Ripening Tomatoes

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Tomato seedlings; at this stage, those red, ripe globes are no more than a gleam in the gardener's eye!

Tomato seedlings; at this stage, those red, ripe globes are no more than a gleam in the gardener’s eye!


Nothing says summer quite like tomatoes, especially if you avoid the cardboard kind in the store and wait for the real thing from the garden. On the other hand, it seems like it takes f-o-o-o-r-r-e-e-v-v-v-ve-e-r-r for the darned things to get ripe. Kind of like a car trip with the kids where you hear “Are we there yet?” and “How much longer?” at least a zillion times, beginning about 10 minutes after you drive out the gate. We actually took a trip once where the questions didn’t begin until we’d been on the road for 20 minutes; a miracle. Anyway, back to the tomatoes. There are some ways to speed up ripening.
First off, you should expect to wait about 20 to 30 days from the blossom stage until the fruits get to full size. Then it’s another 20 to 30 days until they begin to change color. That’s standard tomatoes; cherry tomatoes ripen earlier and faster. Weather affects ripening: too hot (above 85) or too cold (below55) will slow things down. You can let tomatoes ripen on the vine or you can pick them once they have turned color and ripen them at room temperature of around 70-75 degrees.
Recipe for a salad: first, grow the tomatoes, cucumbers, celery and green onions...

Recipe for a salad: first, grow the tomatoes, cucumbers, celery and green onions…


If you want to push the process, harvest daily and pick anything that shows color. You can remove flower clusters to direct the plant’s energy into the ripening fruit, but don’t do it too early or you’ll be sacrificing the later crop of tomatoes. Remove small fruits that obviously aren’t going to get any bigger, and pinch off suckers or leaves except for those shading the fruit. Again, this directs all the nutrients into the fruits.
So now it’s the first of August and you usually get a frost around October 15th. Cut back on the water, and if you’ve been fertilizing, stop. Gently twist the crown of the plant to disturb the roots a little. Pinch off all the blossoms and keep doing it if any more appear. These steps are intended to send a message to the plant: quit growing and set seed. You can continue to harvest colored tomatoes and ripen them indoors.
Most of these will ripen at room temperature; the green ones will be useful in various recipes.

Most of these will ripen at room temperature; the green ones will be useful in various recipes.

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Excerpt: The Ranch Wife’s Garden

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So I like a little variety in my summer squash...

So I like a little variety in my summer squash…


Yes, I’m working on a new book (which is one reason why I’m even more behinder than usual); here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

