As the temperature drops, it's natural to wonder what to do with your tomato plants and their unripe, green fruits still on the vine. Luckily, there are several methods to hasten the ripening process and ensure a bountiful harvest before the frost sets in.
When To Pick Tomatoes
Once you see the first blush of color on your tomato plants, pick them.
All the sugars are already present in the fruits at that point, and you can let them finish ripening on your kitchen counter at room temperature for the perfect homegrown tomato flavor.
Tomatoes don't need sunlight to ripen, but they do need heat. The optimal temperature range for tomato ripening is 68°F to 77°F (20-25°C).
And tomatoes do not tolerate cold.
The first frost and cold weather are approaching faster than you think.
Soon, it will be time to plant fall garlic and put the garden to bed.
You may be wondering how to make the most of your tomato plants too.
If you're growing in a greenhouse, this is less of a concern.
But most of us are growing outside in our gardens and that first frost will be deadly.
Will Tomatoes Ripen In Cool Weather?
Tomatoes can ripen in cool weather, although the process is slower compared to ideal conditions. While tomatoes thrive in warmth, they can continue their ripening journey in temperatures around 65-75°F (18-24°C).
If the thermometer drops lower than that range, you can expect the ripening pace to further decelerate.
Tomatoes usually stop ripening completely when the temperature drops below 50°F (10°C).
As the frost looms, your fruits will slow down more before stopping entirely.
Once tomatoes are hit by frost, they typically won't continue to ripen afterward unless you protected them.
How To Ripen Green Tomatoes FAST Before The First Frost & Cold Weather
1. Top Your Tomatoes
For large tomato varieties: 45 days before your first frost date.
For small & cherry tomato varieties: 35 days before your first frost date.
Topping tomatoes before the first frost is a smart move. It means snipping off the growing tip of the main stem.
This helps the plant redirect energy into ripening existing fruits instead of putting energy into new growth that might not have time to mature before frost hits.
When it comes to indeterminate tomato varieties, like a lot of cherry and heirloom types, they keep growing all season long. Topping these means cutting off the tip above a leaf node, usually about a foot above the highest fruit cluster. This lets the plant focus on the fruits below for a better chance of ripening.
Determinate tomato types, often bushier ones, have a set growth limit. They'll stop on their own, so the topping isn't as crucial. But if you want, you can still pinch off the tips to encourage a bit more fruit size and energy.
Remember, topping is a one-time deal. Don't overdo it. Always use clean, sharp pruners to avoid damaging the plant.
2. Pinch New Flowers
Those emerging flowers will not have a chance to bear fruit after a certain point.
Using the same timeframe as I listed above, pinch the new emerging tomato flowers off.
Pinching tomato plant flowers before the first frost is about focusing energy. By removing the flowers, you tell the plant to stop making new fruit and use its energy to ripen existing ones. This gives those tomatoes a better chance to mature before the cold hits fully.
3. Prune Your Tomatoes
Prune 4-6 weeks before your first frost date. This diverts the energy into the fruit remaining on the vine and away from the leaves, stem, etc. What do you prune? All that additional extra growth that has emerged since your last pruning. Trimming away excess leaves and branches redirects energy to existing fruit, aiding in ripening
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 already there.
4. Withhold Watering
Decreasing watering will stress the plant in a good way.
Tomatoes love water and need plenty of it through the growing season.
However, as we approach the close of the tomato growing season and the focus shifts to hastening the ripening process before the plants wither, excessive watering will allocate too much of the plant's energy towards growth rather than ripening.
Let your 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.
5. Stop Fertilizing
Like 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 signaling 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.
6. Pick Ripe Tomatoes
As mentioned, your tomato keeps its legacy, its dynasty if you will, alive by 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 put energy into ripening the still-green tomatoes to keep itself going
Do not let the ripe tomatoes sit there for another day, but rather pick them immediately and watch the green tomatoes ripen even faster!
As previously mentioned — pick anything that has a blush of color on it.
I keep my vegetable beds mulched continuously (See my article on the best mulch for tomatoes and peppers and the benefits of mulching to learn how this technique can vastly help your gardening efforts.)
But even if you don't, mulching may help your tomato fruits ripen quicker.
One technique 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 in my garden and will avoid it as much as possible.
With that said, you can try using old blankets or sheets for the same effect.
Your thrift store or linen closet likely has old burlap and/or cotton sheets that might be useful here.
- Smoked Tomatoes | Smoked tomatoes are incredible and can be eaten independently or used in other recipes. You can smoke green tomatoes too.
- Sataraš | Popular Croatian recipe for stewed tomatoes and peppers. Best with very ripe tomatoes.
And if you still have lots of green tomatoes left...
Green Tomato Recipes
Green tomatoes are tart and tasty! Here are some recipes you can use them in:
- Roasted Green Tomato Soup | roasted or smoked, this is a simple and delicious recipe.
- 11 Green Tomato Recipes to Savor the Last Harvest
Tomato plants are sensitive to cold weather. Green tomatoes can ripen indoors or be used in recipes. Protect your plants from frost by noting the first frost date in your area. Use caution as these dates are not guaranteed.
Green tomatoes are a versatile and tasty ingredient, used in dishes such as fried green tomatoes, salsas, relishes, pickles, and sauces. They are safe for consumption.
After picking green tomatoes to ripen indoors, wrap each one in newspaper or store in a paper bag in a cool (65°F or 18°C), dark place until they change color. Then, leave them uncovered at room temperature until fully ripe.
Ripening and color changes of tomatoes depend on temperature and a hormone called ethylene. The ideal temperature for ripening is 68°-78°F or 20°-26°C. Extreme temperatures can halt ripening, but green tomatoes can be picked and ripened indoors.
If the tomato vine has been damaged enough to kill it, the fruit will not ripen. However, if the vine has survived the frost and the temperatures have returned to optimal ranges, the fruit may still survive. You can cover the plant at this point to protect it and accelerate the ripening process.
Knowing when to pick tomatoes, how to ripen them properly, and the temperatures that tomato plants need to thrive and ripen is crucial for any gardener as the frost approaches.
Check out my articles on adding compost to the garden in fall and how to improve soil over winter for more critical information that can help you have even better yields and healthier soils next season.