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How To Save Your Tomatoes Before a Hard Frost

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Tomato Invasion Newsletter #4

“A hard frost is coming tonight.”

The weather reporter didn’t say maybe. It’s getting cold. Tonight.

The reporter didn’t tell you to get out and save your tomatoes. He should have.

What happens to tomatoes during a hard frost?

Tomatoes can make it through a little light frost as long as it doesn’t last all night. A hard frost can and will kill the plant. And if the plant burns down under a hard frost, it’s not likely you can save your tomatoes either.

I’ve seen tomato plants destroyed completely in one night of hard frost. And I’ve seen a tomato plant survive into February because it was grown right next to the house. The house moderated the temperature, creating a slightly warmer micro-climate than the general winter air, protecting the plant. I left it in the ground hoping the tomatoes would get ripe. They didn’t.

How do you save your tomatoes from a hard frost?

There are two things you can do immediately to save at least some of your tomatoes left on the bush late in the season.

Harvest any of the tomatoes that show any red or pink. Place them in a paper bag along with an apple and keep them on the kitchen counter. These should ripen up in a few days. Check them every day because they can over-ripen quickly if you let them. The apple releases ethylene gas which hastens the ripening process.

Pull your plants out of the ground, carefully shake the excess dirt off the roots and hang the plants upside down in the garage or garden shed. Anywhere it won’t get below freezing works although warmer is better. It’s probably too warm inside the house though. The tomatoes that are already fairly mature and dark green will probably ripen all the way to red. The tomatoes that are only pale green may not ever ripen.

Why bother saving them?

The main reason I try to save them is because late in the season, most tomatoes don’t get ripe anyway. So we’ve already eaten most of the fresh tomatoes we’ve harvested and we’re just hoping for a few more before the cold weather hits.

These late season tomatoes often have wonderful flavor. I’ve never read or heard anyone else say it, but I think a couple light frosts help bring out and enhance the flavor of the late tomatoes. Here in Central California we don’t usually get a hard frost until December, though that’s certainly not a hard-and-fast rule.

We typically don’t get ripe tomatoes after late October or early November depending on the weather. You’ll need to study some weather records or talk to an old-time gardener in your area to find out how late you can expect to harvest ripe tomatoes. Once you’ve hit that date, every ripe tomato you get from then on is a treasure to be savored.

What if you don’t have the space to hang a bunch of tomato plants?

You can always pick the darkest green tomatoes along with the red-tinged ones and put them in the paper bag too. I’ve had some success ripening the dark green ones. They may not have quite the same flavor as vine-ripened tomatoes though.

If you only have room to hang a few plants so the tomatoes can ripen on the vine, you’ll have to pick your favorite plants and give up on the rest. So once you’ve chosen the few you’ll hang in garage, pick the rest of the tomatoes off the other plants, and place them in a paper bag or two along with an apple in each bag.

Some of the tomatoes in the bag will ripen and some won’t. The ones that do are like fudge icing on a chocolate cake. They make you feel special as you eat them.

Won’t the tomatoes rot before you get to eat them?

It’s possible that some of the tomatoes could rot in the bag. By checking on the tomatoes in the bag daily, you’ll make sure that most of the tomatoes don’t rot. Removing the ripe tomatoes every day helps protect the rest of the tomatoes.

In the case of saving your late season tomatoes, there are only a few things to keep in mind. Make sure you watch the weather report nightly so you can get out and save your plants before they get permanently damaged by a hard frost. Clear a place in the garage so you can hang your plants upside down when it’s time to do so. And make sure you have a couple paper bags and some apples on hand to force the last of your late season tomatoes to ripen.

And you could always take a couple of the last tomatoes that ripen by the TV station so the weather reporter will think of all those not-yet-ripened tomatoes before the first hard frost and give fair warning to all those gardeners out there hoping for one more ripe tomato.

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