I wish I were more casual about tomatoes, more like, “Oh, tomatoes? Yeah, sometimes they all ripen, sometimes not, no biggie.” And then I’d skip off to do something fun and frivolous, something lost on people who stake their well being on several hundred red fruits ripening. Instead, come August, I’m pacing the garden, seeing each crimson orb as a future indispensable player on the field of roasted tomato sauce. I’d ripen them with the hot blaze of my attention if I could.
To achieve ripe tomatoes in our climate of approximately ninety-six frost-free growing days (give or take a few hours), in which half the nights don’t get above 50, you have to want it. To want it, you have to work for it. To work for it, you’ve got to know what to do.
Here are some tomato-growing tips from two growers: Lynn Coburn, who has a large, backyard Durango garden (featuring tomatoes that always ripen) and who admits that she may have crossed the thin line between pleasant hobby to obsession, and the farmers at Twin Buttes Farm in Durango, whose very livelihood depends on a few thousand pounds of tomatoes ripening.
1. Start early. In our short growing season, it pays to put out plants that are fairly far along. I start tomato seeds in mid-March. They are just starting to flower at the end of May. My plants start setting tomatoes when night-time lows are still in the high thirties. If you are starting later, buy the most prosperous plants in the biggest pots that you can afford. Next year, if you don’t want to mess with seed starting, buy baby tomato plants in six packs as soon as they appear in the nursery and pot them up into big pots (cut-off half gallon milk cartons work great) and grow them on until it seems semi-reasonable to plant them out.
2. Plant early and pay attention to weather. I start putting tomato plants out as soon in May as I see a reasonable stretch of weather ahead, usually sometime in the second week. The early birds get wall-of-water protection on the outside of their cages. (I have a love-hate relationship with walls-of-water; they are a pain in the ass to set up and take down. And mine are an antique lot of hand-me-downs with many leaky tubes, but with blankets thrown over the top on bad nights, they keep plants alive down to 25 degrees). If you plant early, prepare to cover your plants for a few nights in the average year. Frayed blankets, retired mattress covers, old sheets are all suitable resources. Plastic doesn’t seem to do much good in my experience.
3. Choose appropriate varieties. Anything with a stated maturity date of more than 70 days is unlikely to ripen very many tomatoes here. 70 days in Kansas does NOT equate to 70 days in Durango. Cherry tomatoes will ripen first. My favorites are Sun Gold (in my opinion both the earliest and best-tasting cherry tomato), Sweet Chelsea and Sweet Million. The regular tomatoes I grow routinely are Big Beef, Goliath, Golden Girl and Whopper which are all rated in the 60-70 day range for maturity. I usually get a few ripe ones toward the end of July and a glut by mid-August. I have tried lots of super-early varieties, but so far none have met my taste/size standards.
Improve your dirt. The more organic material you work into your planting bed, the happier your plants will be. So start a compost pile and put a shovel-full of “black gold” in the hole with every tomato plant.
Twin Buttes Farmers:
Pick the best spot in your yard. Tomatoes like lots of sun and warm temps. An area with good southern exposure will help fruits ripen faster. Surrounding your plants with rocks or jugs of water that absorb heat during the day and release it at night help to create a warmer night time microclimate. Also planting next to a south-facing wall has the same effect.
Prune your tomatoes. Prune off the lower branches so your leaves don’t touch the ground. This will help to prevent disease. When fall hits and temps start to drop prune off any new flowers or small fruit sets. This will redirect your plants energy into ripening the remaining fruits faster.
Pick the right varieties. In general smaller tomatoes will ripen faster than larger ones. Your will be harvesting your cherry and roma tomatoes long before your big juicy heirloom varieties are fully ripe. Those of you who live at higher altitudes with a shorter frost free season will have better luck with smaller varieties. Don’t worry, some cherry varieties like sungolds will give any heirloom a run for their money in a taste test!
Harvest your green tomatoes before the first frost. In this region you will inevitably end up with green tomatoes on the vine when the first frost hits. Don’t give up on these greenies, there are ways to get them to ripen. Put them in a paper bag or a box and close the top. The tomatoes will release ethylene gas that when trapped in the bag will ripen your tomatoes. To speed up this process you can put a banana in with them to release more ethylene gas. I have had luck pulling out the entire plants and hanging them in my garage where they won’t freeze. This is a slower process but you should get a few ripe tomatoes every week. One year we were still harvesting red tomatoes off of a dead vine on Christmas day using this method.