Can You Speed Ripen Tomatoes?
The first frost and cold weather is approaching, although it certainly doesn't feel like it right now as I stare out my door into a bright, sunny day. What do you do with your tomato plants? Especially the green and newly emerging fruits still unripe on the vine? Luckily there are quite a few ways to speed ripen tomatoes before the frost and cold weather come in and destroy the hard-earned crop you have lovingly and patiently tended all summer.
I'll show you how in this article, and then give you a handy list of amazing green tomato recipes at the end as well, because green tomatoes are perfectly safe and delicious to eat too.
Tomatoes quickly became my favourite crop to grow — and I have only been doing this for two seasons so I still have so much to learn! I grow about a dozen varieties on my condo balcony and in my (new this summer!) city community garden plot, mostly varietals I have never seen in the grocery store or even the farmer's market. Small yellow ones like Jaunne Flamme for example, that resemble apricots in colour and size, and that are so incredibly sweet they didn't make it into any cooked recipes this year.
It actually makes me a strange combination of sad and almost...angry even? — that we have such a limited amount of availability in our grocery stores, that so many people may never taste the incredible array of foods, and that so much of this is driven by profit.
But this is also a great reason to start growing your own food and taking back some control (however small it may be) of the food system — if you can (and want too) of course.
Growing my own food has also cemented in me how terrible of a thing waste is, and of how lucky I am to have this privilege of a community garden plot and even my small balcony planter and containers where I can grow some of my own food.
I never want to waste a single fruit, so as nice as fried green tomatoes are, I will also want to speed ripen tomatoes before the frost and cold set in and I have a long winter of only canned fruits to use.
Should I pick My Tomatoes Before First Frost?
Yes, green tomatoes can actually be ripened indoors off the vine, or used as-is in many recipes.
The frost will kill your tomato plants, so take note of the first frost date in your area. I'm in Toronto which means my first frost date is October 12th. Now that doesn't mean I am 100% guaranteed to get frost on that exact day, this is just calculated according to averages and past trends.
Knowing this date lets me prepare for what is to come, although I will try and extend my growing season as long as the temperatures hold.
Toronto only has a short growing season of 163 average frost-free days.
Want to find your first/last frost dates? This website will tell you everything you need to know:
How To Ripen Green Tomatoes
Once you have picked the green tomatoes you intend to ripen, wrap them in newspaper or store them in a paper bag somewhere that is cool (65° F or 18° C) and dark until the fruits begin to change colour. Then leave them uncovered at room temperature until they fully ripen.
Why Are My Tomatoes Taking So Long To Turn Red?
There are many reasons why tomatoes on the vine are taking a long time to turn red.
Ripening and colour changes of your tomatoes are primarily dependent on two factors — temperature, and a natural hormone called ethylene.
The ideal temperature for tomatoes to ripen is between 68° - 78° degrees Fahrenheit or 20° - 26° degrees Celsius. If you are experiencing a particularly cool or scorching hot summer the natural ripening process can be severely impacted or even halted if the temperatures stray from ideal for extended periods of time.
And unfortunately, there is not much you can do in this case except to pick the green immature tomatoes and speed up their ripening on your kitchen counter or wait it out until the temperatures resume more normal and optimal ranges.
Will Tomatoes Ripen After Frost?
If the tomato vine was damaged enough to kill it, then no, the tomato will not ripen.
If the vine survived the frost and the temperatures have gone back up to optimal ranges then the fruit may yet survive. You can cover the plant at this point to protect it and speed up ripening.
Is It Okay To Pick Green Unripe Tomatoes?
Yes. Fried green tomatoes are a thing, a delicious thing.
So are green tomato salsas, relishes, pickles, and sauces.
I have a list of green tomato recipes for you to consider at the end of this article if you are not looking to speed ripen every single green tomato.
How To Speed Ripen Your Tomatoes Before The First Frost & Cold Weather
1. Prune the Plant
Prune again one month before your first frost date. This diverts the energy into the fruit that is remaining on the vine and away from the leaves, stem, etc.
Yes, this typically means you will want to prune your tomato plants twice per season.
What do you prune? All that additional extra growth that has emerged since your last (probably first) pruning. Those green suckers dripping with leaves that will never have time to flower and bear fruit are taking away energy from the job you want your tomato plant to do —speed ripen the tomatoes that are already there.
2. Withhold Watering
Decreasing watering his will stress the plant in a good way.
Tomatoes love water and need plenty of it through the growing season.
However, as we near the end of the tomato growing season and all you want is to speed ripen tomatoes before they die, too much watering will put too much of the plants' energy into growing more instead of focusing on ripening.
I let my soil get completely dry at the end of the season to divert energy fully into ripening.
The plant will take the lack of water as a distress signal that bad times are coming. Remember, your tomato plant is a fruit that wants to spread its seed, and it does this by attracting other animals (including humans) to its bright, sweet fruits full of those seeds which will pass through digestive systems unharmed and let the plant continue its legacy.
(Granted, this is not how humans choose to cultivate tomatoes, but the plant is still trying to do what it has for millennia.)
So decrease watering at the end of the season to speed up the ripening of the available green tomatoes on the vine.
3. Stop Fertilizing
Same as the case with watering — when you stop fertilizing your tomato plants, you will speed up ripening.
Stopping fertilizer application will again stress the plant in a good way by signalling something is wrong, this will divert its energy into ripening the available green tomatoes on the vine versus continuing to grow and shooting out more suckers or flowers.
Stop fertilizing one month before the first frost date.
4. Pick Ripe Tomatoes
As mentioned, your tomato keeps its legacy, its dynasty if you will, alive through spreading its seeds after animals eat the tempting sweet fruit.
When you pick the fruit that is already ripe on the vine, the plant will then work to ripen the still-green tomatoes so that it can keep itself going even more.
Do not let the ripe tomatoes sit there for another day but rather pick them immediately and watch the green tomatoes ripen even faster!
One technique (that I do not personally use or recommend) is to mulch the soil around your tomato plants with black plastic sheeting.
The increased warmth is proven to speed ripen tomatoes.
However, I do not like using plastic, especially black plastic that is then heated up and potentially leaching toxic chemicals into my precious, living, organic soil that I work hard to keep healthy and full of biodiversity.
For that reason alone I will not use plastic mulching even if it does work.
With that said, you can try using old blankets made from natural fabrics to the same effect. Your thrift store or linen closet likely has old burlap and/or cotton sheets that might be useful here.
Now that you have loads of beautifully ripe tomatoes, use them in some recipes...
And More Tomato Recipes
But if you still have lots of green tomatoes left...
Admit Defeat, Make Fried Green Tomatoes
And green tomato salsas, and pickles, and relishes!
Green tomatoes are tart and tasty! Here are some recipes you can use them in:
I hope you enjoyed my tips on how to speed ripen tomatoes from your garden or balcony containers. Let me know in the comments if they were helpful to you! I always appreciate you sharing my content and helping to spread the word.