows light and moisture to pass through, so the cover can stay on your plants all day. If you store the row cover properly over winter and keep it dry, it should last you for several years.

Tip: It’s best if your cover doesn’t touch any tomato foliage, as that foliage will still be in danger of getting frost damage. Try building a non-permanent frame, such as from PVC pipe, around your tomato plants that your cover can be draped over. But don’t worry – any cover is better than no cover!

Extending your tomato harvest

When the end of the season is in sight, days are still hot but nights are cooling…

Once the end of the tomato season is in sight, water your plant a little less. Alternatively (or in addition), you can use a shovel to sever the roots about a foot out from the plant on three sides. The added stress will trigger the plant into more fruit production.

Additionally, pick off any tomato blossoms. They have very little chance of turning into tomatoes and without them the plant can give more energy to ripening the tomatoes that are more fully developed.

When day time temps start cooling…

Tomatoes stop ripening when day time temps consistently fall below 60 degrees. Once temperatures are consistently 60 degrees and threatening to fall below, start pulling off any tomatoes that have about 50% redness or more. The green tomatoes still on the plant will then have a better chance of ripening.

When the season is all but ended…

IMG_0363Once it is so cool that there is no chance of further ripening, you can do one of two things:

  • Pick all your green tomatoes. Then store them in a basement or garage where it is dark and cool (but no danger of freezing exists). Now is the perfect time to make fried green tomatoes! Or, if you want to ripen your green tomatoes, put then on a sunny windowsill when you are ready to ripen them. Rotate the tomato over time so one side doesn’t ripen so quickly. Alternatively, ripen the tomato in a brown paper bag on the counter. If you want the tomato to ripen more quickly, throw a banana in there too. The banana emits an ethylene gas that will cause the fruit to ripen faster.
  • Pull the plant up by its roots. Shake it – go ahead, shake it like a Polaroid picture – to get all that dirt off so you can store it in a cool place in your house and allow the remaining tomatoes to ripen on the vine.

Follow these steps, and you just may be able to serve up fresh tomatoes from your garden at Thanksgiving dinner! Or, if you have an excessive amount of tomatoes, you can freeze them whole or cook them into a delicious sauce or salsa before freezing them. Frozen tomatoes keep well for up to a year. You can also try your hand at canning tomatoes so they’ll keep even longer. After all, who gets sick of garden tomatoes?