Guide to Turning Green Tomatoes Red and Fall Tomato Storage

green tomatoes on vine
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Guide to Turning Green Tomatoes Red and Fall Tomato Storage

Tips to Encourage Tomaotes to Ripen

As summer draws to a close and autumn quickly approaches, a lot of gardeners are concerned by all the green tomatoes still in the garden. Are they going to ripen before the cold temperatures arrive? No gardener wants to watch the tomatoes they worked so hard to grow be destroyed by a freeze. So, why won’t those tomatoes turn red?

Understanding the Chemistry of Tomato Plants

The lifespan of tomato plants is the same whether you start with organic seeds, heirloom seeds or hybrid tomato seeds. Once your seedling is ready to go in the garden, it will take about three weeks for the plant to be large enough to start producing blossoms. Twenty to 30 days later, there will be green tomatoes that should grow to maturity. Once the tomato is full size, it takes about 20-30 days for the full-size green tomato to turn red. This will vary a little depending on the variety you plant in your garden.

green and red tomatoesgreen and red tomatoes

When the tomato reaches its mature green size, the plant is stimulated to release ethylene which will start the ripening process. The tomato will soften and begin to change the color to red. Carotene and lycopene will be released, and these are responsible for the beautiful red color of tomatoes that we all love. This may seem like much more chemistry than you need to know, but it is important to understand how the plant works in order to troubleshoot when it doesn’t.

5 reasons tomatoes don't ripen5 reasons tomatoes don't ripen

5 Reasons Tomatoes Don’t Ripen

It happens to everyone, but it’s important to understand why it can happen. This way, you can make adjustments to get those red tomatoes you love.

1. The Temperature Is Too High.

Tomatoes prefer temperatures between 68 and 77 degrees. If the temperature is 85 degrees or higher over a sustained period of time, the tomato plant will slow down or even stop growing. Temperatures over 85 will stop the production of lycopene and carotene. As mentioned earlier, these are essential for the production of the red color.

2. The Temperature Is Too Cold.

If the temperature is going to drop below 60 degrees for a sustained period of time, your tomato plant will act like it hit the pause button. It will stop growing, and the fruit will stop ripening. Exposure to freezing temperatures will kill the tomato plant and all the fruit as well.

3. It’s the Wrong Variety of Tomato.

Each tomato variety takes a certain amount of time from planting the seeds to harvesting tomatoes. Check your grow zone to find out the average amount of time between the last frost in spring and the first frost in fall. Then, check your tomato’s seed packet or seed catalog.

Finally, ensure you don’t plant a variety of tomatoes that just barely fits in your time frame. You don’t want just one tomato. You want a season of fresh vine-ripened tomatoes. Don’t despair if you have a short season, though. Instead, consider planting short-season tomatoes like Early Girl or even cherry tomatoes which ripen much more quickly than a full-sized tomato.

4. Your Tomato Is Stressed.

Tomatoes can become stressed by lots of factors. Temperature is very important, but there are other stressors. Tomatoes like consistent watering. Using a good garden irrigation system with an adjustable timer will give your plants the water they need in appropriate amounts. Insects and diseases can also stress out your plants. Keep a regular maintenance schedule to examine your plants for signs of either. Treat your plants early to prevent stress to the plant.

5. It Actually Is Ripe.

Let’s say you did everything right. Great temperatures, just the right amount of water, your tomatoes aren’t stressed and they’re perfect for your grow zone. Double-check the variety you planted, especially if you grow heritage tomatoes. Many of these are not red when ripe; instead, they are pink or orange. Some other varieties of heritage tomatoes stay green or turn a dark purple. Your tomato could be ripe, and you just don’t realize it.

6 ways to help tomatoes ripen6 ways to help tomatoes ripen

6 Ways to Help Your Tomatoes Ripen on the Vine

Your goal is to have as many vine-ripened tomatoes as possible. If you have a short span of unusual weather, don’t fret — your plants will probably recover and continue to grow and produce. If you are nearing the end of the growing season, there are things you can do to extend the season as long as possible and even encourage your plants to ripen as many tomatoes as possible.

1. Use Shade Cloth.

If you are having hotter than usual temperatures, you can lower the temperature by as much as 10 degrees just by shading your plants. Shade cloth comes in different levels of density. Generally, a density of 30-50 percent is best for vegetables.

2. Use Frost Cloth.

If the temperatures are lower than normal, cover the plants with frost cloth. Even an old sheet will help. Usually, it is the night temperatures that are the coldest, so allow the sun to warm the plants and the surrounding soil during the day. Apply the frost cloth before the sun sets to contain the heat and hold it around your plants throughout the night.

3. Remove Suckers.

Suckers are the stems that grow at the joint of the main stem and its leaves. They usually don’t produce as many tomatoes, but they do use a lot of the plant’s energy. By removing the suckers, you can relieve stress from the plant and allow the plant to spend its energy on ripening full-size fruits.

