Tomato season is coming to a close. Tomatoes are tender perennial crops.They’re unable to tolerate cold temperatures and the first frost usually signals the end of their growing season. Sadly, it’s time to clean up our garden and get ready for winter. Even though we don’t get everything done on time, here’s how Rachel and I try to wind down our tomato patch.
It takes about six weeks for a tomato blossom to turn into a ripened fruit. This process expends a lot of the plants’ energy. Toward the end of the season, we remove all of the blossoms from our tomato vines so they can focus all of their energy into ripening any remaining fruit. Then we remove all of the leaves on the lower one-third of the vine.
Here’s something that may seem counterproductive but it works. Slice through about one-third of the roots of each plant with the blade of a trowel. This redirects all the remaining energy of the plant toward ripening the final fruit. Since the lifecycle of the vine is nearly over, our only concern is harvesting the remaining tomatoes. We don’t want any more flowers to set. Throughout the season we’ve tried to be vigilant about removing any yellow leaves. This allows sunlight to reach whatever fruit is left. If you haven’t done so already, pick any fruit that has even the slightest hint of color. These can finish ripening indoors. This gives the last few green tomatoes a chance to mature. Tomatoes don’t need sunlight to ripen once they’ve been picked, so there’s no need to place them on a window sill. Just store them somewhere cool and dark in a single layer. They’ll only squash each other if allowed to ripen in a bowl. Don’t store tomatoes in the refrigerator either. They’ll lose their flavor and become bland and mushy. This defeats the whole point of growing your own. You can buy tasteless tomatoes in the grocery store all year long.
If the first frost comes while there are still tomatoes on the vine, hope is not lost. You can pull up the entire plant and hang it upside down in your garage or basement. As long as the temperatures don’t get too cool (below 50 degrees) the tomatoes will continue to ripen. This also works for cherry tomatoes.
Once you’ve picked the last tomato of the season, it’s time to pull up the vines. Use a spade or tiller to remove as much of the root pieces as you can. Remember, tomatoes have deep roots. It’s not a good idea to compost any debris from tomato plants. Tomatoes are susceptible to numerous insects, pests and diseases. Most household compost piles don’t get hot enough to kill fungal spores and viruses. If you decide to compost your tomato waste, use a thermometer and make sure your pile reaches at least 150 degrees. Be safe and set all of your tomato debris out with your household trash. Why risk infecting next year’s garden with last year’s diseases?
Rachel and Ivan Minnis are avid gardeners. They live in Leavenworth. For more information, visit The Minnis Rose Garden on Facebook. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org