Waiting for tomatoes to turn ripe has always been an exercise in patience. Depending on the variety, it can take anywhere from forty to sixty days from the time the blossoms on a plant set fruit to the time those fruits are ripe and ready to pick. The ideal temperature for ripening tomatoes ranges from 20°C to 25°C. Tomatoes will stop ripening when it’s colder than 12.77°C or hotter than 29.44°C. Sometimes it seems like an apt adage for the garden is “A watched tomato never ripens.” Over the years, gardeners, plant professionals, and scientists have come up with all sorts of ways to ensure that as many ripe tomatoes as possible make it from the garden to the table.
Planting Tomatoes Early
Some gardeners choose the path of extra early planting. They start their tomato seeds indoors in mid-February, using heat mats and fans to create warm soil and mimic stem-strengthening spring breezes. As the seedlings grow, these gardeners carefully pot them up whenever they begin to outgrow their containers, making sure to bury them up to their first true leaves each time. When mid-May rolls around, and the rest of us are planting out 4 inch potted seedlings we (or our local nursery) started in mid-March early April, extra early tomato planting enthusiasts have already planted out their considerably larger specimens. The idea here is to have big, healthy plants that reach the fruiting stage as early in the season as possible, so that they can be making fruit for a longer period of time, thus increasing the odds of having as many ripe tomatoes as possible.
Other gardeners choose the path of scientific manipulation. When they plant their seedlings out, they surround them with little fortresses constructed out of tubes of water. The idea behind this is that the water walls not only provide physical barriers against damaging winds, but also the sun warming the water during the day will keep the air around the plants warm during the night. Quite a few gardeners plant their seedlings through thin red plastic sheet mulch, or place perforated red plastic sleeves over their tomato cages. The concept here is that the red plastic (it has to be the specific red developed for this purpose, not just any red) will warm up the soil, and reflect light from the far-red spectrum onto the plant. This light reflection reportedly makes the plant grow more fruit faster, increasing the amount of fruit by up to twenty percent.
Still other gardeners believe the way to faster ripening tomatoes is through clever and/or timely pruning. Some of these gardeners severely prune and train their tomato vines, sacrificing the overall yield of each plant for quicker ripening of the fruit. The idea behind this is that, with fewer leaves, the plants will put their energy into fruit production and ripening. Others prune approximately one third of the leaves towards the lower portion of each tomato plant, but leave the upper portion alone. The concept here is that the lower fruits will get the sunlight and airflow that they need, while still being shaded by the upper leaves of a plant that is growing unimpeded.
Of course, there are quite a few gardeners who will try any or all of the above methods, in various combinations. At first, it might seem like a whole lot of fuss just to make sure you get to pick a ripe tomato. However, once you’ve tasted a vine-ripened Gardeners Delight tomato picked from your very own garden, it’s really, really hard not to be a tomato snob forever after. The difference is real, and worth the work. Growing your own strawberries is very rewarding and they always seem to taste better, probably as a result of the self satisfaction it brings.
Eventually, though, summer comes to an end, and gardeners are faced with the prospect of frost. This is when you really want to pay very close attention to the weather. Depending on the usual first frost date in your area, you may still have time to ripen some fruit on the vine, and get the rest of them to a reasonably mature state. Approximately one month before the first frost, the best thing to do is snip any remaining flowers and little fruits off the vine, because there won’t be time for them to fully develop, and you want the plant to put all its energy into ripening the larger and more mature fruit that is already there. While you’re at it, you can take this opportunity to cut away any extraneous foliage on the lower part of the plant, again to force the plant to concentrate on its fruit. Reduce the amount of food and water you give the vine. Put stress on the roots by twisting it a bit at the bottom, or by severing half the roots with a shovel about a foot away from the plant. Again, the point of this is to encourage the plant to get a move on with the ripening and maturing.
Once frost is definitely in the forecast, there are several things you can do. One particularly laissez-faire solution is to uproot entire plants and hang them upside down in a dark place where it won’t freeze, like a cellar. If you don’t have such a space, or are using it for something else, go ahead and harvest all the remaining tomatoes: green, semi green, pink, and reddish. Any with blemishes should be discarded. Sort the rest by colour, from the greenest to the reddest. Those that are already close to being completely red can be left on the kitchen counter to finish ripening in a day or two. The others should be placed with their similarly coloured comrades in a single layer in a large paper bag or a newspaper at the bottom of a cardboard box. Make sure the tomatoes aren’t touching each other. If you want these tomatoes to ripen faster, add a banana or an apple to the bag or box. The ethylene gas given off by the apple or banana will hasten the process. Place the bag or the box (covering the boxed tomatoes with another layer of newspaper) in a place where it stays dark and doesn’t get below 12.77°C or above 29.44°C. Like tomatoes on the vine, ripening is about temperature not about sunlight. After that, you’ll need to check on your tomatoes every day to see how they’re progressing, and to remove any that have ripened or have developed bruises or rotted spots.
Green tomatoes that have reached 75% of their full size will eventually ripen. However, if you find yourself with smaller green tomatoes, don’t fret. There are all kinds of recipes for things like green tomato relish, green tomato pickles, green tomato pie, and even fried green tomatoes!