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Ripening Tomatoes

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After a serious drought most of the year, the rain has finally returned.  (It actually feels like Oregon again here.  So glad for the grey and the rain!)

Despite the fact that we had what felt like an eternal summer, the reality is that it is now September, and the cooling temperatures and rapidly-shrinking day-lengths mean the bumper tomato harvest can only last a few more weeks.

I frequently hear from folks who are frustrated to find most of their tomato fruit still hanging green and rock hard on the vines by the time temps dip into the 40’s at night and the vines begin to die.  So much effort is put into a crop that never matures before the season ends.  And there are only so many batches of green tomato pickles and chutney one can put up in the fall!

So, I thought I’d give you some of my tips for encouraging your tomatoes to ripen before the end of the season:

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First of all, obviously not all tomatoes are red when ripe, so color is not a good indicator that your crop is ready to pick.  This variety, Indigo Rose, rapidly turns a dark purple, but isn’t ripe until the green color under the purple turns brownish-orange.  Despite being a cherry tomato, it is one of the longest-ripening tomatoes in my garden, fooling many volunteers into picking it underripe because of the early purple blush.

Knowing the characteristics of the varieties you are growing will help you determine ripeness.  Knowing the firmness/feel of a ripe tomato when you gently squeeze it is `important thing to know.  As well as knowing that most (but not all) varieties of tomato slip easily from the vine when ripe.  If you have to tug and tug to pick the fruit, it probably isn’t ripe (although I have a few heirloom beefsteaks that will hang on for dear life until they are very overripe).

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Here’s another very soft, very ripe tomato, although it doesn’t look particularly ripe.  Some of my favorites have green stripes when ripe, or are completely green (Evergreen and Green Zebra come to mind).  Again, here softness and ability to slip easily off the plant are the best indictators of ripeness.

Volunteers here frequently skip over pink beefsteak varieties, thinking they are not yet ripe because they aren’t deep red.  But they will never turn deep red, and if left hanging on the vine, they will attract creatures who know  they are ripe and tasty in their pinkish hue: birds, mice, slugs, will damage them and crops will be lost.  The same goes for lemon-yellow varieties, which folks tend to overlook, waiting for an orangey indictator of ripeness which will never come.

So, now that we know how to tell if a tomato is ripe, how do we get those green tomatoes to hurry up and get in that state?

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Tip 1:  As soon as early September hits, I snip off all of the the flower blossoms and buds from the vines.  These flowers don’t have time to turn into harvestable crops before the end of the month, and they are robbing energy from the vine that it could be putting into maturing fruit.

Removing the flower buds also signals to the plant that flowering time is over, and fall is approaching, and it should focus on ripening already-set fruit.

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Tip 2: Remove all very small, immature fruit.  These little guys are never going to ripen into 1 lb Brandywines in two to three weeks.  Again, removing them keeps the plant from wasting energy attempting to mature them, and allows more resources to go to larger fruit that have a chance of ripening before the end of the month.

Tip 3:  Stop watering.  A shortage of water stresses the plant and encourages it to hurry up and ripen its set fruit before dying.  Now, in Oregon, that may not be an option because sometimes the rain returns in September.  But many years, September is very dry until late in the month, and the combination of lack of water and dipping night temperatures will help those beefsteaks mature.

Ceasing to water also helps prevent fungal diseases on ripening fruit (and believe me, while late blight is rare here, it will devastate your entire crop in 48 hours.  Ripening tomatoes and their vines will turn into black mush before you know what has hit you, and there is no cure.)   I lost 300 lbs of tomatoes one year to late blight (which is spread on the wind, and brought into our state by big-box store’s tomato starts cultivated in the South, where the disease is common), and I hope to never experience that again.

Tip 4: Grow more cherry tomatoes!  Some years, Oregon has cool summers, and beefsteaks are never going to be able to set and ripen many fruits in the season.  I always grow a few beefsteaks and large slicers, even knowing that many won’t produce a large crop for me if the summer is mild.  Brandywine and Mortgage Lifter are particularly prone to setting fruit late and having buckets of green tomatoes for me at the end of the season (they do make very tasty lactofermented dill pickles, though).  Small slicers such as Green Zebra and cherry tomatoes like Sungold and Chocolate Cherry are sure winners no matter the weather.

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Hope that helps you, and I hope you get lots of tomatoes in the next few weeks and enjoy the tail end of summer.

I know I am beginning to anticipate fall crops like the late September glut of tomatillo and ground cherry fruit, winter squash, quince, lingonberries…

More soon, and happy gardening!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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