This day always comes: It is almost September and green tomatoes abound.
And sometimes, a summer of cool nights slows down ripening that much more.
So much green fruit, heavy on the vines.
What can we do help our tomatoes to turn red?
With a little foresight and a bit of effort, you’ll ripen more tomatoes than you otherwise might. Photo credit: Markus Spiske
I’m honored to share our strategies to encourage our tomatoes to ripen at the end of the season, how to enjoy your green tomatoes in the kitchen as well as set you up for success for next season.
Ripening Tomatoes on the Vine
Give them a trim!
With scissors, garden shears or large pruners, trim your vines all the way back to the green fruit. Six weeks before first frost is your optimum window to maximize your harvest. Suddenly, your plants will:
- focus their energy on ripening fruit rather than continuing to blossom
- invite more light into depths of the plant helping fruit ripen, as well as
- experience greater airflow, which discourages the spread of disease.
Trimming your tomato foliage is the single best thing you can do to ripen more tomatoes this season.
This type of trimming rings true whether it’s in August during a slow-to-ripen season, or in September for the green tomatoes that may not ripen without help before frost arrives.
Scissors, garden shears and large pruners are all great tools to trim your tomatoes.
When to Stop Feeding Your Tomato Plants
As a general rule, resist feeding your plants any additional nutrients (like compost tea or fish emulsion) once they begin to senesce, or die back. This is the case for many plants in many seasons. For example, when your snap peas begin to yellow and die back in late June, stop feeding them. Once your tomatoes begin to yellow and die back, stop feeding them. We pre-emptively stop feeding our tomatoes in late August. You can also cut back or entirely stop watering your plants as they begin to senesce, as well.
Here in the Finger Lakes of New York, in Zone 5, we stop feeding our tomatoes by late August. Photo credit: Markus Spiske
Ripening Tomatoes Off the Vine
Much of a tomato’s flavor is acquired in the final days of ripening, so only ripen tomatoes off the vine as an absolute last resort.
If you have more than a few dozen fruit or a handful of plants, cut your tomato stems at their base and hang them in a warm (over 60 F is best) place out of direct sunlight. Your garage or basement may be perfect! They’ll continue to ripen and become more flavorful for being left on the vine.
If you’re ripening a red variety, expect your pink fruits to turn red and your green fruits to turn more pink-red. For varieties with other colors, expect similar color saturations for relative ripeness.
If you’re ripening a red variety, expect your pink fruits to turn red and your green fruits to turn a lighter pink-red.
Ripen Tomatoes Out of Direct Sunlight
It’s counter-intuitive, but YES!
Tomatoes ripen from the inside out, even off the vine. If your tomatoes are exposed to direct sunlight, they will turn red quicker, but their core and overall flavor won’t have the same richness. Ripen your green tomatoes in the darkest space that still is easy for you to manage.
Will All Green Tomatoes Ripen?
Many tomatoes will ripen to a great extent. The youngest, most dense fruits will ripen least.
And Friends, I find some varieties are more worthwhile than others to ripen.
For example, I tend to focus on ripening our green slicers and roma-style tomatoes, while turning the green cherries into the compost. I find their flavor and texture more satisfying, especially for the time invested in trying to ripen them.
There are actually varieties that have been selected to ripen well when picked green. I haven’t explored these much. If you do, please let me know what you learn!
I tend to turn the cherries into the compost, focusing on ripening the slicers and romas instead. Photo credit: Dan Gold
Ripening Green Tomatoes In a Brown Paper Bag
If you have a few dozen green tomatoes or less, consider ripening them in a brown paper bag. Adding an apple to each bag will release ethylene, a naturally occurring gas that encourages ripening in many fruits, including tomatoes. Be forewarned: ethylene will help green tomatoes turn soft and red, but it does not develop sugars. So yes, you’ll have ‘fresh’ tomatoes for weeks if not months after frost, but don’t expect the same vine-ripened sweetness of homegrown tomatoes. That being said, they’ll be magnitudes more delicious than most tomatoes in a grocery store.
Pruning Peppers and Other Plants to Increase Abundance
Many fruiting crops can be coaxed into focusing on ripening fruit in fall. Six weeks before last frost is your optimum window to maximize your harvest.
Prune back your tomatillos and ground cherries as you would tomatoes, removing branches and leaves as well as flowers.
Peppers and eggplants need all the leaves they have to ripen their fruit, so leave your garden shears in the shed. Simply pluck off their flowers and voila! You’ll likely harvest much more fruit as a result.
If you notice winter squash still producing little green fruit, harvest their young, tender fruits and enjoy them as zucchini.
Six weeks before frost, pluck your pepper and eggplant flowers to help ripen more fruit, leaving their leaves to photosynthesize more sugars. Photo credit: Martin Adams
When Life Gives You Green Tomatoes…
Make fried green tomatoes!
My dear friend Leah makes fried green tomatoes for breakfast all summer long. She simply cannot wait to enjoy them after frost, when most people finally make them. I confess I resisted until she made fresh garlic aoili to dip them in!
I’ve also relished green tomato mincemeat and sumptuous chutneys that will help you forget that you miss your red, soft tomatoes.
Fried green tomatoes with garlic aioli is an ideal way to celebrate, the end of tomato season. Photo credit: Monika Grabkowska
Cleaning Up Your Tomatoes for Next Season
Oh, Friends. This is perhaps the hardest part of growing tomatoes: Admitting the end has come. Cleaning up well is just as important as caring for your seedlings. I beg you, take the time. Your efforts will be rewarded with the ease and lack of disease in your gardens to come.
To button up your tomatoes for the season:
- Pull up all your tomato plants, including as much of the roots as are easily pulled.
- If your plants are not diseased, feel free to turn them into your compost. Ideally, chop the large stems a bit to help them decompose quicker.
- If your plants are diseased, wrangle them into large plastic bags and, as much as I cringe to say, send them to the landfill. If you’re not sure, err on the side sending them off. The last thing you want to do is inoculate your tomatoes next season. Here is more about identifying and managing tomato disease organically.
- Pull up your stakes, removing any twine you used for trellising. Rinse them with water (using the jet setting on your hose sprayer is the dream) and then give them a quick rinse/spray of dilute white vinegar. If we have a lot of disease on our tomatoes, we dunk our stakes in a dilute bleach solution.
One final note:
Each season I learn things I wish I had known days, months and often years ago. My hope in sharing it all with you is to save you time, heartache and money as you grow the garden of your dreams.
Ask questions. Look for patterns. Laugh as you learn! And know you are not alone.
Sow Seeds & Sing Songs,
& the whole Fruition crew
What are your favorite strategies for ripening tomatoes and enjoying your green tomatoes? I’d love to know!