An email came across my desk this past week, and it pretty much exemplified 2020: “The NOAA Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a moderate to high risk of much-below normal temperatures on Sept. 8 and 9, with a 60% chance of minimum temperatures falling to freezing or lower.”
As I peeled my palm from my bald(ing) forehead, I continued to read that this was for Nebraska, the Dakotas and northeastern Colorado. So while I feel for my friends in the Great Plains, I exhaled a giant sigh of relief.
However, the email did remind me that: 1) it pays to read the whole story; and 2) we shouldn’t be surprised if we get our first frost in the next four weeks. In a very general sense (and I stress “general” because I truly believe that the abnormal is the new normal), our first frost will come toward the end of September or the first part of October.
The first week of September is also a reminder that if you are a tomato grower or gardener, it’s time to take those extra steps to get the fruit that are on the plant ripened and into the house. We all know tomatoes are a bit finicky (they’re no kale, I tell ya!), so it’s no surprise that they need some extra attention toward the end of the season.
Some helpful steps for tomato care:
On indeterminate varieties – those that continue to grow leaves and stems while at the same time producing blossoms and fruit – cut the tops off. You may have to do this every week from here on out, but it forces carbohydrates and water into the fruit rather than the vegetative material. Remove any flowers or small fruit (cherry, pear or currant types excluded). Sorry, but they aren’t going to make it.Remove any ripe or near ripe fruit from the plant and bring them inside. You want all of the plant’s energy to go to the borderline fruit.When temperatures fall below 50 degrees, the plant hormone that stimulates ripening, ethylene, can slow down or stop. Hence the ever-green tomato in September. Therefore, even though we are currently not too nervous about freezes, covering the plants with frost cloth (or even blankets, sheets or towels) at night will help keep in the heat and assist in the ripening of those rosy tomatoes.To protect your plants from a forecasted frost, the tried-and-true method of covering the garden with blankets and sheets works well as long as the fabric remains dry. If the fabric absorbs water, evaporative cooling can lead to colder temperatures adjacent to the blanket. To recharge the heat stored in the soil, fabric must be removed in the daytime. When a freeze is imminent, look for fruits that are at least a lighter green, or ideally, have the slightest blush to the blossom end. I have had success in ripening these fruit by layering them in a box, no more than two layers deep, separated by some newspaper. Place a couple of ripe tomatoes (or an apple or pear) in the box to stimulate the ripening process, and then place the box in a dark and dry spot and check it frequently. No need for the windowsill – remember tomatoes need temperature, not light, for ripening.Darrin Parmenter is the director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 382-6464.Darrin Parmenter