Gardening Tips for Seedy Characters: Week 36

What to do this week

It must be green tomato season, unless you have been as lucky as I have been and are enjoying ripe tomatoes too.

Local tomatoes had a bit of a slow start this year. It was cool, and then it was dry, so the plants didn’t do a whole lot for a while. They sure are putting on growth and fruit now, but the weather is cooling down already. If you have planted tomatoes, you are likely experiencing our annual fret about getting ripe tomatoes before frost. There are a few things you can do to help them along.

Photo by Eliza42015 CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Eliza42015 CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

So long as you don’t have really wet garden soil, and you have your plants staked, you can let them loose a bit, bending them down to the ground where they are going to be able to absorb more heat, both from the sun and from the soil. This will push them to ripen a little faster. The trouble is, with the rain that I am getting at this very moment, you are also going to have slugs and bugs. You will have to make that call.
It is better if you can ripen your tomatoes on the vine. They will get the nicest that way. In Cape Breton we can certainly get an early frost, but if we get past that frost, we often get a nice stretch of warm weather afterward. So, if there is danger of frost but the weather looks good after that, you can use frost blankets to get through it.

Tomato gardening can be a bit of a game in Cape Breton. You can try to dodge the frost with your frost blankets, bend your vines down toward the ground, and consider planting varieties that don’t mind the cold as much as others. Some get cold stressed. They get black spots on them, which is a kind of blight, or they just are not happy. Beefsteak tomatoes really do not like cool weather. They do not set fruit. Sometimes they even drop fruit if it is too chilly. It’s as if they say, “Oh no, it’s too cold! I’m outta here!”

Let’s suppose that it gets to the point that the tomatoes are just not ripening in the garden — it is a little too cool at night and not really warm during the day — you can start picking them and bringing them in to finish them off. When you pick a tomato it is still alive, and will continue to ripen. If it has a bit of a red blush, it will almost certainly ripen indoors. They will taste almost as good as vine ripened.

If you have tomatoes that haven’t made it to this point, but they are at least translucent, not that hard dark green, they may also ripen indoors. They will take longer to ripen, and will not be as sweet and juicy as they would be if they had a little more time on the vine, but they will be much better than that imported tomato you will get later at the supermarket.

By Penny Greb, USDA ARS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Penny Greb, USDA ARS, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When you bring your green tomatoes in, you don’t want to put them in the direct sun, or in the dark. Look for a counter you can take over, or use stacking trays, setting them without touching so there is lots of circulation around. Choose a place with a comfortable room temperature where they will get defused light from nearby windows. Put something like newspaper underneath because you will get the occasional one that goes mushy before you notice. Don’t pile them in a way that cuts air circulation, or allows you to miss the ones that go bad. Don’t put them in the fridge. They are still alive, and will die in there.

There are some varieties, like Long Keeper and Mystery Keeper, that will keep well stored green. These are storage tomatoes that have a really thick skin. If you have planted these, you can keep them in a cool place, as low as 10˚C, wrap them individually in newspaper, and bring them out a few at a time to ripen. I have done that and eaten tomatoes from my garden in January, but your luck will depend on the variety you planted. If you find yourself with a lot of green tomatoes, you could always try it and see how it goes. If it works, they are still nicer than a supermarket tomato.

I am experimenting with a storage tomato called Vantage this summer for the gene bank. It is going to be a good one for this. It is a nice, firm tomato with a fairly thick skin. I can tell already that this is a tomato that will hold up well over storage. You might have to experiment too, and I am always happy to consult. But even if you have beefsteak plants, it is getting cold and your tomatoes are suffering — you might as well try it. The worst that can happen is you will have to throw them out later. But some might ripen, and you will be glad you tried.

Don’t get me wrong about beefsteak tomatoes: I like a good one as much as anyone, but they are very demanding, particularly the commercial varieties. They need really good nutrition. They don’t take up calcium very well in cold soil. They need warm weather. They need a longer season than what we often get in Cape Breton. They are really prima donnas. If you get a perfect summer, you might get perfect beefsteak tomatoes. In my experience that is one summer in five here. The other years you have to make green tomato chow. I also like chow, but I grow tomatoes because I like ripe tomatoes. I do grow my beefsteaks, but I also grow tomatoes that I know will ripen even in cool weather, that will set fruit until frost. They are smaller, but they are delicious, and they are red! I will help you pick varieties when we get to that time in early summer.

Featured photo: Green tomatoes by Madeline Yakimchuk.


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Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.