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Hurry tomatoes into luscious state of ripeness

Thu., Aug. 31, 2006

Nothing says summer like the taste of ripe tomatoes fresh from the garden – sweet and tangy; juice running off your elbows.

I keep a salt shaker in my garden shed so I can eat them straight out of the garden.

What’s that, you say? Your tomato plants are loaded, but they’re still green and showing little sign of ripening.

I’ve heard the same thing over and over recently.

With nights already getting cooler and our first expected frost just a few weeks away, here are a few tricks that will put those tasty treats on your plate instead of the compost bin.

First, it helps to understand some tomato biology.

A tomato plant’s only “goal” in life is to reproduce through seed production. A ripe tomato is a seed factory.

Any stress to the plant at this time of year will force it to put its energy into ripening instead of producing more seeds.

The first and easiest trick is to drastically cut back on water. Drought conditions signal the end is near, and tomatoes respond by ripening the existing fruit.

Give only enough water to keep the plant barely alive. You should begin seeing color changes in seven to 10 days and ripe fruit in a couple of weeks.

You can also achieve the same effect through root pruning. Take a spade and push it all the way into the soil on one side of your tomato plants.

Rock it back and forth a few times, severing some of the roots. This reduces the amount of available moisture and kick-starts the ripening process.

Turn up the heat. Tomatoes require heat for ripe fruit.

Judiciously prune foliage to allow more sunlight to reach the fruit and speed ripening. Do everything you can to retain heat.

Black plastic mulch covering the soil keeps temperatures up, as does covering the plants at night. Fill a few clear milk jugs with water and set them among your plants.

They’ll heat up in daytime and release the heat at night. Extending the season by even a week or two can make a big difference.

Tomato plants are pretty tough and can take a few light frosts, but the fruit itself is susceptible to frost damage.

Cover the entire plant with something (clear plastic or an old blanket) when frosts are expected and remove the cover in the morning to allow the sun and heat in. In my Cheney garden, this trick often gets me an extra three weeks of ripening time.

When a hard frost is expected, my last trick always works.

Pull the entire plant, roots and all, and hang it upside down in a protected place. Most of the tomatoes will slowly ripen.

They won’t taste quite as good as one eaten standing in the garden with a salt shaker in one hand and tomato juice running off your elbows, but they’re still mighty good.


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