Nothing beats the flavor of fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes. Harvesting when they are fully ripe ensures the best flavor for eating fresh, cooking and preserving.
Visit your garden often and watch for the fruit to turn from green to fully colored. Then leave them on the plant for five to eight days. Vine-ripened tomatoes have the best flavor for using fresh or preserving.
Check plants regularly and keep harvesting, so the plants continue to produce. This also reduces problems with insects and disease organisms attacking overripe or rotting fruit. Store mature, fully colored tomatoes in cool, 45- to 50-degree conditions with high humidity. They will last about seven to 14 days in these conditions.
When growing indeterminate tomatoes, you will notice the plants keep growing and producing more flowers and fruit until the frost kills the plant. Redirect the plant’s energy from sprouting new blossoms and fruit to ripening the fruit that is already on the plant. Prune off the stem tip of indeterminate tomatoes about a month before the average first fall frost in your area. This allows the existing flowers to develop into fruit and the existing fruit to mature before the end of the growing season.
Extend the harvest season with the help of floating row covers. These fabrics allow air, light, and water through, but trap heat around the plants. Protecting plants from the first few fall frosts often provides time for more tomatoes to ripen.
Sometimes you cannot protect plants from frost or hungry critters prevent you from leaving the tomatoes on the plant to fully ripen. You can pick any tomatoes that are starting to show color before the killing frost and finish ripening them indoors. The blossom end should be greenish white or starting to color up. Use blemished and cracked fruit right away since these do not store well.
Store green and under-ripe tomatoes in a cool 60- to 65-degree location to maximize their storage life. Set the tomatoes on heavy paper spread apart so they are not touching. Or wrap them individually in newspaper so the fruit do not make direct contact. This helps prevent rot spreading from one fruit to the next.
These tomatoes will ripen over the next few weeks. You can speed up the process by moving a few tomatoes to a bright, warm location a few days before they are needed.
Extend the tomato season next year by growing a Long Keeper. The flavor is not as good as vine-ripened fruit, but you can pick these before the first fall frost and enjoy garden tomatoes for up to three months.
And don’t let the rest of the green tomatoes go to waste. Use them for frying, chow chow, green salsa, and other tasty treats.
Keep harvesting and enjoying your garden-fresh tomatoes as long as your growing season allows. Then make space to store them a few weeks after the first fall frost.
Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including the recently released Midwest Gardeners Handbook, 2nd Edition and Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” instant video and DVD series and the nationally syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine and her website is www.MelindaMyers.com.