Lauterbach: Help your tomatoes ripen by following these tips

Special to The Idaho StatesmanSeptember 20, 2013 

Food And Farm Naturally Grown

Generally speaking, the smaller the tomato, the more readily it ripens.


Are your tomatoes ripening? Many are not, even though they're at a mature size.

The blame may lie with the heat we've experienced most of the summer. It seems to have moderated now, so ripening should proceed. Ripening or color change depends on temperature and naturally-occurring ethylene gas. You could put a tomato in a sack with an apple (which emits a lot of ethylene gas) to hasten ripening. Supermarket produce suppliers routinely expose green tomatoes to ethylene gas to promote ripe colors.

You will get a tastier tomato, though, if you let it ripen by itself in its own time either on its vine or indoors. In the house, store tomatoes out of direct sun.

The most effective temperature window for tomato ripening is 68 to 77 degrees F. We all know our daytime temperatures have been far above and below that, but as it rises or falls, there are times when the temperature is within those numbers.

Some folks think that wrapping green tomatoes in newspaper hastens or promotes ripening. If it does, the tomato is likely to ripen and then rot before you discover the outcome of that extra labor. Don't bother with that, but prior to hard frost put those that are near mature size (I keep all tomatoes larger than about two inches in diameter) in shallow boxes, no more than two deep, so you can easily see color changes.

If you're sold on newsprint's aid in ripening, lay newspaper over the top of the box. You'll only have to lift it to see what's ripening instead of unwrapping each fruit.

I've never experienced a tomato that did not ripen, but it is possible that the trigger to produce lycopene and carotene, those pigments that produce ripe color, can be permanently disabled. They are not active when the temperature is above 85 degrees, but permanent damage would be evidenced by a sickly orange color of the fruit.

How about those "long keeping" tomatoes? They're said to last six to 12 weeks after picking, but some of my regular open pollinated tomatoes have lasted that long after being picked green to avoid frost damage. The yellow stuffer tomatoes are the longest lasting I've ever grown.

I've never liked the taste of some of the long-keepers either. One variety tasted like hot dogs.


Since our soil, climate, and/or prevalent diseases and insects are different from those in other parts of the U.S., nationally-published garden information must be taken with our own needs in mind.

Some garden references advise liberal use of lime and/or fireplace ashes, either of which will boost our already-alkaline soil to a pH that will not allow plants to thrive. Nevertheless, there are some garden references that can be useful if you keep our own needs in mind.

Sunset magazine's advice and Garden Book are pretty good resources, but it's important to remember their hardiness zones bear no relevance to those of the USDA.

One of my favorite magazines is Mother Earth News (MEN). That magazine does a very good job with all-round information on small farm livestock raising, energy independence, and gardening. Garden information spans the gamut from sowing seeds to post-harvest treatment, containers to greenhouses, raised beds to structures.

Barbara Pleasant writes most of the garden articles in MEN in down-to-earth practical useful language. The magazine also often features articles by William Woys Weaver, a food historian who entices us to grow exotic or historically significant foods.

Another excellent resource, more specially about gardening, is the quarterly "The Heirloom Gardener," published by Jere and Emilee Gettle (owners of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds). Weaver is a contributing editor to this publication too.

Fine Gardening, from Taunton Press, is excellent for ornamental gardening.

Send garden questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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