How green are your tomatoes?

Published on Wed, Sep 7, 2011 by By Jody Hackleman

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They’re green, they’re hard and they’re stuck to the vine. It might sound like a joke, but if you’re one of the many gardeners whose tomatoes won’t ripen, I’m sure you don’t think it’s funny at all.

 The cooler weather of earlier summer has been replaced by hot, sunny days. Rainstorms that split the fruits and encourage a host of tomato ailments have not befallen us, and still the tomatoes are not cooperating – why?

Gardeners know that tomatoes like to be pampered, so we plant them in soil enriched with oyster shells, feed them the finest organic fertilizers and slake their thirst with pure mountain stream water. We give them a sunny home and regale them with basils and marigolds. In spite of this, they won’t ripen.

 Don’t take it personally – it’s not that our tomatoes don’t like us. What they do like are very particular ripening conditions. There’s romance in picking fully ripe tomatoes off the vine, but some myth too. Think Goldilocks’ attitude toward porridge: not too hot and not too cold, but “just right.”

Yes, these little “love apples” are fussy, but blame it on chemistry. There is a small and consistent window of opportunity (68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit) needed to create lycopene and carotene, the agents that provide the rich red pigments of the classic tomato.

 If we desire to live the fairy tale of plucking juicy red fruits from the vine, then we must be patient and wait for cooler September temperatures. And hope there’s no heat wave, cold snap or nasty thunderstorm to spoil our dream.

 Otherwise, be practical as my grandmother was: Pick full-sized green fruits and line up the little trophies on a shady windowsill. Or carefully place your green tomatoes in a closed paper bag or in a bowl with a friendly banana that will obligingly release ethylene gas to help in the ripening process.

 I’m displaying some tomatoes on the windowsill and hiding others in a bag. But I’m stubborn enough to leave a few fruits on the vine in case nature grants me the natural ripening process. Maybe next year, optimal conditions will allow the perfect crop of vine-ripened beauties.

But this summer, we’d better bring the tomatoes inside. And if all else fails, we’ll make green tomato relish!