“Este paratus.” While we horticulturists sometimes like to wax Latin with our binomial nomenclature, this is not the genus and species of some exotic plant. It translates as “be prepared.”
The phrase was adopted by the Scouts – boy and girl – but also may be used by gardeners in Southwest Colorado who try to grow vegetables such as peppers, eggplant okra, or sweet corn at 6,500 feet in elevation.
So while we (probably) still have numerous weeks before our first frost of the fall, right now is the perfect time to start planning your life-saving, preservation and exit plans – for tomatoes.
I won’t lie: I like the challenge of growing Lycopersicon esculentum every year. They tease with their greenness, they entice with their huge fruit and they make you smile when you bite into them. But they also make you lose sleep in the spring and fall when nights creep toward freezing, crazy in the summer when their leaves start turning yellow and make you second guess yourself that you should have planted rutabagas instead.
Balderdash. They need to be in the garden and their absence disrupts the flow.
So instead of rueing that warm, June day when you stuck the transplants in the ground, take a couple steps to get that green fruit to turn red.
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.
From this point forward, all new blossoms and small, green fruit (cherry, pear or currant types excluded) are pruned off. Sorry, but there is no way they will ripen before the first frost.
Cover your plants, as tomatoes are very sensitive (duh!). When temperatures get 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.
If you need to ripen tomatoes indoors – an imminent freeze, leaving town on vacation or just declaring your freedom from the garden itself – then bring any fruit whose blossom-end is at least a little pink into the house. Once 10 percent of the fruit starts to change color, it has the ability to ripen, on or off the plant. Place the tomatoes in single layers in a box, separated by a couple sheets of newspaper. Place a ripe tomato – or fruit (bananas, grapes, plums, pears, apples) – in each layer to stimulate ethylene production and ripening. Place the box in a dark and dry spot and check every three or four days.
Do not fear the tomato. Sure, some years she may win and outsmart you. For example, this year my tomatoes have proven to be much smarter and more obstinate than ever. But little do they know that even if I’m not able to make as much sauce and salsa as previous years, there will be a bed waiting for their hybrid offspring in 2014.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 382-6464. Darrin Parmenter is director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office.