Wednesday, November 5, 2014

November Tomatoes?! by E. J. Bennett

Photo taken October 25, 2014
Whether by global warming or just a local climate hiccup, this year’s unusual fall weather has gardeners happily plucking tomatoes from the vine past Halloween.  Most years, however, we have to consider the eventual demise of our tomato production in late September or early October.  October 9 is our average first frost date in Denver, but 1944 holds the record, when frost wasn’t seen until November 15th! (guess it was busy freezing the Ardennes Forest over in Europe that year). 
If you want to maximize your tomato output through first frost, follow these simple steps in late August or early September:
1.  Ruthlessly evaluate and prune your tomato plants.  Vines with only flowers? Out.  Vines with tiny green tomatoes? Out.  Leave only the tomatoes you think have a chance of maturing before first frost.
2.  Shock your tomato plants.  No, this doesn’t mean gardening in your thong.  The act of pruning, above, will stimulate the plant to bring the remaining fruit to maturity.  But you can also use your shovel to cut some of the plant’s roots (dig straight down with your shovel 3-4 places in a circle around the plant, 6+ inches out from the base of the plant) and reduce total water to the plants by a third or more.  
3.  As the weather cools, cut remaining foliage back so the sun strikes the remaining fruit during the day.  The additional solar heat will help them mature. 

4.  Pick tomatoes when they show the first blush of color and let them finish ripening inside.  This allows the plant to put its resources into the remaining green fruit.  Once picked, they won’t continue to add sugar content, but they will mature, add color and soften.
5.  Don’t add fertilizer to speed up the process.  It simply encourages new foliar growth and won’t help the fruit already hanging on your vines.
6.  Cover plants if a light frost is predicted.  If you have time and inclination, cover your plants at night to the ground, using tarps or lightweight plastic sheets.  I use the largest black trash bags I can find (drum liner -55 gal size, big box stores) and simply pop them over the plant, tomato cage and all. They’re relatively thick, reusable, fast, don’t blow off in most wind, and won’t break the plant.  My cages are fairly short, however, so you may need plastic sheeting for tall cages, in order to reach the ground.
6.  Once day-time high temperatures are consistently in the low sixties, it’s time to throw in the towel and bring in the crop!  Tomatoes won’t grow in very cool weather.
What do I bring in and how do I ripen it?
Fruit must be brought in before the first frost.  For fruit that has already started to color, sitting on your counter for a few days is generally enough to finish ripening.  Picked tomatoes don’t need sun to ripen.

And that armful of green tomatoes you harvested right before the hard frost?  Bring in only fruit at least three-quarters of its adult size, and only attempt to ripen unblemished fruit.  Personally, I put my green tomatoes in a shoe box (one or two layers) and lay waxed paper on top (held down with a section of newspaper). I find I get the right humidity with this.  For faster ripening, I’ll place a banana in with the fruit, as it releases ethylene gas, which is a ripening agent. There are as many theories of how to ripen fruit inside as there are gardeners!  For more on ripening tomatoes in your home, click on:  Enjoying homegrown tomatoes with the first flakes of snow falling…Priceless!
Fallen leaves on ripening tomatoes-a nice long autumn!