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Harvest your frost-tender tomatoes for storage

It's hard to believe that fall is staring us in the face already, isn't it? But with days shortening so noticeably, and mornings so chilly, we need to be realistic when it comes to frost-tender garden crops.

Tomatoes certainly fall into that frost-tender category. With a little planning ahead, you can avoid that horrified feeling you might get if Jack Frost decides to stop by the Rogue Valley earlier than his Oct. 19 average date.

First, if you have mulched around your tomatoes, pull that back, if you haven't done so already. Mulch around the plant helps keep the roots cool, but I think our days for needing that are past for this year.

You will recall that tomato plants are either determinate (self-limiting in size) or indeterminate (growing and blooming right up until the frost kills them; this includes most cherry tomatoes). If you have indeterminate plants, prune them back. Remove all those little green marbles that will not grow to full size because they are sapping energy that the plant could use to help ripen the fruit that is already larger.

Now is the time to make plans for storing green tomatoes so that they will ripen indoors. With a plan, you will have fresh tomatoes for Thanksgiving, and maybe for Christmas. While it is still too early to pick green tomatoes for storage, you will be glad you are ready when the time  is right.

For storage, the tomatoes need a warm, dry, place — 55 to 60 degrees is ideal. They do not need light to ripen. You could use your garage, a garden shed, an unheated room in the house, under the bed, or wherever you have room and the temperature is in the range mentioned. Do not ever refrigerate them, however, because that ruins the flavor.

Collect some shallow, flat boxes and some newspaper so that you are ready when the weatherman says that the nighttime temperature may drop as low as 30 degrees. If tomatoes are exposed to temperatures colder than that, they will spoil instead of ripening. It's best if they are showing some signs of yellow, but totally green ones will ripen just fine. Store only blemish-free fruit.

Store the dry tomatoes in a single layer in the flat boxes, being sure they don't touch. There is no need to wrap them individually, but it's OK if you do. I just lay a few thicknesses of newspaper over the boxes because it's easier to do my weekly check for ripening (and possible spoilage) that way.

Some people like to pull up the entire plant and hang it upside down to let the green tomatoes ripen. This works all right, but I find it pretty messy. Also, it may be hard to handle such a large, heavy plant. My experience tells me that it's harder to sort out the keepers from those that should be sent to the compost bin, too.

Mother Nature can show us some quickly changing weather, so about the only other thing you can do as tomato season draws to a close is keep your eye on the weather, and practice your no-early-frost dance. You might also want to check out your recipes for fried green tomatoes. They are delicious, especially when served with peach or mango salsa.

Coming up: Learn about both “hot” and “cold” composting at a workshop from 12 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct.11. Master Gardeners will teach the session at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road in Central Point. The cost is $15; call 541-776-7371 to sign up.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at diggit1225@gmail.com.