Ripening and Harvesting Tomatoes

by National Gardening Association Editors

One of the great joys of gardening is reaching for the first red-ripe tomato on the vine and biting into it. There's a flavor, juiciness and pleasure you'll never find in a supermarket tomato. Because tomatoes ripen from the inside out, when the outer skin is firm and red, you know you've got a beautiful ripe one.

Getting Them to Turn Red

The red color of tomatoes won't form when temperatures are above 86oF. So, if you live where the summers get quite hot, leaving tomatoes on the vine may give them a yellowish orange look. It's probably better to pick them in the pink stage and let them ripen indoors in cooler temperatures.

Tomatoes need warmth, not light, to ripen, so there's no need to put them on a sunny windowsill. Place them out of direct sunlight -- even in a dark cupboard -- where the temperature is 65 to 70F.

Getting Them to Turn Red

The red color of tomatoes won't form when temperatures are above 86oF. So, if you live where the summers get quite hot, leaving tomatoes on the vine may give them a yellowish orange look. It's probably better to pick them in the pink stage and let them ripen indoors in cooler temperatures.

Tomatoes need warmth, not light, to ripen, so there's no need to put them on a sunny windowsill. Place them out of direct sunlight -- even in a dark cupboard -- where the temperature is 65 to 70F.

Frost-Time Harvest

Tomatoes succumb to frost, but don't panic when the weatherman predicts the first one and your tomato vines are still loaded with green fruit. If it's going to be a light frost, you can protect the plants overnight by covering them with old sheets, plastic, burlap bags or big boxes. It's usually worth the effort because the second frost is often two or three weeks after the first one.

If a heavy freeze is on its way, go out and pick all the tomatoes. Green tomatoes that have reached about 3/4 of their full size and show some color will eventually ripen, and smaller, immature green ones can be pickled or cooked green.

Some people like to pull up the whole tomato plant and hang it upside down in a dark basement room and let the tomatoes ripen gradually. If you try this system, check them regularly to prevent very ripe fruits from falling onto the floor -- splaat!

The Shelf Method

Another method is to put unripe tomatoes on a shelf and cover them with sheets of newspaper. Every few days check under the newspaper and remove ripe fruits or any that have begun to rot. The newspaper covering helps trap a natural ethylene gas that tomatoes give off, which hastens ripening. Some people wrap each tomato individually, but this causes a lot of work when you want to check for ripe tomatoes: You have to open each one! You can also place tomatoes in a paper bag with an apple or banana. The fruits give off ethylene gas, which helps to speed the tomatoes' ripening process.

Fall Tomatoes

In parts of the southern and southwestern states you can grow an abundant crop of fall tomatoes. However, finding young tomato plants to buy in the middle of summer may be hard.

An easy way to solve this problem is to cut small suckers from spring-planted tomatoes and let them grow to full-sized plants. Instead of pinching out most of the suckers on your tomato plants, allow some to grow four or five inches. Then in mid- or late summer, cut the suckers from the plant, remove the lowest set of leaves and place the suckers in a jar of water or moistened sand or vermiculite. This will start the rooting process. Once roots begin to form, plant them in pots or directly in the garden. Firm the soil around the suckers and water them heavily for two or three days.

These plants will do just as well as any you could raise from seed or buy at a garden store. Just be sure they don't have any insect or disease problems or you'll be fighting them all fall. The plants will give you a nice fall crop of tomatoes, too.


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