4. Clean Your Plant.

Remove any diseased leaves or deformed tomatoes. The plant doesn’t need to spend energy growing unusable tomatoes or fighting off disease.

5. Remove Blossoms and Excess Foliage.

As the season nears the end, remove any blossoms. There is not enough time for the fruit to grow to maturity anyways. Many gardeners prune the tomato branches to just above the highest fruit. Some start to prune when the plant reaches the height of the cage or stake that supports the tomato. This may seem drastic, but again, will any of the fruit reach the edible stage? If the blossoming ends of the tomato are left, the tomato will continue to use most of its energy into setting fruit instead of ripening the existing tomatoes.

6. Cut the Roots.

This old-time technique gets the tomato to put all its energy into ripening the fruit. Simply take a garden spade and cut into the soil at the depth of the spade. Make about four good cuts around the plant about a foot out from the stem. Don’t dig, just cut.

Another method to achieve the same result is to give the tomato plant a good tug. You don’t want to pull the plant out, but you do want to use enough force that roots will be severed. This can break your tomato plant if done incorrectly, so use caution when attempting.

5 Ways to Help Tomatoes Ripen Indoors

Once you have done everything that you can to ripen the tomatoes on the vine, there will come a point where Mother Nature will take over. Fall will come, but you may still have unripe tomatoes on the vines.

So what do you do? Here are some suggestions.

1. Pick Them and Bring Your Tomatoes Inside.

If you only have a few partially ripened tomatoes left, pick them and bring them indoors. Put them on the kitchen counter or on the windowsill to ripen.

2. Bring Your Container Tomatoes Inside.

If you are growing your tomatoes in a container garden, move the entire pot and tomato plants indoors to continue growing. Place the pot in a sunny window and you are all set.

3. Try a Paper Bag or Box to Ripen Your Tomatoes.

If you want to speed up the process, place the unripened tomatoes in a paper bag or cardboard box with an apple or banana. The apple or banana will give off ethylene which stimulates the tomato to ripen. By placing them together in a bag or box, you will ensure the tomato is exposed to the ethylene.

Do not use a plastic bag as the plastic will cause the humidity to rise and promote the growth of fungi and bacteria.

4. Hang Your Entire Tomato Plant Indoors.

If you have a lot of tomatoes still on the plant, pull the entire plant — root and all — out of the ground. Hang the tomato plant upside down in the garage or basement. Be sure the area you hang the plant will have a temperature above 50 degrees. Check the plant daily, and you will easily see which tomatoes are ready to pick.

5. Pick and Wrap Your Tomatoes in Paper.

This method has been used for many years as a way of storing fresh tomatoes. Pick and wrap each tomato individually in paper. Place your wrapped tomatoes in a single layer in a box and store them in the basement. Check the tomatoes frequently for progress.

Obviously, that is the negative part of this system. The tomato wrapper must be opened to check it for ripeness. However, by individually wrapping each tomato, you protect them from their neighbor. If a tomato should go bad, it is not touching the next tomato and will not spread the problem. Gardeners who use this system claim they are still eating fresh tomatoes a couple of months later.

How to Store Your Ripened Red Tomatoes

Hopefully, you have enjoyed eating fresh ripe tomatoes all summer, or you’ve employed some of the tips and tricks above and you’ve got plenty of red tomatoes to use. If you’re suddenly experiencing an excess of tomatoes, why not try canning or freezing? Not everyone is interested in canning, but freezing excess tomatoes is simple and a great way to save tomatoes at the end of the year.

To freeze tomatoes, simply wash them and then remove the stem end. This is easy to do if you repurpose your melon baller and use it to remove the stem end cleanly and neatly. Then, just place the tomato in a freezer bag until you are ready to use it. This is great when you maybe only have one or two tomatoes ripening each day. Just add them to the bag of frozen tomatoes until the bag is full.

When you are ready to use the tomatoes, remove the amount you want. As they start to defrost, the skin will slip right off. These tomatoes will be best added to soups and sauces.

If you do want to preserve your tomatoes by canning, take time to read a current canning instruction guide. Canning tomatoes is not difficult, and you can process tomatoes in a water bath — just a fancy way of saying in a large kettle of boiling water. There is no need for a pressure canner.

How to Enjoy Green Tomatoes

If you aren’t sure you want to try to extend the tomato season with these methods or you tried them and you still have green tomatoes, it might be time to get out the cookbook and try using your green tomatoes as they are. Fried green tomatoes are delicious, and the recipe is easily found online. You can also try making your own homemade salsa verde — just substitute green tomatoes for the tomatillos.

If all else fails, use your tomato vines and any unripe tomatoes by adding them to your compost.