My family gardens.
I have plants in my garden that I got from my grandmother and that I fully expect to pass on to my grandchildren.
We’re pretty sure it’s something genetic, although even if the gene passes you by, anyone who grew up in my family would also have a strong environmental exposure. My daughter keeps insisting that this is a part of the family heritage she missed out on (“I am not a gardener, Mother!”), but I know better. Every year she gets more deeply enmeshed into landscaping and food production activities. Never mind the name; it’s the doing that counts.
Although I use the term garden in this account, what I’m mostly talking about is food production, so we’ll take a few side trips into the orchard, ramble down the road where the wild blackberries and plums grow and delve into topics such as growing your own wheat. We’ll touch on the beauty aspects as well – roses that smell like roses, flowers for beneficial insects and how to attract hummingbirds. After 50-odd years, I think I can be said to know at least a little about the subject. Of course, each year, it’s a new ball game — I’m up to about my 75th experiment in the garden (more than one garden a year in some years, each of which is a different experiment). I’m still learning and making plenty of mistakes. Every year I get a little better at producing more of our own food. Hopefully, by the time I’m too infirm to produce much, the grandkids will have taken over.
In the garden, my goals include maximum food production, ditto nutrition and best taste. I am just as susceptible to the blandishments of seed catalogs as the next girl, but I have learned to be ruthless about selecting seeds that produce and bypassing those fancy exotics. I’m also lazy and I usually have too much to do, so I want to achieve those goals with the minimum of effort. Organization and planning are the keys to this system, not to mention flexibility. If your plan for the day is to plant some early spring crops and the partly cloudy forecast turns out to be a gully-washer of a thunderstorm, your perfectly-arranged schedule is going straight into the garbage. What I usually do is keep a running list, so if I’m balked in one area, I can switch gears to something else.
I do a certain amount of succession planting — following one crop immediately with another — but in practice it rarely seems to work for me. The broccoli that should be ready to harvest needs a couple more weeks, so I can’t get the tomatoes in and they get root-bound in their pots. Succession gardeners don’t seem to do much seed-saving, either, based on the books and blogs I’ve read. They yank out the lettuce that’s bolting and going to seed, while I need to leave it in place until the seeds are ripe enough to harvest. Although we live on 185 acres, I am not willing to spread my food-producing activities over so much territory that I spend all day getting from one growing spot to another in order to have a productive day-to-day food garden, a seed-saving garden and a succession-planting garden.
If you’ve ever read my blog, Jefferson’s Daughters, or my previous book You Might be a Ranch Wife, you know that I am a contrary, independent woman (my husband calls it “stubborn as an oak post”) who does her own research, winnows the wheat from the chaff and makes her own decisions. I have great respect for good science and no respect whatsoever for science that is swayed by funders, bias or political agenda. In other words, I don’t garden with conventional fertilizers that come from petroleum products, I don’t plow or rototill or double dig my garden, I almost never use hybrid seeds (and the ones I do use are all flowers rather than food) and I flatly refuse to have anything to do with GMO in the garden or on the ranch. There are a few occasions when I’ve had to use herbicides (if we hadn’t sprayed the blackberries on this place when we first started reclaiming the pastures, we would have no pasture). Generally speaking, however, I prefer to use methods such as intensive grazing, heavy mulch, hand pulling or natural enemies to manage diseases, weeds and insects. By the way, it’s been my experience that when you grow plants organically and save your own seeds so your plants gradually become adapted to your garden conditions, insects don’t bother them much and they’ll compete quite well with weeds and be less susceptible to insects. Insects, like predators, tend to go for the weak, unhealthy specimens. Birds, on the other hand, are another matter — they, the raccoons, the deer, the rabbits and my personal nemesis: ground squirrels — zero in on the best stuff in the garden. So you fence them out, use netting or shoot them – especially the ground squirrels. Then you feed the remains to the pigs or the chickens, who relish the extra protein.
Welcome to my garden!

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Commercial Seedlings – Phooey!

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Tomato seedlings.

Tomato seedlings.


I was reminded recently of why I really prefer to start my own seedlings (aside from the cost, of course, as starting your own is at least 10 times less expensive). I bought some commercial tomato and pepper seedlings this year, which I haven’t done in at least 10 years. But I had a major consulting project going, middle kid broke her arm, little kid sprained her hand and the big one was graduating from high school; add all that to the usual spring rush, and something had to give.
The problems with commercial seedlings are many, from my perspective. First, I am two zones below (7 vs. 9) and about a month behind the valley, which is where the garden centers are located. Naturally, said garden centers cater to the majority, which means they have things like tomato seedlings six to eight weeks before I dare plant them in the open. If I buy them for my planting time, they’re usually overgrown and root bound. Second, although the garden centers are finally offering some heirlooms, selection is limited. Third, they grow them in those “biodegradable,” plant-right-into-the-ground fiber pots.

No roots!

No roots!

Pepper plant; see how few roots have grown through the pot?

Pepper plant; see how few roots have grown through the pot?

I can manage the first problem by trimming back the plants a bit and pinching off any flowers that have started to bloom, and I can live with a limited selection. But those pots… While they may be biodegradable, from what I can see, it takes a year or so. Supposedly, the roots will grow right through the pots, lessening transplant shock and making life easier for the gardener, who just plunks them in a hole, waters and goes about her business. In reality, the roots don’t grow into the fiber, for a very good reason: the fiber is dry on the outside, and the roots are looking for water. Peel back the fiber, and you’ll see the roots growing merrily in a circle on the inside, with an occasional foray into the fiber. In other words, the plants are just as root bound as they would be in a conventional pot.

Peel away the pot.

Peel away the pot.

Plant this; it puts the roots in direct contact with the moist soil.

Plant this; it puts the roots in direct contact with the moist soil.

Since that was all I had, I ruthlessly cut the pot away and plunked the seedlings into the ground, watered well and crossed my fingers. The tomatoes eventually did OK (although two of the ones that were labeled as Amish Paste turned out to be a cherry tomato of some sort; another reason I don’t like commercial seedlings – you can’t trust the labels). The peppers were stunted and have never really recovered.
Oh, well, there’s always next year…

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