As nights cool, tomatoes may need special attention

By Darrin Parmenter

With the return to school, so came the cooler nights.

Early mornings, wrangling two kids out of bed, chucking them in the shower, feeding them and getting them off to their respective educational institutions can be quite the challenge. But as we rise shortly after 6 a.m., we have all noticed the crisp morning air. While this may only be a blip, as night temperatures may return to the upper 50s in the near future, the first indication of the change in seasons has shown itself.

Many of our cold-season crops – beets, carrots, broccoli, greens – may appreciate the change. However, the divas – yes, the tomatoes – never really agree to this unannounced adjustment. They still prefer nights in the 60s and days in the 80s. High maintenance, they are.

But as fall nears, we hope the tomatoes in our garden ripen soon. All too many times we are left with green tomatoes as the first frost nears. And unfortunately, multiple nights with temperatures below 45 degrees can stop the ripening process, by halting the production of the plant’s ripening hormone ethylene, and even though the days are warm, tomatoes stay green.

Yet, I am here to tell you there is hope for harvesting red tomatoes. Here are some tips:

Prune back all vigorous shoots. This also may include “topping” the plant by removing the top 4 to 6 inches. Taking the fast-growing plant matter off will reallocate the nutrients back to the fruit and away from the vegetative matter.

Sacrifice all new flowers. Unless you are growing small-type tomatoes, these new flowers have little hope of becoming ripe fruit. You also may want to sacrifice green tomatoes as the season wears on.

Finish the ripening process indoors. For the larger fruit that are close to maturity, removing them from the plant will allow other fruit to mature. Keeping the fruit in a warm spot in the kitchen will hasten this process.

Covering the plants when an ensuing frost or freeze is forecast can save tender plants. However, providing protection even when temperatures are in the 40s will assist in the ripening (remember ethylene production). Just don’t forget to remove the cover during the day so the plants don’t overheat.

parmenterdm@co.laplata.co.us or 382-6464. Darrin Parmenter is director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office.

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