Saving Tomatoes Before the First Frost

by Elisabeth Rose

Tomato plants in its final stages of glory.

Saving tomatoes before the first frost is a must for those of us who love to garden and are sad to see our tomato plants go. There are ways to hang onto the last remaining fruits of summer, and correct ones at that. If improperly handled, you can end up with tomatoes that taste flavorless, with a soft, mushy texture.

As temperatures drop, wrapping your plants to keep them warmer is one way to help them persevere in colder weather. Two other options remain: dig up the plants and hang them upside down, allowing the last fruits to ripen, or harvest the existing tomatoes and allow them to ripen at home through a variety of methods. Read on.

First, before harvesting your last tomatoes, you can help the plant direct its energy to the remaining maturing fruits. Using a shovel, cut back some of the roots on two sides, about 8 inches from the center of the plant. Then pinch back any remaining flowers and thin out and cut back canes without fruit.

To protect the plants from frost, cover them at night with a piece of burlap, a light blanket, a frost cloth, or a piece of plastic that hangs all the way to the ground. This is a good idea if you have tomatoes that are almost but not quite ripe (e.g. already changing color.) If they are still quite immature and the temperature is very cold (below 28 degrees F), this is not the best plan.

If you decide to dig up your plant and bring it inside to hang upside down, make sure you have a place that is cool, dark, and has good air circulation with a temperature of about 55-68 degrees, such as in a basement or garage. Check it daily to so that you don’t end up with tomatoes that have already fallen on the ground and rotted.

To harvest your last tomatoes you need to pick all the fruits, leaving a bit of the stem on them if you want, and bring them inside. Regardless of their color, they will ripen at about the same time. Remember that if it’s quite late in the season, immature tomatoes that haven’t begun to turn white and then pink may simply spoil if you hold onto them to ripen. If used right away, green tomatoes can always be cooked up for Fried Green Tomatoes or even better, a Green Bloody Mary.

After harvesting, you can choose to wash your fruit. There’s no doubt that water droplets on tomatoes can precipitate fungi and mold, though some people feel strongly about washing their produce. Opinions vary, too, on whether or not to include a drop of bleach in the water. From an environmental point of view, I would discourage this. Either way, the tomatoes must be completely dry when set out to ripen.

Contrary to popular belief, tomatoes do not ripen faster on a windowsill unless it does not get a lot of direct sun and they are turned over each day. Otherwise it is better to put them in a warm, dark place. Storing them in the refrigerator is inadvisable, as it is too cold and will affect the flavor. Controlling humidity is also an important issue. Low humidity can cause the tomatoes to shrivel up; high humidity, to mold, so a proper balance is key.

There are several ways to force tomatoes to mature. They are all based on the principle that, as the fruits ripen, they give off ethylene gas, a natural hormone in the plants. Keeping them in an enclosed place will speed up this process. If the tomatoes are completely green, they should ripen in about two weeks at 65 to 70 degrees F, and about 3-4 weeks at 55 degrees F. Anything stored below 50 degrees F will give fruit a bland, off flavor.

Tomatoes can be individually wrapped loosely in newspaper and then put in a box, ideally not more than in two layers. They can also be placed on a rack in a cool, dark place such as the basement or garage. Other ways to facilitate ripening include putting tomatoes in a paper bag, a plastic bag with holes or in a jar. Add a piece of fruit like a banana or an apple to this package, which give off ethylene gas, thereby speeding up the ripening process.

Green tomatoes must be harvested before a frost if you don’t protect the plant.

Harvesting the last of the season’s tomatoes is bittersweet as it signals the end of summer. Yet it also means that green tomatoes and all their culinary incarnations are available to us. The best excuse to whip up something new and delicious. For those of us in the northeast who only have tomatoes for part of the year, this is definitely something to look forward to!

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