JUST ABOUT EVERY vegetable garden has at least a few tomato plants. Some have dozens. In fact, some gardens have only tomatoes. Once you start growing tomatoes, things can get out of hand. After all, homegrown tomatoes are beautiful, bountiful and provide a quality of fruit that is virtually impossible to get anywhere else.
Growing tomatoes at home in the Pacific Northwest wasn’t always this easy. Fifteen or 20 years ago, if you wanted to grow anything larger than cherry tomatoes, you’d need a greenhouse. One of the few benefits of our warming climate is that we can now grow just about any type of tomato outdoors and be handsomely rewarded. Harvest can start as early as July and extend into November.
Even though the season is longer and more productive than it used to be, there’s almost no such thing as too many tomatoes — eaten fresh, canned, frozen or dried. It’s not difficult to utilize the entire harvest — more than can be said of some garden vegetables (looking at you, zucchini). Now that the season is starting to wind down, it’s a perfect time to implement some garden hacks to help you pull every last fruit from the vine.
Late-season blossom removal: Tomatoes come in two basic shapes: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes are shorter plants that ripen all their fruit in a narrow window, perfect for canning and storage. Indeterminate types are the ones that laugh at your puny tomato cages and try to take over the entire garden. With the exception of Roma and other plum varieties, most tomatoes planted in the home garden are indeterminate. By definition, these plants never stop growing, at least until cold weather or blight comes calling. This means that your tomato plants will continue to develop new shoots through September and into October. These shoots will come with blossoms and the potential of future tomatoes. However, after a certain point in the season, the blossoms won’t actually have time to develop mature fruit before the plant dies. To focus the plant’s energy into the blossoms and fruit that are viable, you can prune off late-season shoots from your indeterminate tomatoes. Typically, these shoots will emerge from a leaf axis on an existing branch and will be easy to spot. They are thin, near the top of the plant and loaded with fresh flowers. The easiest thing to do is simply snap or prune them off right at the leaf axis. If you start pruning new shoots in late September, you can help your plants develop and ripen more of the existing fruit on their stems.
Root-pruning: It’s generally believed that tomato plants will ripen fruit faster, and that the fruits will taste better, if the plant is somewhat starved for water. Lack of water can help concentrate the good stuff inside the fruit. If your tomatoes are setting a lot of fruit, but they’re slow to ripen, consider root-pruning. Trimming the roots will stress the plants, restrict their access to water and incentivize them to ripen fruits more quickly. It’s easy: Simply take a spade shovel and chop a circle around the base of your plant about 12 to 24 inches from the stem. It’s like preparing something to transplant, except you don’t need to lift it out of the ground or replant it. Just chop through the roots in a circle, and call it good. The plant will still have plenty of roots for drawing nutrients and water from the soil for the rest of the season. A variation on the root-pruning technique is to simply reduce the amount of water you give the plant each week. This option doesn’t elicit the same stress response but can be very effective at helping plants ripen late-season fruit.
Harvest green: If you find yourself at the end of the season with a dying tomato plant still loaded with fruit (which you almost certainly will), pick the green fruits before rot begins to set in. Green tomatoes can ripen on the counter or in a paper bag, even when picked while very immature. These end-of-season fruits will rarely be as good as vine-ripened ones, but they are much better than no tomatoes at all.