By September, you've been enjoying luscious homegrown tomatoes for weeks, but tomato season is winding down. If you haven't already had frost in you're area, it may be coming soon. So it's time to start thinking about how you will harvest and store the last of your crop. (If you live in a mild southern or coastal climate and are planting tomatoes in fall for a winter harvest, save these tips for harvest time in winter.)
Re-direct Plant Energy. If you are within a few weeks of the first frost, clip off all remaining blossoms. You can also cut the roots on two sides of the plant with a shovel. About 8 inches from the stem, plunge a shovel into the ground on two sides of the plant. This will force the plants to channel all energy into ripening the existing fruits.
Frost Protection To protect your tomato plants through the first few light frosts, you can cover them at night with a blanket, a frost cloth or a piece of thick plastic that drapes all the way to the ground. It's worth the effort if you have a lot of fruit on the plant that is already turning color that you want to be fully vine-ripened, and you know that you still have some warm weather ahead. However, if your weather stays cool from this point on, tomatoes that are too immature may not ripen. If hard frost, below 28 degrees F is predicted, fruit must be brought indoors or it will be damaged.
Short-term Storage If frost is imminent, the easiest way to quickly save your tomatoes is to pull up the entire plants and hang them upside down in a cool, well-ventilated area like a garage or basement. The fruits will continue to ripen over the next few weeks. (Check the plants daily for ripe fruit. Over-ripe fruit may fall on the floor.)You can also pick individual full-sized green fruits and store them wrapped in newspaper or in paper bags in a cool, dry area, stacked no more than two deep. A temperature of 55°-68°F degrees is ideal for storage. Contrary to popular lore, tomatoes do not ripen faster on a windowsill. They'll ripen the fastest in a warm, dark area. Avoid storing tomatoes in the refrigerator. It's too cold and will adversely affect the flavor.
Dehydrating Whole cherry tomatoes or slices of large tomatoes can be dried down in six to eight hours in a dehydrator machine or the oven at 150°F. In Italy, sun-dried tomatoes are made by hanging plants outside to dry in the sun on hot tile roofs. You can try drying outdoors too if your outdoor temperatures are at least 85°F. Lay a single layer on a cookie sheet, and protect them from bugs with a layer of cheesecloth. It will take two or three days to dry slices down (longer for whole cherry tomatoes), and they should be brought in during the night. Fully dried tomatoes will be dry, but pliable. Store in airtight jars.
Freezing Drop whole tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove from the boiling water and plunge them immediately into a bowl of ice water; after at least 30 seconds, remove from the ice water and slip the skins off. Freeze (whole or chopped) in an airtight container or freezer bag for up to one year.
Canning Tomatoes are typically canned with the water bath method, using sterilized Mason jars. For safety, follow directions that came with your canning equipment. Choose 'paste tomatoes' for canning, because they are meatier and make the best sauce. They include San Marzano, Speckled Roman, and Ace.
Sharing During the last weeks of tomato harvest, consider sharing your excess harvest with friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Unlike the notorious giant zucchini, fresh tomatoes make wonderful gifts, especially when delivered in attractive fall baskets! They'll be so impressed with the flavor of your homegrown tomatoes, they might even be inspired to plant a few themselves next season.
80 days from transplanting. Indeterminate.
Ruby Arnold of Greeneville, Tennessee grew these tomatoes from heirloom seeds that her…