Diggin' it: Growing delicious tomatoes

Tomatoes love the hot weather, but even with our more mild summer, you can still get the results you want from this year’s harvest.

Remember years ago when a heat wave occurred once or maybe twice a summer and wouldn’t last for more than a few days?

Remember when we who live on the western side of the state could expect a comfortable, sunny summer from July 4th through the end of September?

As of this writing, with comparatively few days over 90 degrees, it appears the old days have returned, at least for 2016. Isn’t it wonderful?

But while the mild temperatures are ideal for humans, they’re not so peachy for the tomato crop.

Those of us who’ve been gardening since the 1970s also remember when it was a challenge to get ripe tomatoes before fall. Plant breeders responded by working tirelessly to market early-ripening varieties such as “Oregon Spring” and “Early Girl.”

In more recent years, with our hot summers, it’s been relatively easy to grow delicious tomatoes since the plants thrive on heat. And contrarily, with the absence of that heat, cultivating the perfect tomato can be a bit more challenging. So here are a few tips.

The best time to harvest tomatoes is when the outside temperature is between 70 and 90 degrees F. Temperatures above this will accelerate softening and retard color development.

If the unripe tomato shows spots of pink or red the fruit can be picked and brought indoors to a cool environment to finish ripening and retain its sweetness. Placing unripe tomatoes on your windowsill is not recommended since sunlight will overheat the fruit and cause it to ripen unevenly.

Once ripe, tomatoes are best when stored at room temperature for a day or two. Beyond this, refrigerate in an area with good airflow.

The blossom-end of the fruit is where ripening starts. Some varieties, especially large heirloom types, ripen before they reach full color. They should be picked when the skin is smooth and waxy even if the top hasn’t turned its mature color.

“Long keeper” varieties, bred to resist spoilage, will ripen more slowly and are not as flavorful.

How the tomato plant is cared for can make a big difference in fruit sweetness.

A full day of sunlight is best. When inching closer to harvest, continue watering but decrease the amount, perhaps just keeping the soil slightly damp by applying mulch to hold the moisture. Excessive water will stress the plants, causing fruit drop.

One month before the average hard frost date, remove all new flower clusters. This will redirect the plant’s energy to ripening the existing tomatoes rather than producing new ones that won’t have time to mature.

Harvest can be extended through light frosts by covering the plants with an old blanket at night.

When hard frost threatens, pick the remaining fruit and allow them to ripen in a cool, dry place with good airflow, checking often and removing any fruits with mold.

If you want to speed up ripening, place tomatoes in a paper bag with a banana or apple. The ethylene gas given off by the fruit will work to ripen the tomato. Another option is allow the fruit to ripen on the vine by uprooting the entire plant and hanging it upside down in a cool, dry place.

Now is a great time to collect seed on non-hybrid plants. Gently shake the plant. If you can hear the seed rattling within the pod, it’s ready. If it isn’t ready, a bag can be loosely tied over the seed pod.

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