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Nothing beats the taste of freshly picked ripened homegrown tomatoes which are, without a doubt, superior to store-bought produce. However, as the end of the season nears and temperatures start to decline there are invariably plenty of green tomatoes left on plants that didn’t quite make the cut.

Cardboard method of ripening green tomatoes.

Cardboard method of ripening green tomatoes.

What to do with all of those unripe tomatoes that were left on the plant, you must be pondering! These, too, will ripen over the next few months if stored properly. They won’t be as tasty or juicy as the ones you’ve been enjoying all season long, but they will be real tomatoes from your own garden, and still way better than anything you can buy in a supermarket from November through May.

What makes tomatoes ripen?

Contrary to popular belief, windowsills aren’t the best place for ripening tomatoes. If you’ve noticed, your tomatoes often start to ripen on the side opposite to the side exposed to sunlight although not all varieties show this nature. So, a good amount of light is not required for ripening, furthermore it is known to harden the fruits’ skin.

On the other hand, temperature is an important factor. The warmer the temperature the quicker a tomato fruit will ripen. Hence, ripening can be slowed down by placing tomatoes in a cool area or sped up by placing in moderate warmth.

Another factor that is crucial in the ripening of tomatoes is ethylene gas. Ethylene is actually naturally released by ripening fruits such as bananas, apples and tomatoes. So, placing a ripe banana or apple among green tomatoes helps speed up the ripening process.

Creative use of a rack to ripen green tomatoes.

Creative use of a rack to ripen green tomatoes.

Different methods

Here are several techniques you can employ to ripen tomatoes:

1. Jar method: Place a ripening banana along with your green tomatoes in a glass, ceramic or plastic jar. Do not overfill the jar, or the tomatoes might get bruised. Screw the lid tightly and leave it in a warm, semi-humid environment, out of direct sunlight.

2. Cardboard box method: Line a cardboard box with newspaper and place the green tomatoes on top in a single layer with a little space in between. Placing ripening bananas along is optional. Cover with another layer of newspaper and place the box out of direct sunlight, in a warm and low humid environment such as a basement, insulated garage, or enclosed porch.

3. Paper or plastic bag method: Put 5-10 green tomatoes in a paper or plastic bag with a ripening tomato, banana or apple and place in a warm, low-humid place. Punch in a few air circulation holes in each plastic bag being used. Paper bags are naturally semi-permeable (meaning they allow to an extent air to diffuse through them).

4. Hang the whole plant method: This method is useful at the end of the season when a frost is forecast as frost is damaging to tomatoes making them turn dark green and unable to ripen. Gently pull up the whole tomato plant and hang it upside down in a garage or cellar where temperatures remain above freezing. This method supposedly gives better tasting tomatoes than the other methods.

Tomatoes ripen from the bottom up and the inside out, so don’t put tomatoes on a windowsill to ripen because they will only turn red, but not ripe. They will remain green inside.

The best results are got when the tomatoes are already showing a yellow-orange tinge which indicates that they are ready to ripen. You can be successful with turning fully green tomatoes into ripe ones but they will take longer and may not be so flavorsome.

It takes about 3-4 weeks for ripening at lower temperatures 10-15 deg. C (50-60 deg. F) whereas it can take just 2 weeks at 18-21 deg. C (65-70 deg. F).

Watch out for:

Diseased or damaged fruit is the biggest problem when ripening tomatoes indoors. Avoid piling them up to prevent and protect them from being bruised or squashed. Ensuring adequate air circulation will prevent molds from forming.

Every day or two check up on them and remove anything suspect. Select only the very best tomatoes for ripening as any lower grade tomatoes may be suffering from a disease such as blight.

Wouldn’t we just love to have our vegetables ripen before the usual specified time? Well, good thing is there are ways to shorten the wait for a fruitful harvest.

An early harvest!

An early harvest!

It’s very much possible says Mark Diacono who gardens on a 17-acre plot in Devon, England. Here are a few excerpts from his new gardening book “The Speedy Vegetable Garden”: “The one thing you will miss out on with speedy growing is bulk, but what you will get in return is layers of flavor; a sprinkle of hot and peppery micro-green radish here, a sweet and nutty, barely cooked new potato there, a garnish of cucumber-y borage flowers to finish a dish. These are the crops that will mark out your cooking as distinctly and unquestionably home-grown.”

Timing is apparently key. “Be slow to harvest and you’ll miss their best moments. These are fresh, lively and zingy flavors, flavors that can either fade or become bitter and overly strong as the plant grows on toward maturity. Tomatoes, strawberries and apples all want to be left on the plant until they are fully ripe to get the fullest, lushest flavors out of them,” Diacono says.

“Vegetables are a little different. Many get woodier, less succulent and lower in sweetness as they grow more mature, so really are at their loveliest picked young.” This includes new potatoes, radishes, baby carrots, zucchini, miniature cucumbers, spring peas, turnips and beets.

Also, if you want to be making meals out of your own harvest earlier grow varieties that have shorter maturity dates. Most heirloom tomatoes need 100 odd days to develop whereas cherry tomatoes need only about 65 days.

Of the many ways to jump-start your harvesting period here are a few:-

-Plant in the warmest site in your garden if you’re planting early.  “Even a small change in temperature can make a difference during spring and fall frosts,” says Jo Ann Robbins, an extension educator with the University of Idaho.

– Using enclosures over plants is a win-win. By covering the plants you’re moderating key factors such as temperature, wind and humidity enabling minimal interference to the plants. “Air and soil temperatures are warmer, and the cover will conserve heat radiation from the soil during the night,” Robbins says in a fact sheet.

– Starting vegetables from seeds indoors while it’s still cold outside will help you get the most of the growing season once it becomes warm outside. When it is finally warm outside you can transplant your mini-vegetable plants outdoors, thus staying ahead in the race for a quicker harvest. “Research shows the older the transplants, the better they will resist cold weather,” Robbins says.

– Get pro-active and warm the soil in your garden early. “Throw a piece of black or clear polyethylene over the soil in early spring, pin it down with tent pegs or bricks, and wait,” Diacono says. “The sun will warm it and excessive water will be kept off, leaving it in a fantastically workable state a few weeks later and conducive to quick plant growth.”