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Gardening: Cold, wet spring put a damper on tomatoes

Getting tomatoes ripe is tough this year. The tomato plant on the right has been pruned to expose the tomatoes to the sun to help speed ripening. The plant on the left has not.  (Pat Munts/For The Spokesman-Review)
Getting tomatoes ripe is tough this year. The tomato plant on the right has been pruned to expose the tomatoes to the sun to help speed ripening. The plant on the left has not. (Pat Munts/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Pat Munts For The Spokesman-Review

This is going to be a hit-and-miss year for tomatoes and a whole lot of other warm season vegetables. So, we might as well just acknowledge that and see what we can salvage of the growing season.

For starters, the spring was so cold and wet, the ground was only 45 degrees when it was time to plant. It stayed cold through June when the plants needed to be growing strong root systems to support their top growth by early July. That didn’t happen and the plants weren’t close to flowering by mid-July when our nights were starting to stay above the key 55-degree temperature It finally warmed up two weeks ago but guess what? The end of July looks like it’s going to be in the 90s and low 100s. Tomatoes don’t set fruit when it gets that hot. It will be cooling off by the latter half of August and frost will follow close behind. So, what’s a gardener to do to help ripen the surviving tomatoes?

Once we get into early August, top your plants to reduce the production of new leaves. Yes, the leaves would eventually produce tomatoes but not in what’s left of our growing season. Topping the plant forces it to put the energy into growing and ripening existing fruit.

Next, trim off all the flowers at the ends of branches. A tomato takes six to eight weeks to ripen from flower to fruit and we are bumping up against the end of the season enough that we need to sacrifice these flowers to support the fruit that has set.

Go through the plants and pinch or trim off any thin branches that grow between the main stem and the larger branch. It may seem harsh and counterproductive from our desire to have lots of fruit, but these suckers don’t produce much fruit and are wasting the plant’s energy.

As we get into mid-August, pick off any small, dark green fruits that aren’t going to turn red by mid-September. Again, if these fruits aren’t going to grow out, why let the plant waste its energy on them.

Lastly, tomato fruits need direct sun to ripen. If they are shaded by leaves, they aren’t going to turn red. So, starting at the bottom of the plant where most of the bigger fruit will be, prune off any of the leaves covering the fruit. Don’t take off more than a third of the plant’s leaves when doing this though. Again, it seems harsh, but it works.

So, after all this and you still end up with a bunch of green tomatoes, what can you do with them? Fruits that are a yellow green will ripen if picked and placed in boxes or bags with some apples. The apples give off ethylene gas which speeds ripening. Check often for rot. For fruit that is still pale green, search online for recipes for green tomato salsa, green tomato pie, green tomato mincemeat, relish or fried green tomatoes.

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